Nature and Mental Health
What is Ecotherapy?
We often hear doctors recommend that you go for a walk when you’re dealing with depression or anxiety. But the practice is not as modern as you may think. Eastern Medicine has long recommended meditation in nature to calm the mind and restore inner peace and balance. Indigenous people have worked with the healing powers of nature since ancient times. So what is it about being outside that helps us heal?
Ecotherapy is a type of therapy that uses exposure to nature in order to improve mental and physical well-being. It is based on the idea that humans have a primal connection to nature. It proposes that our hectic lives can lead us away from our connection to nature and that this disconnect will cause mental and physical stress to our bodies.
Ecotherapy advocates for reconnecting to nature in order to feel more calm, at peace and balanced in our daily lives.
Although science hasn’t yet pinpointed the exact mechanism that causes nature-exposure to calm the mind, recent research has revealed some clues.
“Nature, time and patience are the three great physicians.”
- Chinese Proverb
The research shows that when people walk in nature, the activity in their prefrontal cortex decreases. This is the part of the brain where we contemplate and can spend time overthinking and stressing about things. The connection to nature brings our focus back to our more primal parts of the brain which can interrupt our stressed brain activity.
Is ecotherapy just being outside?
There are many different definitions of ecotherapy, but generally everyone agrees that ecotherapy is led by a trained therapist. This is one big difference to you just going outside for a walk or a hike. Your therapist is a vital part of ecotherapy. They will help you explore your relationship with yourself, as well as with nature.
Usually ecotherapy will focus on a structured activity, such as walking or gardening, and not specifically on the health outcome. Mostly, ecotherapy takes place outside in nature, but can be done inside as well, for people with limited mobility or health concerns. And lastly, ecotherapy encourages social interaction.
So basically, ecotherapy is a therapist-led, purpose-driven, regularly scheduled activity (usually in nature) to help you with a variety of problems. And in today’s crazy busy environment, I think it can be a great option to try for depression and anxiety. Of course, there will be a fee to pay, so if you cannot afford an ecotherapist, you can also increase the time you spend in nature. It won’t have the exact same effect, but it will still make a positive difference.
How can ecotherapy help depression?
As many studies are starting to show, there are a variety of benefits someone with depression or anxiety can get from ecotherapy. How exactly does it help? Here are a few highlights.
Reduces anxiety and depression
A lot of research is starting to show that being in nature (for an average of about an hour) can decrease blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety and improve your mood. Just having a connection with nature actually has a positive effect on many of your body’s systems which lightens the burden of some common mood disorders, like anxiety and depression.
Ecotherapy changes focus
Another way in which ecotherapy can help with anxiety and depression is that it can motivate you to change your thought patterns. Many of us get stuck in “thinking-loops” where we play negative thought patterns over and over in our heads. Anxiety and stress creep in and the pattern may go in our heads all day while we try to function in our daily routines.
Finding a good connection with nature, whether it be sitting in a pile of leaves at the park, or hiking to a lookout, can help us break free from these negative thinking patterns more easily. The sights and sounds of nature help us change our thinking and divert our focus to the beauty and awe that can be the natural world.
One incredible benefit of spending more time outside is that it can improve your sleep. Breathing fresh air, having exposure to sunlight, and seeing new and beautiful landscapes helps the body come to a more peaceful state which translates nicely into a restful sleep. Because many people suffering from anxiety or depression have trouble sleeping, restful sleep is a valuable side effect of spending time in nature.
Ecotherapy encourages us to exercise more
Because being in nature often involves activity, ecotherapy has the added benefit of keeping the body active. When we walk, hike, swim, climb, and ski outside, we get the body moving naturally. This releases endorphins and many feel-good chemicals in the body and helps us improve mood and physical well-being. Research has also found that exercising outside causes more beneficial brain activity than exercising indoors.
Ecotherapy helps reduce pain
Spending time in nature while taking part in therapy can be a powerful combination for chronic pain. And many people with depression also experience chronic pain on some level. So, while nature can be beneficial in helping with depression, it can, at the same time, reduce chronic pain. This even works indoors. Research shows that people who were shown nature images and listened to nature sounds also experienced feelings of well-being and decreased depression and anxiety symptoms.
Helps with isolation
We tend to isolate ourselves when we are depressed, which can often lead to prolonging and worsening depression. We just don’t feel like talking to anyone about what is going on, never mind going out to exercise. Ecotherapy helps draw you out of that isolation by providing a structured activity you regularly take part in.
For example, you may go for a walk with a group and your therapist. Or you may decide to participate in nature arts and crafts or movement therapy outside. In any case, you will be interacting with your therapist and other participants, reducing social isolation and encouraging interaction. This alone can already bring a lot of healing.
