Nature therapy, also called ecotherapy, is the practice of being connected to nature to promote growth and healing, particularly mental health. Research has indicated that getting close to nature can help lower levels of stress and also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. And nature therapy attempts to make full use of this. It can mean gardening, a walk in the woods, or even spending time with animals.
In general, nature therapy involves a green environment, appreciating and exploring nature, and, if needed, a supportive professional who can help guide you.
At its core, ecotherapy works with all five senses to lift your mood. For example, you focus your attention on the smell of the leaves of a tree, the chirping of birds, or the sensation of water on your feet, and these actions are likely to improve your mood and reduce anxiety if you have any.
Moreover, the physical action of moving through nature fosters mindfulness and gratitude. Movement produces endorphins, the body’s natural chemicals that promote positive feelings like pleasure and happiness. Also, the intrinsic peace and quiet of natural environments can help clear your mind and relax your nerves.
Nature therapy isn’t a new idea. Traditional cultures have practiced this approach as part of their daily routine. Japan, for instance, has had a tradition of Shinrin-Yoku, or forest bathing, which involves submersion in a woodland setting. In fact, doctors in Japan are known to recommend spending short amounts of time in nature to boost mental health.
What Are the Different Types of Nature Therapy?
Nature therapy doesn’t only mean spending time in forests or woodlands. Spending time on the beach or in the mountains is just as effective. Some of the most well-known types of ecotherapy include:
* Wilderness or adventure therapy: This approach uses activities that help you explore and enjoy nature such as rafting and rock climbing. It can be done individually or in a group setting.
* Animal-assisted therapy: As the name suggests, this approach involves animals. Basically, it includes spending quality time with animals in locations like farms where you can pet, play, or work with horses, dogs, and birds in an outdoor setting. Equine therapy, also known as Equine-Assisted Therapy, for example, is a treatment that includes working with and riding horses to promote physical and emotional growth.
Related: Animal Assisted Therapy Can Treat Anxiety and Dementia
* Forest bathing: As we mentioned above, forest therapy (or shinrin-yoku), is quite popular in Japan. It doesn’t just mean a walk in the woods. This form of ecotherapy means consciously taking in all of one's five senses and being immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest or some tree-heavy settings. Research also shows that forest bathing positively stimulates the immune system.
* Community gardening: As you might have guessed, this involves gardening with neighbors on shared land. Not only does this allow you to grow your own food, but it also gives you a chance to build relationships and spend some quality time outdoors.
* Park Prescriptions: Recent research has indicated that visiting parks can help with stress relief. Researchers measured stress by checking the cortisol levels in the saliva of 78 people who were involved in a study. They found that visiting parks increased physical activity and decreased loneliness in the participants. Healthcare providers and mental health professionals recommend spending some time in a park on a weekly basis.
Are There Any Science-Backed Benefits of Ecotherapy?
Did you know that currently, over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas? This is estimated to rise to 70% by 2050. Many of us, especially young people, are spending most of our time indoors, in front of screens, and this detaches us from the natural world. The coronavirus pandemic has only made matters worse as we have been forced to stay indoors for our safety. But studies have suggested that spending time in natural areas may be essential for our mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.
Thus, it is even more important today to start practicing ecotherapy. Scientists have been studying the potential mental health benefits of ecotherapy for some time now. Apart from having a positive effect on our overall mood, researchers have also found nature therapy’s healing effects in several other areas:
* A 2018 review published in Frontiers in Psychology revealed that gardening at home can help boost emotional health.
* Research from a 2010 study has indicated that when you’re under stress, being exposed to sounds from nature can help your nervous system recover quickly.
* Studies have shown that nature therapy can work as a potential treatment for veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Particularly those who find other treatment programs unhelpful.
* Research shows that nature therapy can be important for several normal developmental aspects of children and can help improve their creativity, cognition, and bolster their sense of self.
* Lastly, living near green areas can have a positive impact on mental health over time, a study says.
While more evidence is needed to validate nature-based treatments like ecotherapy, these findings definitely suggest that the known benefits this practice offers cannot be ignored.
How Do I Get Nature Therapy If I Live in a City?
The great thing about ecotherapy is that it’s inexpensive and can be tried by anyone. But how can someone living in a city avail the benefits of nature therapy? You can do nature therapy anywhere, regardless of where you are. Here are a few suggestions that might help:
* Grow plants in your home
Not everyone has the space for a garden. That’s perfectly fine. Just having a few indoor plants inside your home or apartment gives you a much-needed dose of green. Having houseplants can also help reduce stress and increase productivity, studies have shown.
* Spend some time near trees in your local park
As we stated above, visiting a park can help with stress relief. Therefore, you should definitely try taking a walk around your local park a few times a week. If possible, find a tree and meditate under it for a while. Breathe in the aroma of the leaves, the wood, and the earth. If you don’t find that comfortable, just bring a book to read under a tree. The goal is to make sure you spend as much time around nature as possible.
* Eat lunch near a fountain or on a bench in a park
If you can’t find the time to relax in a park, try and move some of your regular activities outdoors. For example, you can sit on a bench in a park or near a fountain to have your lunch or to read a book. If possible, carry a journal along with you and take note of any bird activity you see or of anything else that strikes you as beautiful.
* Practice stargazing
A 2014 study suggested that dark nature activities like stargazing may provide similar benefits as daytime nature therapy activities. The vastness of the star-filled sky will help you connect with nature and can also work as a perfect stress-reliever.
The Bottom Line
Nature therapy is beneficial for all ages and can be practiced by anybody. While it may not be a magic solution or cure for stress, it is safe to say that ecotherapy offers plenty of gains that are just too compelling to overlook. Getting out into the great outdoors is a wonderful habit that all of us should try and incorporate into our life. The more we can connect with the natural world in these uncertain and stressful times, the more chances we will give ourselves to lead a happier and more peaceful life.
Share this useful article with your loved ones