Using the great outdoors to successfully reduce PTSD symptoms

  • Date

    Thu 26 Nov 20

The debilitating symptoms of Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be dramatically reduced through simple outdoor activities, such as fishing or horse riding, according to new research.

What’s more, in some cases lasting benefits are possible quite quickly – bringing hope to the thousands of veterans whose lives have been blighted by their military service.

It is estimated up to 6% of the UK’s million-plus veterans suffer from PTSD, experiencing nightmares, intense anxiety and difficulty communicating. It can dramatically reduce their quality of life   - impacting on both their ability to work and on their personal relationships. Many are reluctant to talk about their issues and will only seek help when they are at crisis point.

Previous research has suggested exposure to outdoor activities could help, but there has been little evidence of the long-term benefits. A team of academics from Essex set out to assess whether a combination of learning a new skill, providing peer support and being in the great outdoors, could improve the health and well-being of veterans.

Dr Mark Wheeler, a former NHS therapist who has worked extensively with veterans, was part of the team. He explained: “We found that the use of outdoor recreational activities to reduce PTSD symptoms and improve well-being in military veterans appears to be a viable and useful treatment option.  

“Not only were the improvements considered clinically significant and reliable, but the interventions employed were all relatively brief, conducted close to participants’ homes and at low cost, demonstrating not only the potential but also the relative ease and affordability of such an approach.”

Two studies were carried out. In the first 30 military veterans, who had been diagnosed with PTSD, but who were not receiving psychotherapy, took part in three sessions of either fishing, horse riding or falconry and archery.

The sessions were held outside and included expert tuition. Participants were encouraged to share their experiences both during the sessions and afterwards, through a Facebook support group.

Their health and well being was assessed, using recognised psychological measures, both before and after the sessions. Four months later 60% were still showing significant improvement.The second study involved 25 new participants, split between a control group and those who took part in fishing trips.

“Analyses from both studies showed that a substantial proportion of participants showed reliable improvement in PTSD symptoms four months following the intervention. The type of activity they did, didn’t seem to matter,” added Dr Wheeler.

The results from both studies are published in PLOS ONE