As he sat with newspaper in hand, Rocky Nation was overcome by a strange affliction.
“I could read the words but nothing made sense,” says the 50-year-old college professor. “It was as if my brain had shut down.” When a bewildered Nation struggled to articulate himself, his wife, Karon, immediately drove him to their local hospital in Seneca. Tests revealed nothing physiological, and the father-of-three quickly returned to full cognizance. But a neurologist offered a possible cause: transient global amnesia, a disorder that manifests as temporary memory loss and can be triggered by stressors such as adversity or burnout.
For Nation, who had been attempting to plow through life and a heavy workload while reeling from the deaths of his father, a close friend, and a work colleague, it was a wake-up call. “I had not stopped to process my grief,” he admits, five years later. “I realized I had to rethink how I dealt with stress. Instead of thinking, ‘I should be able to do this,’ I had to figure out my personality and my boundaries.”
Nation’s search for stress reduction included counseling and meditation. He developed an interest in Shinrin-yoku, a Japanese mindfulness practice known as forest bathing, achieved as you open your senses to the natural world. Throughout his life, Nation had instinctively turned to nature for silence and solitude. His rejuvenating outings to hike or be alone spawned an idea. The average American spends 90 percent of time indoors, yet being outside in nature can reduce stress and improve feelings of well-being.
“It occurred to me that we have a subset of people who are especially vulnerable to stress and anxiety,” he says. “Those in professions like education, healthcare, public service, and the military. These individuals have a double dose of stress as they take on the stresses of those they serve on top of their own . . . a major contributor to compassion fatigue and burnout. I wanted to invest my time and energy in something to help.”
Last year, Nation conducted research with his students at Anderson University discovering quantifiable improvements in heart-rate and blood-pressure readings when subjects spent time in nature. He sought a qualification as a mindfulness-based eco-therapy facilitator and created Carolina Wilderness Renewal, an organization offering programs, outings, and retreats to impart mindfulness in nature with the goal of stress relief and burnout prevention. He partnered with licensed professional counselor Jeanne Malmgren, who uses eco-therapy as a healing approach.
Prior to the pandemic, they led a full-day retreat at Devils Fork State Park for doctors in a family-medicine residency and half-day outings at South Carolina Botanical Garden in Clemson and the Rensing Center in Pickens.
As the world navigates the age of coronavirus, it is clear many first responders are being pushed to the brink. When we come out on the other side, Nation hopes to be able to help with the trauma and is in the process of registering CWR as a nonprofit. “Nobody is immune to adversity,” he says. “It is part of being alive. The key is not to avoid it but to learn to be resilient, handle stress, and bounce back. Being outdoors, getting back to our roots, and connecting with nature is a key part of that.”
Photograph by Paul Mehaffey. For more on Carolina Wilderness Renewal, go to carolinawildernessrenewal.org.