Happy-looking people take a walk in the woods as small-print disclosures scroll across the bottom of the TV screen and a soothing voiceover explains possible side effects. As the scene closes, one of the actors looks squarely into the camera and says, “Ask your doctor if nature is right for you.”
The tongue-in-cheek NatureRx video campaign has the look and feel of the prescription drug commercials that inundate television in the U.S. The difference, however, is that they are “selling” something that is widely available and has proved to benefit mental health and overall well-being — without prescription drugs.
NatureRx is the brainchild of Justin Bogardus, a filmmaker and licensed professional counselor candidate in Boulder, Colorado. Everything seems to have a marketing campaign in this modern age, he says, so why not nature?
Rather than relying on a heavy-handed “you should” directive, the films use humor and a witty message to emphasize the benefits of getting outside, Bogardus explains.
“As a trained counselor myself [but primarily a filmmaker now],” he says, “I really wanted to create a message like NatureRx because I resonated with it so much personally. … I think people really resonate with the message and the humor because it’s fun, funny and inspiring to remember the little things that were always there, but sometimes we forgot about them, like nature and getting outdoors.”
NatureRx “commercials” have been screened at film festivals and shared widely online since the
Justin Bogardus, NatureRx filmmaker (Courtesy photo)
first video was released in the summer of 2015.
Bogardus has a film degree from Vassar College and has worked as an editor, writer and producer for several documentaries on wrongful conviction/incarceration. In 2013, he completed a master’s degree in Buddhist psychology and contemplative psychotherapy from Naropa University in Boulder. Although he primarily devotes his time to independent filmmaking and speaking engagements, he does occasionally see clients, lead group therapy and teach Buddhist psychology at Naropa.
Is NatureRx right for you? CT Online contacted Bogardus to learn more about the campaign and its connection to counseling and mental health.
The holiday season can be especially tough for people with anxiety and other mental health issues. At the same time, the weather is getting colder and the days are shorter and darker. Do you have suggestions on how to find “NatureRx” throughout the winter?
Research shows [that] as little as 10 minutes outdoors can reset the nervous system, especially if you can be mindful and present with nature for those 10 minutes. … Taking a walk and tasting the cold brisk air makes a big difference even in small doses.
I get asked about winter a lot in regards to NatureRx, and I love that question. I love winter. The outdoors seems particularly tranquil and quiet to me in the winter. There are no studies about this, but I actually think the positive impact of nature on our minds happens faster in winter. Something about a little temperature change and a change of scenery from the indoors in winter really resets my mind and body pretty quickly. Yes, it can be a little harder to motivate putting on jackets and boots when it’s cold and the sun sets so much earlier, but the colder air is more refreshing, I think. I also like to remember that our bodies were built for the outdoors, including the cold weather.
I also love this thing from Denmark called hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). Everyone knows how cold and dark winters in Denmark are, and the Danes have come up with a great word and lifestyle to make the most of it. It’s basically the idea of cultivating coziness, slowing down and taking in simple pleasures. It’s like NatureRx for the indoors.
I like that with the idea of hygge, you bring an overall sense of coziness to the winter and holiday season, which you bring with you both outdoors and inside. A 10-minute walk in the cold air, all bundled up in all the scarves, mittens, hats, puffy coats — whatever makes being outside a slowing down and cozy experience too. How great is a warm fire and hot cup of tea after a short dose of outdoors? How cozy and relaxing is that? So yes, back and forth with outdoors and the family, back and forth with getting warm and then getting refreshed outside with an overall sense of hygge. That’s a perfect recipe for the holiday season I think.
During holiday get-togethers, people and families can go stir crazy if no one is getting outside. Togetherness is great, but too much togetherness in an enclosed space is well … cue the commercial … “are you feeling tired, irritable [and] stressed out?” Who isn’t feeling tired, irritable and stressed out at some point during the holiday season? That’s the cue for a dose of nature, even a microdose. It really works and so does hygge.
NatureRx has been a lifesaver for me during the holidays. Now it’s fun because as I get outdoors for short breaks during each holiday season, the rest of my family has started doing it too. … Maybe they saw how happy and relaxed I was after a little time outside.
What do you want professional counselors to know about nature’s connection to wellness and mental health?
I like to remind even the most self-described “I would rather do anything besides camping” indoor people that it’s all about discovering the dose of nature that works for you. [Moving] more plants inside or gardening, or having a great view of the outdoors from a window, whatever brings nature into your life in a way you like, I think, can support our well-being [and] slowing down, which is incredibly helpful, especially in [the] busy, screen-time, information-overload, never-stop-world so many of us are meeting these days.
I once met this great group counselor in New York City — a real expert and guru of counseling. I was telling him how I like to get outside and to meditate. He told me, “Getting outside and meditation are like rocket fuel for healing in therapy.” I think that’s the best way to put it. NatureRx helps on its own and in conjunction with all the others things we need for rich, healthy lives.
Yes, there’s a new big study from big-name institutions almost every week it seems about the positive impacts of the outdoors and nature on all kinds of well-being metrics, especially mental health for all kinds of symptoms and challenges [and] for healthy development of kids. But really I think NatureRx got millions of views and has made such a splash because on a deep intuitive level, we already know this. The healing impact of nature is a story as old as humanity itself.
Being outside in nature supports our well-being. Of course it’s not a panacea. It’s not a cure-all. But who knows? For some people it might be. I think it’s like good rest. It’s something we all know on some level is needed and super helpful for whatever life throws at us. And like good rest, you don’t want to overdo it or go outside with too much of an agenda, expecting nature to fix everything. Nature doesn’t work that way, but if you can hang back a little in nature, let its beneficial impact come to you more and more … it works! I could go on and on. The magic always happens eventually.