Strengthens the immune system
Interestingly enough, Japanese researchers have proven that walking in the woods increases our levels of Natural Killer or NK cells. They believe that the forest air is the cause for this phenomenon. NK cells are an important part of our immune system and fight tumors and infections. Spending time walking in the woods can help beef up your immune system by increasing levels of NK cells.
Ecotherapy reduces mental fatigue
Taking a short walk outside in a park, for example, can already help with mental fatigue; however, research shows that going outside into nature (like a nature reserve instead of an urban setting) works much quicker in reducing mental fatigue. How long does it take to experience these benefits? Roughly about 2 hours. But, you do not have to exercise hard or climb a mountain during this time - unless you want to. Even walking for about 2 hours and just enjoying the outdoors can promote a sense of well-being and balance.
How to make the most of your ecotherapy
If you’re ready to start reaping the rewards of ecotherapy, here are some tips on how to get the most out of your time outside.
Engage your senses
In order to get the most out of your ecotherapy, it’s important to engage all your senses very deliberately. When you are out in nature, try to consciously smell the fresh air. Is it warm or cold? Does it smell like freshly mowed grass? Feel the wind on your face. Hear the rushing water of the ocean or a creek. Listen to the birds and other animals around you. And maybe even taste some strawberries. Close your eyes if you want to intensify your other senses and let yourself be immersed in the experience.
If you have the opportunity to do it, garden. Whether it’s just growing a small planter on your patio or putting in place a whole vegetable garden in your backyard, digging in the dirt is a sure way to get the benefits of nature. Spending time enjoying the natural environment will help your mental health, and fresh flowers, herbs or berries could also be an added benefit. Many communities have a community garden, where you can work outside without having to do all the upkeep. Maybe consider becoming part of your local community garden.
If you have the chance to ditch the shoes on a safe ground in nature - do it! Walking on the beach barefoot, or feeling a forest trail under your feet has many benefits and helps you quickly ground yourself in nature. There’s something about that primal connection to the earth with your feet that will help you instantly bring the focus away from stressed mental chatter. If there are no other options, you can also just stand barefoot on the grass in your backyard or in a local park.
Do it outside
When you think about it, lots of things we do during the day can be done outside. If you have a chair on a balcony, or a sofa on your patio, remember to use it. You can eat your meals in the sunshine, pay some bills on the deck, or even do your yoga routine in the backyard. Your mental health will benefit from any time you can be out in nature, even if it’s just for a short while. And if you have a dog, walking them will be a great reason to be outside every day.
If outside is not feasible...
Many of us would love the benefits of nature, but simply can’t enjoy the great outdoors all the time. Maybe you’re fighting allergies, live further away from green space, have mobility issues or don’t have the right weather conditions to be outside a lot.
Research shows that bringing some of the outdoors inside can help too. Grow some indoor plants in your house, or put on the soothing sounds of nature to fall asleep. Seeing and hearing nature can already give you a head start to a peaceful day even if you can’t fit in a big hike in the woods. There are many free videos online that give you a glimpse of some beautiful landscapes. Just try to surround yourself with as much nature as you can without being outside.
And many ecotherapists can also adapt their therapy for the indoors. If you are interested in ecotherapy, but cannot venture outside, your ecotherapist can make the necessary adjustments so you can still benefit from ecotherapy.
There is a wonderful, healing connection between humans and nature that goes back to the beginning of time. Over time, we seem to have lost that connection more and more. Often, we can feel the lack of it because we become depressed, anxious, stressed, ill, or imbalanced. While we are busy working stressful jobs and making ends meet, we often forget to “gear down” and take a step back into nature.
Although ecotherapy might be a new name for an old practice, spending time in nature has been known to heal the mind and body since ancient times. When I feel myself coming “off center”, I love to go to the beach and just listen to the waves. Or take a walk in the woods and smell the damp earth and listen to the rustling of the leaves. You can take this healing one step further through ecotherapy with a trained therapist.
Whatever calls you, be it the mountains, the ocean, a sandy beach, vast fields, or the woods, ecotherapy can be a great way to help with depression and anxiety.
And if ecotherapy is out of your budget, simply spend time in nature and surround yourself with as much nature as you can. Find that connection and balance again. You will be surprised at the positive benefits you will experience - both mentally and physically.
If you are not able to exercise outside, simply go for a walk or sit in a chair by the ocean. The outdoor experience can definitely be adapted to your individual needs. So, there is no excuse not to head outdoors and decompress.
Immerse yourself in the wonder and beauty of nature and let it heal you inside and out!