America’s National Parks Help Heal My PTSD

Published by permission from Jennifer Norris, USAF, TSgt, Retired
Under a blue sky ocean waves swell into ragged rocky coast.
Acadia National Park, Maine

Jennifer Norris, USAF, TSgt, Retired

October 5, 2015 — I’ve always loved traveling. As a matter of a fact traveling was one of the things I loved about serving in the military. I couldn’t believe the places I got sent to train and work throughout the years. It was exciting to explore new places, meet new friends, and be a part of something bigger than me. After getting diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) there was a time when I had a hard time leaving the house but traveling to beautiful, isolated places was a saving grace.

One of the first places I visited after retiring was Acadia National Park in Maine. It was here that I learned that I was eligible for a free Access Pass because I was a disabled veteran. (Learn more about the Access Pass, the free Annual Pass for active-duty military and dependents, and other entrance passes.) Of course I got my pass and haven’t stopped visiting America’s national parks yet. I’ve been back to Acadia National Park a few times because it’s here in my home state but I have sought out other national parks in my travels and have never been disappointed.

Two wooden signs on posts in the woods.
A sign for a couple of the trails located at the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York.

Jennifer Norris, USAF, TSgt, Retired

One of the reasons I was drawn to our national parks is because every time I visited one I felt safe, nurtured in nature, and I learned something about America’s history. As a veteran I was especially interested in our history because the military industrial complex plays a significant role in it. Our national parks are so much more than Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon. They include battlefields, forts, historic sites, scenic trails, scenic roads, and of course all the most beautiful landscape you can imagine.

Visiting these places gave me a sense of purpose. I got the passport book and began planning my trips around visiting national parks. Traveling is hard on my PTSD so the parks usually gave me the mental escape I needed to rejuvenate. I used them as a coping mechanism for the PTSD. I could immediately feel myself begin to feel more calm upon entering the federal property. At first my focus was on learning as much history as possible, now I incorporate fitness into the trip too,

If you give yourself plenty of time, you can incorporate your daily exercise into your visit. Most of the national parks have walking paths and trails. Some of them aren’t advertised well but we now explore every inch of the property to find the hidden treasures and get in our fitness. We are always glad we walked around the property because it gave us a different perspective to appreciate while there. The fresh air and activity is invigorating. I always feel better mentally after exercise in a scenic location.

I learned over time that nature truly helps my PTSD. I seek it now as a way to maintain my sanity in this crazy world. Studies have proven that nature is good for all of us. If I don’t have immediate access to a national park, I visit our State and local parks. I have never been disappointed and learned that most of these parks are built as a way to preserve our land and our history. Parks are a destination that I seek to help heal my PTSD. They help me get in the here and now, appreciate my surroundings, replace stuck thoughts with information and scenery, and calm me down.

Travel definitely has its stressful moments but the trick I have learned is to take control of the trip. We drive to most of our destinations because it allows us to rest, take the back roads, the roads less traveled, and go off the beaten path to explore what is out there. I am definitely adventurous and cannot get enough when it comes to taking advantage of every opportunity in life. We use the parks to help us take breaks from the highways. It’s amazing what a break in a beautiful, quiet spot will do for you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Once you start looking for these parks, you will be surprised how many are out there!

I share my adventures at our national parks now in an effort to educate others of their value. I want our military and disabled veterans to know that they are eligible for this great gift from our country. The pass allows access to all of America’s 400 plus national parks and discounts on camping spots too. The national parks are restorative in nature and another healthy coping mechanism for those with PTSD, for both mind and body. When you find a park, start with practicing being in the here and now so you can take it all in. It takes a little effort but eventually becomes something you yearn when you can’t find comfort at home.

Last updated: October 17, 2017