TNT's programming is based on empirical research from the fields of cognitive & affective neuroscience, social & developmental psychology, eco-psychology and integrative medicine. Below we provide a basic rationale for our tripartite focus on nature, social connection and mindfulness.
Connecting to Nature: Mind, Body & Soil
Most people who spend time in the outdoors report feeling somehow restored or at peace because of it. A growing field of psychological and environmental research has begun to explore and describe the mental, physical and social restoration and health promotion we derive from nature. In fact, one of the first empirical studies in this field actually took place in a wilderness setting in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which led to several subsequent investigations that have influenced a generation of environmental psychologists and researchers. Emerging from this work is a theory of restorative environments, which suggests that exposure to nature can improve neuropsychological outcomes (such as creativity, sustained attention, mental clarity, and positive mood), resilience to adversity as well as the body's own healing process, especially among those who have experienced high levels of stress.
For example, a longitudinal study of over 1500 people (Marsalle et al, 2014; Jrnl of Ecopsychology) found that those who took part in group-based nature walks reported significantly lower depression and stress compared to non-nature group walkers, after controlling for things like social support and physical activity. We also know from several different studies that regular exposure to sunlight can have long-lasting, positive effects on bone health and immunity (via Vitamin D production), blood pressure & heart health (via Nitric Oxide regulation), and Mood (via inflammatory cytokine regulation such as Interlukin-6). Although sunlight is beneficial to our health, balance is important to avoid excess sun exposure and risks of skin aging and skin cancer.
Connecting to Others: The Power of Finding and Being Found
While everyone can experience normal or adaptive feelings of loneliness from time to time (e.g., grief, moving, relationship changes), if this leads to chronic social isolation, it can be bad for our health. Research has demonstrated that chronic social disconnection is strongly related to cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality, even after controlling for things like age, gender, chronic diseases, smoking, substance use, etc. This has extremely important implications for many adolescents and young adults with cancer who report feeling not only lonely, but socially isolated from their non-cancer peers. Some researchers (Steptoe et al, 2012; Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences) recommend that since chronic social isolation is more important to address vs. focusing on feelings of loneliness or feeling left out, it might be more beneficial to simply engage individuals in more physical ways to improve their health and survival, such as going for a walk. This is exactly what we do at True North Treks with our focus on nature and outdoor programs.
Connecting to Ourselves: Mindful Awareness Practices
Not only is it important to reestablish a relationship with the outdoor environment, but also to cultivate a greater sense of knowing and compassion for our indoor environment, AKA, ourselves. Similar to the increasing disconnect with nature that we face as a society, there is also a growing disconnect within our own hears and minds with what it really means to pay attention to the moments of our lives, as boundaries between work and home are increasingly blurred, multitasking is positively reinforced and viewed as a necessary attribute in school and work, and innovative communication and gaming technologies perpetuate a sense of never-ending, mindless autopilot, social disengagement and "looking down" vs. "looking within."
Training in mindful awareness practices offers a way to keep our alarm clocks sounding so we can learn to wake up from this, and practice staying awake to ourselves on a moment-to-moment basis in a peaceful, tolerant and deliberate manner. Being mindful allows one to listen, watch, observe and notice our lives through the experience of non-judgment and non-reaction; to simply witness our happenings amidst the normal, unremitting internal and external stressors that sometimes fly below the radar of our awareness and other times fly directly into our face. Through this welcoming “hear and now” renaissance to our senses, it becomes possible to cultivate patience, trust, wisdom, gratitude, acceptance and loving-kindness within ourselves and those around us, and helps one move toward a paradigm shift of being in moments rather than dwelling on what we’ve done, what we’ll do, what has happened, or what will happen.
Over the past 30 years, a great deal of research attention has been given to mindfulness-based approaches spanning community, educational and medical settings. Results have been promising, suggesting that practicing mindfulness-based skills can lead to positive mood states, decreased emotional distress, increased attention and mental clarity, improved sleep, strengthened immune system functioning and overall quality of life. Newer studies have even reported that mindfulness practice can actually affect telomere length and slow cellular aging.