Since the dawn of human civilization, we [have] lived increasingly in busier spaces. Every culture and every civilization from every time period has countless stories about the need for nature — a respite and restorative space to not only heal, but find your truer and deeper voice in. NatureRx is that same story, updated for our times. I think nature is a timeless space, a great place to discover your authenticity and who we really are — outside the din and distraction of culture and civilization.
Do you have suggestions for how counselors can bring nature into their work with clients?
Well, first have clients watch the NatureRx commercial. Self-promotion? Maybe, but really it’s true. First-time viewers love the humor and then love sharing the videos with other folks — it just resonates with so many people. That was certainly part of the goal with NatureRx and the humor behind it. I didn’t want to prescribe nature and getting outside as a “should.” I wanted to playfully invite people to look at getting outside and nature from a fresh perspective, and of course spoofing a prescription commercial was the way to do that.
So for counselors of all kinds, I say … find ways to invite people into thinking about nature and getting outdoors as a fun, healing space rather than imposing the idea on them in subtle or not so subtle ways. I think [it’s] always good to start with some curiosity, asking people questions about nature, [such as] plants or places they may like. It seems almost everyone has some memory or some animal or plant or some outdoor smell or nature activity they already remember or enjoy. I think that’s a great starting point. Later on, it can also be good to offer some of the evidence-based information about getting outdoors, which some people like to know because it can increase their time outdoors and their perceived benefit from nature. But some folks don’t even need that didactic information.
I’m amazed how many folks already have some NatureRx practice in their life without even realizing they’re intuitively getting benefit from nature — even smokers I meet. Many smokers talk about enjoying the break outdoors as part of their smoking habit. It’s interesting how many, when they quit, still like to get outside, but this time just for a short walk or to sip a cup of tea or something. What they didn’t think about was how smoking was a tool to take a break outside, even in the cold. Without the cigarette, they still get to benefit from getting outside with a lot more enjoyment.
I met a woman I’ll never forget who liked to check the weather for the sunset time. She rarely ever watched the sunset. She just found herself always checking in on what time the sun would set. She didn’t care too much for camping or the outdoors; she would never describe herself as a nature person. I worked with her some, and we talked about what she liked about the sunset and knowing the rhythms of the sunrise and sunset from season to season. Before long, she told me she had started to actually take the time, even if it was just five minutes toward the end of the workday, to not only check the sunset time, but take some time outside to really enjoy watching the sunset. Simple. Relaxing. Restorative. I’m pretty sure she still does that today and loves it.
Who is your target audience for the NatureRx campaign?
When first creating the NatureRx commercials and the NatureRx movement online, I intended to target millennials with the humor and the particular disconnection millennials might feel around nature. It’s the first generation that may not have been exposed to the outdoors readily as kids and, consequently, that millennial generation — which I’m a part of, but on the older side — may feel that lack of nature more acutely.
I grew up in the city myself. I was lucky to have a father who took the time to take us to national parks and [go] hiking. That’s probably how I first fell in love with nature. But I had a lot of city friends who didn’t get those experiences growing up, and I always imagined those lifelong friends and what might appeal to them when crafting this message and writing NatureRx content. The millennial generation is so used to getting tons of information on their laptops and phones all the time, so certainly it was an important goal of mine in creating NatureRx to craft a fun-filled message that could connect with them in short form and on social media in a way that they could really enjoy and consider.
It’s food for thought for any age — even kids love our G rated versions of the commercials. It’s something we can all relate to.
Do you think medical and mental health professionals sometimes overlook nature and its therapeutic benefits?
Yes and no. I think the medical and mental health professions as a whole have some real ambivalence about nature and the outdoors. [But] I think a lot of that’s changing now as we see the alternative — being inside, disconnected and sequestered, and how that is having terrible health and well-being impacts on our bodies and minds. I think there’s a big shift in medical and mental health professionals around embracing the benefits of nature and getting outdoors because of this.
I think all this research coming out about the benefits of getting outdoors reveals this movement and paradigm shift. For the last few decades in medicine, culture and in parenting, the view was [that] getting outside and in nature is how you get sick or hurt. I think lots of folks are seeing now how wrong that view is.
In a nutshell, what inspired you to start the NatureRx campaign?
Nutshell? I love nutshells. That was a big inspiration. That and climate change. I wondered, how could I speak about the human relationship to nature in a way that connected with people personally, whether they believe in human-caused climate change or not? I don’t say anything about climate change in the commercials, but I think it’s in there nonetheless.
I was inspired by how nature is something I need in my personal life. It’s helped me in countless ways, and nature is something we all need as a valuable space for all earthly inhabitants. I hoped the message and humor would convey that — both the personal and universal value of nature. It was a way of giving back for me.
What do you want professional counselors to know about why your campaign is needed?
As a trained counselor myself, I like this phrase: “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt.” For professional counselors, I think NatureRx is needed because there are many paths to healing and recovery for clients. I think it’s also true to make sure some of those paths are made of dirt. A dirt path in the woods is the real-life metaphor we can experience at anytime. It’s a great ready-at-hand place where we can see that natural healing isn’t like a manicured superhighway to health. There are twists and turns.
Getting outside reminds me of my most human qualities. It reminds me that I have a body that likes to be in nature, to look at nature and be healthy. It reminds me to take time to just be. I think that’s the energizing trail mix we all need on whatever path we’re taking in life. That’s the need I hope NatureRx fills. It’s an empowering message about how you can take back your life at any point by simply stepping outdoors. I think healing and counseling works well when people feel empowered with real solutions, and getting outdoors is most certainly one of those solutions.
Find out more about NatureRx and watch Bogardus’ TED Talk at Nature-Rx.org
The NatureRx “commercials” are available there as well as on the YouTube channel: bit.ly/2h1MCZp
Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.