Ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy or green therapy, is the applied practice of the emergent field of ecopsychology, which 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. Ecopsychology provides individuals with an opportunity to explore their relationship with nature—an area that is often overlooked. While some professionals teach and practice ecopsychology exclusively, other health practitioners incorporate aspects of ecotherapy into their existing practices. I prefer to work on projects in a natural environment, combining active listening and person centred ways of engaging - which brings a sense of calm and peace.
Nature and Mental Health
Ecotherapy is based on the idea that people are connected to and impacted by the natural environment. A growing body of research highlights the positive benefits of connecting with nature. In one study conducted by psychologist Terry Hartig, participants were asked to complete a 40-minute cognitive task designed to induce mental fatigue. Following the task, participants were randomly assigned 40 minutes of time to be spent in one of three conditions: walking in a nature preserve, walking in an urban area, or sitting quietly while reading magazines and listening to music. Participants who had walked in the nature preserve reported less anger and more positive emotions than those who engaged in the other activities. In a similar study conducted by Mind, a mental health charity organization, a nature walk reduced symptoms of depression in 71% of participants, compared to only 45% of those who took a walk through a shopping center.
The beneficial effects of nature result not only from what people see but from what they experience through other senses as well. For example, in one recent study, participants recovered more quickly from psychological stress when they were exposed to nature sounds (from a fountain and tweeting birds) than when they were exposed to road traffic noise. In another study, food and fruit fragrances inhaled by hospital patients resulted in reduced self-reports of depressive mood.
Many other studies help to demonstrate the positive effects of nature on both physical and mental health. Studies have shown, for example, that children who live in buildings with a nearby green space may have a greater capacity for paying attention, delaying gratification, and inhibiting impulses than children who live in buildings surrounded by concrete. Children who have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) display fewer symptoms after spending time in a green environment than when they spend time indoors or in non-green outdoor environments. The addition of flowers and plants to a workplace can positively affect creativity, productivity, and flexible problem solving, while the presence of animals may reduce aggression and agitation among children and those diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
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 sessions are in groups while others require
a one-on-one setting.
Some of the more common ecotherapy activities are described below:
- 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.
- 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. We have
ponies, chickens, ducks, goats and dogs - all of whom enjoy meeting new
people and being cared for.
- 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 and environmental 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.