Ecotherapy is based on the idea that people are connected to and impacted by the natural environment. Ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy or green therapy, is the applied practice of the emergent field of ecopsychology, which was developed by Theodore Roszak. Ecotherapy, in many cases, stems from the belief that people are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not isolated or separate from our environment.
Since ecotherapy is an umbrella term for nature-based approaches to healing, the types of interventions used are many. Some activities take place with the guidance of a therapist while others are carried out individually. Some interventions are done in groups while others require a one-on-one setting. Additionally, while some ecotherapy sessions take place within the confines of an office, an effort is often made to conduct sessions in natural settings whenever possible. There are lots of different ways to practice ecotherapy, depending on your location, physical abilities and preferences.
Some of the more common ecotherapy activities are:
Nature meditation: This meditation takes place in a natural setting, such as a park, and is sometimes done as a group therapy. Members of the group may identify something in nature which attracts them and then spend a few minutes contemplating how this aspect of nature relates to them and what they can learn from it. For example, an elderly person struggling with feelings of worthlessness might develop greater self-respect after meditating on how the older trees in a forest provide shelter for birds and shade for younger plants. The activity usually ends with group members sharing what they learn.
Horticultural therapy: The use of plants and garden-related activities can be used to promote well-being. Activities may include digging soil, planting seedlings, weeding garden beds, and trimming leaves. This type of intervention may be recommended in cases of stress, burnout, and substance abuse, as well as in cases of social isolation among the elderly. Programs such as Thresholds, a Chicago-based mental health agency, has also helped military veterans experiencing posttraumatic stress through horticultural and ecotherapies.
Animal-assisted therapy: In animal-assisted therapy, one or more animals is introduced into the healing process. Some studies have demonstrated that petting or playing with a dog, for example, reduces aggression and agitation in some populations.
Physical exercise in a natural environment: This can include activities such as walking, jogging, cycling, or doing yoga in a park. These types of activities foster increased awareness of the natural world and are sometimes recommended for reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and anger.
Involvement in conservation activities: The act of restoring or conserving the natural environment can assist in creating a sense of purpose and hopefulness. Since this activity is usually done in groups, it may also help foster a sense of belonging and connectedness while simultaneously improving one's mood.
There are countless studies that prove ecotherapy (often referred to as nature therapy) is beneficial for your physical and mental health.
Ecotherapy has been proven to be effective and is used in various practices and cultures around the world—and yet, it is still one of the most under-appreciated forms of therapy. For a period of time, nature therapy was considered a simple practice for those who believe that we are connected to and impacted by the natural environments around us. However, there is now more research to support this ideology. While we stroll around the forest, breathing in the fresh air, airborne chemicals like phytoncides (a chemical many plants give off to fight disease) are also entering our system.
When this happens, the human body responds by increasing the number of natural killer blood cells (a type of white blood cell) which attack virus-infected cells. In one 2009 study, participants spent 3 days/2 nights in a forested area. Their blood and urine were sampled before, during, and after the trip. Natural killer cell activity measured significantly higher during the days spent in the forest and the effect lasted up to 30 days after the trip.
The results of a 10-study analysis proved that both men and women have similar self-esteem improvements after experiencing time spent in nature, and the boost in mood particularly impacted men. The analysis showed the greatest improvements in mental health with the participants who were struggling with a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. A separate study showed that children diagnosed with ADHD who spent time in natural outdoor environments show a reduction in ADHD symptoms. While research continues on the benefits of nature, one thing has been made clear through decades of study and practice: Nature is good for your health, likely in more ways than we can even imagine.
Still not sure about the benefits of nature therapy? A few countries (Scotland, Chile)have included nature therapy as official prescriptions; and most recently Canada introduced PaRx. PaRx, an initiative by BC Parks Foundation and driven by health-care professionals, is Canada’s first national, evidence-based nature prescription program. The goal of PaRx is to promote prescribing time in nature for lifelong health benefit. You can read more about Canada’s new program at www.outdoorplaycanada.ca
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Do you already have a nature therapy practice? If so, we’d love to hear about it!