A Sight for Sore Minds: How Connecting with the Natural Environment Alleviated my Anxiety while in College and the Way it can Help Others

Throughout the United States, college students face crippling amounts of anxiety as they strive to establish themselves in a super competitive world and to build their reputations, all while balancing social activities, relationships, family, community service, and their own health. As our society evolves and continues to move at a break-neck pace, it’s not a surprise that mental health issues, including anxiety, have skyrocketed in recent decades among college students. Certainly, counseling and therapy sessions are great ways to help in addition to taking up new hobbies, reaching out to friends and family, eating healthier, and getting plenty of exercise. However, through my own experiences thus far, I’ve found that, at times, we must disconnect from all things materialistic and concentrate on the natural and aesthetic aspects of our world and lives that remind us of what it means to be a living being.

In the world we live in now, it’s too easy to become indulged in technology, social media, finances, culture, government, customs, and every other facet of our lives that are provided/created for us by other people over the course of human history. In short, we have been completely plugged into all things materialistic, mentally cutting everyone off from our natural environment and the gifts that our planet has bestowed upon us. Similar to the plot of The Matrix, we have inadvertently created an artificial habitat that has offered a false sense of security and delusions of power, giving us the ability to play god over all things we know and seem to be in control of. Meanwhile, we are unaware of what is happening outside of our own mentally constructed domain, and, in turn, we have become more incapable of appreciating all things natural and pure, preventing us from taking great care of them.

Although all people struggle to remember and appreciate what the natural world has to offer, college students, in my view, tend to be some of the most susceptible to fall into this artificial habitat we have intricately weaved as a society, all to alleviate stress, doubts, uncertainty, and to build us up without having to face reality for what it is. It inhibits them from seeking the pleasures and benefits of our natural world, the real world, that show how much greater and enriching life truly is. Indeed, I’m quite guilty of being enclosed inside my own matrix so to say.

Having already come from a very stressful and draining high school career, I felt prepared enough to take on the challenges of being in college. My freshman year was understandably easy considering the fact that I was taking core classes, regurgitating information I learned in the past to easily progress. Much to my disappointment, my sophomore year turned out to be very different, causing me to fail a class for the first time ever due to the harder courses I was taking. My GPA fell from a 3.85 to a 3.3 quickly, so I felt heartbroken because I was used to having a 4.0 or above throughout my many years of schooling. By the time my spring semester was almost over, I had isolated myself from others, relied on my phone and other sources of technology as coping mechanisms, and became out of touch with the world around me.

Burned out, a little depressed, and lacking inspiration to keep striving for my goals, I was forgetting how to truly live while becoming ever more trapped inside my own miserable world, my matrix. I was enveloped in a cocoon of the materialistic, not knowing if I would ever emerge as a better student or a wiser human being.

Summer Break brought some respite but not enough to dismantle the mental funk I was in. Nothing seemed to help, not even our family vacation, until I applied and was hired to work as a summer intern for Hills and Dales Estate in my hometown of LaGrange, GA. Once home to Fuller E. Callaway, Sr. and his wife Ida, the gorgeous mansion sits at the top of what used to be rolling cotton hills, placed neatly in the middle of an extravagant garden that was started in the 1840s, way before the home was built and completed in 1915. The garden itself started out small thanks to Sarah Ferrell, but, once the Callaways purchased the property shortly after her death, they vowed to preserve it in her memory and to ultimately expand it.

As the decades passed, generations of Callaways made the garden and landscape bigger and better, introducing more non-native and rare species from around the world. Finally, when the last residing Callaway passed away at the estate, the entire property was opened to the public in 2004. I was given the honor and privilege to be the first LaGrange College student to work and preserve the garden over the summer of 2018, an experience that I will never forget and will forever cherish.

I worked with many unique species of plants and became a vital worker there, completing tasks that ranged from mulching large areas of the garden, pruning 170 year old boxwood, removing weeds and other invasive plants, watering over 50 pots of plants that can be found throughout the massive garden, clearing pathways of Magnolia leaves for visitors, and even picking up sticks from all around the property after storms came through. For eight hours a day for five days a week, sometimes including Saturdays, I would be in the garden. Facing tough conditions because of the heat and stifling humidity, even to the point in almost falling out on occasions, I kept working, my mind focused on making the place better and making sure that the garden flourished.

Over time, I began to take much more pride in what I was doing and enjoyed everything the internship had to offer. I began to love being outside more and found peace in nature, giving my life the clarity and relief it desperately needed. I was reminded every day of how great life can be, eliminating a lot of the materialistic obstacles that would have kept me from valuing the fundamentals of life itself. I wasn’t worrying anymore about grades, school work, or anything unnecessary/superfluous. For the first time in years, I was relying on the basic needs to enjoy life and took refuge in nature in order to serve a purpose greater than myself.

There were days, on the other hand, where I would have rather been inside because of the harsh summer weather, but, no matter how many times I felt like leaving my job, I was mentally and spiritually compelled to keep going. I was healthier, happier, taking pride in my work, and felt at peace with the world. Sure, my paychecks were very big (about $400 to $500 after taxes), but money was not my main source of motivation and never would be.

I worked from late May to mid August before I went back to school, amassing over $3000 in total earnings. However, the knowledge, the exercise, the pride, and the peace I felt from working at Hills and Dales was even better. To this day, those experiences have never left me, instead leading me to my career pathway in the field of Conservation Biology, a passion I wouldn’t trade for anything. I now know my place in this world and what I want to do to make a difference, making the stressors and challenges of college so much easier to handle. None of my certainty, confidence, and happiness could have come along if I hadn’t spent time with nature, showing me that the natural and aesthetic aspects of our lives can leave long-lasting impressions.

Overall, the key to breaking out of our own self-enclosed matrices is to simply expose ourselves to and embrace all things unmaterialistic. They bring much deserved repose and instill a greater sense of awareness, giving us the wisdom needed to understand how much of a gift life is and how we, as a society, can truly live. For other college students who have, or are currently going through, those same challenges as I once did, taking as much as a simple walk outside can go a long way.

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