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The new therapies helping us connect with nature

Links between the natural world and mental health have led to the rise in ecotherapy

Environmentalism is being forced up the political agenda across the globe by the realisation that human activity is eroding our natural world at a frightening pace.

But it is not only for the sake of nature itself; the reliance on the Earth’s ecosystems for the survival of mankind is being understood more and more. From bees and other insect pollinating our food reserves to plants being integral to the creation of new medicines, we are becoming more and more aware that environmental protection is necessary for our very existence.

And increasingly, as people continue to migrate into ever-expanding megacities, we also understand the strong link between nature and mental health.

Currently, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas and by 2050 that is expected to grow to 68%.

And with research showing strongly that humans need to have a close bond with nature to keep their overall wellbeing in balance, ecologically-based therapies are becoming more popular as a way to treat mental health conditions.

Ecotherapy is therapeutic treatment which involves outdoor activities in nature. There is no single definition, but it is a regular, structured group activity led by trained professionals (sometimes therapists) in a green environment related to exploring and appreciating the natural world.

Ecotherapy can be in rural or urban settings, including parks, gardens, farms and woodlands. It involves varying amounts of physical activity, depending on the type of programme, and can include working in nature – such as a conservation project, gardening or farming – or experiencing nature, such as enjoying the views on a walk or cycling through woodland.

Some ecotherapy sessions follow a set structure and use talking strategies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, while others can be more informal or vary depending on the time of year and what work needs doing.

While direct contact with nature has many benefits, individuals need not spend time in a green environment to experience the positive effects of the natural world. Several studies have found that a mere glimpse of nature from a window or even photographs of it can improve people’s overall mood, mental health and life satisfaction.

In a study by Roger Ulrich, a prominent researcher in this field, heart surgery patients in intensive care units were able to reduce their anxiety and need for pain medication by looking at pictures of trees and water. Another researcher, Rachel Kaplan, also found that office workers who had a view of nature from a window reported higher job and life satisfaction than those who did not.

And a 2015 study at USA’s University of Michigan found that 90-minute group nature walks were effective at combatting depression and other mood disorders.

Another study also suggests a link between being exposed to greenery and reduced cravings for alcohol, cigarettes and junk food.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology surveyed 149 respondents aged 21 to 65 about the proportion of green space in their community, green views from their home, their access to a garden and how often they used public green spaces.

The study also asked questions about experiences with depression and anxiety, as well as cravings for things like caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and nicotine. Researchers found that the presence of visible green space contributed to decreased cravings, especially when more than 25% of a respondent’s view was greenery.

“It has been known for some time that being outdoors in nature is linked to a person’s wellbeing,” said Plymouth’s University’s Leanne Martin. “But for there to be a similar association with cravings from simply being able to see green spaces adds a new dimension to previous research.”

In a study conducted by UK mental health charity Mind, a nature walk reduced symptoms of depression in 71% of participants, compared to only 45% of those who took a walk through a shopping centre.

Mind promotes ecotherapy and one of the people it highlights as benefiting from it is a former London accountant, named only as Debbie, who had a history of depression panic attacks as a result of workplace bullying and redundancy.

After a number of failed therapies, Debbie was directed by her new doctor to the PoLLeN project (People, Life, Landscape & Nature), based in the UK capital.

“I hadn’t heard of ecotherapy before so I guess I’m a convert,” says Debbie. “I grew up in the country and I hate the fact that when you’re living in London, where you are more likely to get work, there’s not much open space. I thought that ecotherapy sounded great as I also have a soft spot for gardening.

“I started dropping in every Wednesday evening and was introduced to ecotherapy by planting and digging. I met other people with similar problems and it soon became a very supportive environment.

“It felt like people were listening to me and they really understood what I had gone through. I didn’t get the same feeling anywhere else. I could leave my worries behind when I walked in and leave feeling supported and encouraged.

“I’m a complete convert to the benefits of ecotherapy. Not only has it improved my mental health and boosted my confidence, but I’ve also learnt new skills to enter into a new career and I’ve also met so many new friends.”

Research released earlier this year pinpointed the exact amount of time per week people need to spend in nature to achieve this benefit – 120 minutes. It does not matter whether those two hours are spent all at once or broken up into moments throughout the week.

A recent Australian study found that being near a tree canopy was the best form of nature to give people better mental health, as opposed to a rooftop gardens or open grassland parks. The authors said this was probably due to roadside trees providing shade, reducing traffic noise and having more stimuli.

Previous research on a form of ecotherapy called ‘forest bathing’ has also demonstrated a link between exposure to trees and healthiness. Spending time in forests has been shown to lower blood pressure, cortisol (a stress hormone) concentrations and pulse rate.

The beneficial effects of nature result not only from what people see but also from what they experience through other senses. For example, in one recent study participants recovered more quickly from psychological stress when they were exposed to sounds of a fountain and tweeting birds rather traffic noise. In another study, food and fruit fragrances inhaled by hospital patients resulted in reduced depressive mood.

Photo by Jordan Sanchez on UnsplashSo what are the forms of ecotherapy and how can they help you? Here are a few of them…

Adventure therapy: Involves doing adventurous physical activities in a group, such as rafting, rock climbing or caving.

Animal-assisted interventions: Being in spaces such as farms where you come into contact with animals and spending time feeding or petting them.

Animal-assisted therapy: Involves building a therapeutic relationship with animals, such as horses or dogs.

Care farming: Therapeutic farming activities, including looking after farm animals, growing crops or helping to manage woodland.

Conservation: Sometimes called Green Gyms, this combines physical exercise with protecting and caring for natural spaces.

Green exercise therapy: Doing exercise in green spaces, for example walking, running or cycling.

Nature arts and crafts: Creating art in or with nature, using the environment as inspiration or using natural materials such as wood, grass or clay.

Social and therapeutic horticulture: Involves gardening work such as growing food in allotments or community gardens, or inside buildings like village halls or libraries. This could lead to work experience, such as selling food at a market garden or the opportunity to gain qualifications.

Wilderness therapy: This is spending time in the wild and doing activities together in a group, for example, making shelters and hiking.

With each form of ecotheraphy, individuals who are perhaps feeling alone and isolated in their condition are given the comforting sense of being linked with something bigger, they are connected to nature and the helped to feel part of the wider world around them.

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