Ecotherapy: Appreciating the Healing Power of Nature
Humans have been relying on the healing power of nature since, well, since we become human, and probably before. We have used rhythm, movement, community, plants, and connection to the divine Mother Earth since our species stood from a crawl and stomped into the dawn of humanity. It is ancient knowledge and it has been time-tested and currently, holds its ground against scientific scrutiny.
Connection with nature clearly demonstrates therapeutic effects for varying mental health challenges; it is directly linked to mental, physical, and spiritual health and promotes human development. Time spent in nature has positive physiological (such as decreased heart rate, blood pressure, and stress responses) and psychological effects (such as improved mood).
The restorative effects of nature have been proven in a variety of studies: windows overlooking natural views have been observed to help hospital patients recover faster from surgery (in fact, even a plant beside the bed has lessened patient stress), and to help prisoners to lower stress and physical illness. Another study showed that windows overlooking greenspace corresponded with decreased aggression and violence and increased attention, as well as assessing life problems as less severe and experiencing less mental fatigue. ‘Green exercise’ adds higher self-esteem to the list of benefits of general exercise, as well as have more pronounced effects in revitalization, engagement, tension, confusion, anger, and depression, compared to exercising indoors. The mere presence of green space in communities decreases the presence of anxiety, depression, and physical health problems. Activities like gardening and walking in nature have been shown to positively improve mental health and neurological conditions, exposure to sunlight is found to significantly enhance mood and merely looking at nature positively affects mood, stress, concentration, and self-esteem.
Our current mental health crisis has been dubbed a nature-deficit disorder. Since the industrial revolution, the world has seen such a massive and rapid migration from rural to urban areas that around 50% of the world now lives in cities, which is negatively impacting our physical and mental health since we are inadequately adapted to live in our new home environment.
Ecotherapies commonly include active, outdoor, bodily engagement that focuses on increasing a person’s connection to nature. Some examples of interventions include nature meditations, mindful walking, green exercise, eco-art, animal-assisted therapies, and horticulture therapy. Wilderness Therapy, which uses the mediating value of wild places, asserts the effectiveness of the ‘unsettling’ experience of natural environments which provides alternate avenues of awareness, the opportunity for dis- and re-equilibrium, and a new context for knowing ourselves
Three components should be present for nature’s effect to blossom: (a) personal dialogue occurring between humans and nature, (b) external reflection of internal aspects, and (c) symbolic interaction.
Nature is more than a backdrop for my therapeutic work, it is an active contributor to my therapeutic process. In order to do therapeutic work in nature, we must develop a mindset of mindful adventure. Dimensions of this mindset include: deep listening and attention to the dynamic interactions between nature and client, encouraging attention to the internal processes that humans and nature share (by focusing on thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, developing new ways of knowing through symbolic and imaginative reflection, feelings of safety and security (even in the unfamiliar environment), and a loosening of control and trust in nature so that the spirit of openness is present. It is amazing what kind of healing can take place when we open our hearts to nature.
Cooley, S. J., Jones, C. R., Kurtz, A., & Robertson, N. (2020). ‘Into the Wild’: A meta-synthesis of talking therapy in natural outdoor spaces. Clinical Psychology Review, 77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101841
J. Thompson Coon, K. Boddy, K. Stein, R. Whear, J. Barton, and M. H. Depledge (2011). Does Participating in Physical Activity in Outdoor Natural Environments Have a Greater Effect on Physical and Mental Wellbeing than Physical Activity Indoors? A Systematic Review. Environmental Science & Technology 2011 45 (5), 1761-1772. DOI:10.1021/es102947t
Harper, N. J., Fernee, C. R., & Gabrielsen, L. E. (2021). Nature’s Role in Outdoor Therapies: An Umbrella Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(10). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18105117
Kras, N. (2021). Exploring the Benefits of Ecotherapy-Based Activities at an Urban Community College. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 2, 117.
Naor, L., & Mayseless, O. (2021). The Art of Working With Nature in Nature-Based Therapies. Journal of Experiential Education, 44(2), 184–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825920933639
Norton, C. L., Tucker, A., Pelletier, A., VanKanegan, C., Bogs, K., & Foerster, E. (2020). Utilizing Outdoor Adventure Therapy to Increase Hope and Well-Being Among Women at a Homeless Shelter. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education and Leadership, 12(1), 87. https://doi.org/10.18666/JOREL-2020-V12-I1-9928
Wilson, N., Ross, M., Lafferty, K., & Jones, R. (2009). A review of ecotherapy as an adjunct form of treatment for those who use mental health services. Journal of Public Mental Health, 7(3), 23–35. https://doi.org/10.1108/17465729200800020