Taking part in a PTSD study doesn’t sound like a particularly fun way to spend the summer, but a group of researchers at UC Berkeley is challenging that assumption with a whitewater rafting experience for veterans and inner-city youths.
The study is led by Craig Anderson, a Berkeley doctoral student in psychology. Anderson and his team have taken groups of war veterans who study at Berkeley and, separately, groups of inner-city Bay Area middle and high school students on whitewater rafting trips to observe how the awesomeness of nature impacts participants, checking in with them during and after the trips.
Their journeys take them along the North Fork American River near Sacramento, with guides and rafting equipment provided by the Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors program, and cameras provided by GoPro.
The rafting trips are fun, of course, but Anderson has also found them to have therapeutic benefits for participants, according to a UC Berkeley news release.
Just one week after their rafting trips, for example, veterans reported a 30 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms. And both veterans and teens who had reported feeling a greater sense of awe during their rafting excursion later noted they got on better with friends and family.
“If doctors were able to write prescriptions for people to get out in nature, it would be one of the most cost-effective health interventions available, and would change our relationship to the outdoors,” says Anderson, a New Mexico native who has been an avid outdoorsman since his days as a Boy Scout.
Moreover, measures of stress hormones, immune function and dopamine regulators before, during and after the rafting trips, showed positive physiological changes in the study’s participants.
Researchers also found that the expeditions increased levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, but that those higher levels were correlated with positive emotions after the rafting trip.
“It’s an adaptive hormone. When we sit in front of computers being stressed out, cortisol doesn’t help us,” Anderson explained. “But when we’re out in nature and we need more energy to achieve something physically demanding, cortisol goes up in a good way.”
Jet Gardner, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan and a member of the campus’s Cal Veterans Group, found the rush and camaraderie of the rafting experience very positive.
“I hope it’s something that sticks with me and helps me in the future as I recover from my experiences in the military,” he said.