Do you need a dose of nature? There a million reasons to reconnect with the great outdoors and take advantage of its offerings, but why does it help our mental state?
Ecotherapy, or green therapy, is the applied practice of the emergent field of ecopsychology. It's the idea that our psyche is connected to nature and our surroundings rather than being isolated from our environment.
Read on to learn more about the origins of ecotherapy, how it applies to our world today, and its many benefits.
Ecotherapy involves a wide range of treatments aimed to improve mental and physical well-being through outdoor activities in nature. The results of ecotherapy include many health benefits that come from connecting with nature.
You can practice ecotherapy on your own, such as enjoying the benefits of hiking in nature. But with formal ecotherapy, a trained therapist leads people through various activities to build a balanced relationship with nature that will improve their well-being.
Ecotherapy sessions can be adapted to suit a client’s level of fitness and mobility needs. And sessions may also include a type of formal therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or another talking treatment.
Ecotherapy is the applied practice of the field of ecopsychology, which was developed by Theodore Roszak. A central premise of ecopsychology is that the human brain has adapted to the natural environment in which it evolved.
And according to E.O. Wilson’s “biophilia” theory, from an evolutionary perspective, the human brain has a preference for beautiful, natural environments. We have an instinct to emotionally connect with nature, especially the natural conditions humans evolved in.
Experiencing the beauty of nature increases positive emotion—such as a feeling of awe and being a part of something bigger than oneself. Viewing natural beauty activates reward circuits in the brain that are associated with dopamine release. And dopamine helps give us a sense of joy, purpose, and motivation.
Being out in nature also gives our brains a break from the non-stop mental stimulation we experience with technology. As a result of this break in nature, our brains can restore depleted attention circuits, helping to improve creative thinking, problem-solving, and mental well-being.
Outdoor recreation or even looking out a window at nature helps to reduces stress. When observing the ever-changing environments in nature, people tend to develop a positive attitude, sensory awareness, mindfulness, and renewed attention. As a result, stress levels drop while positive thinking and productivity levels increase.
Along with reducing stress, ecotherapy reduces feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression, while improving moods, self-esteem, and emotional resilience.
When out in nature, we tend to feel a sense of connectedness, meaning, and purpose in life. Everything in nature is interconnected and has been existing without any intervention since the beginning of time. And recognizing that humans are a part of this interconnectedness helps evoke a sense of purpose and belonging on this home we call Earth.
Enjoying and respecting nature also leads to an appreciation of powers larger than oneself—that we are just a small part of the bigger world and universe. Nature gives us a fresh perspective on life and the world when we are constantly being bogged down by the pressures of everyday life.
Nature is best enjoyed on foot or with a paddle. The physical activity of walking, hiking, paddling, and moving through nature reduces anxiety, depression, and the risk of disease while improving psychological well-being.
Physical activity outdoors is more rewarding than exercise indoors. A trek through nature lets you physically explore and also explore your own thoughts and feelings in the calm silence of nature.
Many cancer survivors experience persistent fatigue after treatment. But getting outside to walk in the park or garden for five minutes at a time can benefit cancer survivors by allowing them to connect with nature and gain the mind-body results of physical exercise in a relaxing environment.
Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who regularly spend time playing in parks tend to have milder symptoms than those who spend more time indoors.
Also, encouraging children to spend more time being active outdoors helps reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes.
Ecotherapy can take place anywhere outdoors, in both urban and rural settings, such as backyards, gardens, parks, farms, and woodlands.
This type of meditation takes place in a natural setting and is often done in a group. During nature meditation, people may focus on something in nature and contemplate how this one thing relates to them and what they can learn from it.
Gardening and growing food in allotments is a form of ecotherapy that often takes place in community gardens, nurseries, or even indoors in libraries and community centres.
This type of ecotherapy is led by an experienced therapist and involves building a therapeutic relationship with animals. It is formal therapy using guided contact with horses or dogs, with a focus on the interaction and bonding between you and the animal.
Exercises, such as walking, jogging, cycling, yoga, swimming, hiking, and adventure activities (rafting, rock climbing, caving), are excellent ways to enjoy the physical and mental health benefits of ecotherapy.
While work may not seem therapeutic, working in nature is. Conservation projects, such as protecting and conserving natural spaces and habitats, provide a sense of purpose and hopefulness.
Like all animals on this planet, we evolved in natural environments, which might explain why we feel so connected and relaxed when out in nature.
And research has shown that spending time in nature, especially while being active, has profound health benefits for both our bodies and our minds.
So make sure you get a healthy dose of nature in your life to feel your best. And consider one of the many ecotherapy activities to help you improve your mental and physical well-being.