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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Saving the World: One Teen at a Time

Sep 26, 2012 10:42AM ● By Karina Shumyatskaya

Anxiety and depression are on the rise, especially in teenagers. It’s not hard to guess why; teens are under more and more pressure to do well in school, college tuition costs are on the rise, the job market is growing more competitive by the day, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Teens today are facing more than just an economic crisis; they’re also confronted with an ecological one. They’ve inherited global warming, species extinction, an oil crisis and a whole slew of other problems, with no easy solutions. Every time they turn on a TV, log onto the Internet or pick up a newspaper, they hear and see the same thing: the Earth is falling apart and they are helpless to do anything about it.

This creates an undeniable sense of both helplessness and urgency. Something needs to be done, and it needs to be done soon. The younger generation often seems to be given the burden of solving the Earth’s problems. A planet large enough to host 7 billion people surely can’t be saved by just one, yet many teens feel as though they are facing the environmental crisis alone, with just another huge task to add to their list. But what if the very thing that needs saving could save us all? It turns out that getting out into nature will sharpen the very tools we need to preserve it.

Environmental scholar Theodore Roszak (1933-2011), co-author of the book, Ecopsychology, prompts readers to pose the question, “What link can there be between the personal and the planetary?”

Dr. Andrew Hoffman, a clinical psychologist at Chicago’s Center for Positive Change, in Libertyville, provides a great example. “If you picture yourself sitting on a dock on a lake in the woods, where it’s quiet… what would your body be doing? Blood pressure would go down, you’d breathe more deeply and your muscles would relax, all of which effects our physical and psychological health.” Change the setting to one that we may find ourselves in daily, like a strip mall, and he says, “You could be enjoying the commotion, but what would your body be doing? Your body would be a lot more tense.”

Exposure to nature is vital to our mental and physical health. More and more colleges, such as Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona (, are offering programs in adventure-based therapy, an alternative to traditional psychological talk therapy, which provides patients with emotional and physical challenges that yield beneficial psychological effects. It’s especially known for helping teenagers.

“The mind/body connection, of course, is a familiar concept, but research and common sense suggest a new container: the mind/body/nature connection,” says Richard Louv, in his book, The Nature Principal. Louv, who coined the term, “nature deficit disorder,” stakes a strong claim of the healing power of nature in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder; “The woods were my Ritalin. Nature calmed me, focused me; and yet excited my senses.”

Our desire—and need—to be in nature is obvious. We enjoy natural themes and scents, but enjoying the scent of a paper pine tree cutout dipped in perfume and hanging from a rearview mirror is not only vastly different from enjoying an actual pine tree, it’s also dangerous. “Because we’re so disconnected from our natural environment, we’re used to thinking that all of the chemicals and things we use just disappear, but they don’t,” says Hoffman. That paper pine tree contains allergens, carcinogens and other dangerous ingredients that linger in the environment and that we consequentially inhale. It is not only physically damaging, but carries psychological consequences, as well.

The younger generation is especially ignorant of these issues. Their “fast” food is full of artificial flavors and colors. Chemical-rich body sprays and makeup products are targeted to them in scores of advertisements, while even more than others, teens and children should especially avoid allowing chemicals to seep into their developing brains and bodies.

What can be done? For one thing, read the labels of household cleaning products, including laundry detergents and fabric softeners, and do a quick online search of what you find. Take a careful look at anything you may put on your skin, including hand lotion, dish soap and makeup products. Many mascaras and concealers contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen used to preserve cadavers. Luckily, organic alternatives are sold in “natural” stores like Whole Foods and locally owned natural food and health stores, that may be worth looking at.

Get rid of air fresheners. You wouldn’t inhale them directly from the can, so you shouldn’t inhale them at all. Chemicals sprayed into the air may linger longer than we can smell them. As pleasant as perfume and cologne might be, they’re not very good for you, and should be used sparingly, on special occasions.

Besides taking these steps to increase the health of our personal environment, parents should encourage teens to take small steps to increase their environmentalism. Hoffman suggests modifying daily routines, like taking reusable shopping bags to the grocery store instead of picking paper or plastic.

They sound small, but if everyone joins in, these steps will make a huge difference. Doing something simple like recycling, carrying a reusable water bottle or purchasing clothes made from recycled materials helps further the environmentalist movement and accomplishes a lot more than sitting around and worrying about the future. Many environmental groups have a youth focus, and even simply getting outside can reduce stress.

Taking charge of the Earth need not be a grueling task. It’s as simple and necessary as brushing our teeth. Perhaps a bumper sticker quoting Native American Chief Seattle (Si’ahl), of the Suquamish tribe, puts it best. “The Earth does not belong to us: We belong to the Earth.”

Contact Dr. Andrew Hoffman at 847-522-7521, or visit

Karina Shumyatskaya is a senior at Highland Park High School and a Natural Awakenings intern.