Ecotherapy – Where Nature Helps Our Mental Health

Ecotherapy is a relatively new practice in the field of psychology that brings together mental health therapy and the healing benefits of nature. Also called ‘nature therapy’ or ‘green therapy,’ ecotherapy is often incorporated by mental health professionals into more traditional forms of treatment.

The goal of ecotherapy is to connect people with the outdoors while incorporating other concepts such as gratitude and mindfulness to promote improved health and wellbeing.

A partially mown field surrounded by tall pine trees

The Difference Between Ecotherapy and Spending Time Outdoors

We’ve long known that spending time outdoors has a positive impact on our mental health, creating favourable changes in our brains and especially our nervous systems. Nature is an effective treatment for stress, anxiety, depression, and more.

Simply leaving the confines of an indoor environment is beneficial. We all tend to spend too much time on our mobile and computer screens under artificial light. Sunshine or even cloudy natural skies (I’m looking at you UK!), fresh air, and the sound of birds or the rustle of leaves are all proven to soothe our indoor-weary souls. And those are just the benefits of getting ourselves up and out.

So what’s the difference between that and ecotherapy? Well, it’s a bit like the difference between venting to our best mate about an experience that’s left us feeling traumatised, and working with a qualified mental health professional. Ecotherapy is a more formal experience, led by someone who has credentials and a more structured plan to help us accomplish our goals.

A large, red poppy blossom

How Ecotherapy Works

Ecotherapy helps people by connecting them to nature through activities that encourage growth and healing. It’s a process that can work as a stand-alone measure or used in tandem with other, more traditional types of treatment, including cognitive behavioural therapy.

Ecotherapy sessions may be conducted one-on-one or in group settings with the goal of getting clients to focus on their natural surroundings versus the challenges or problems they face. Participants may work on a project outdoors, such as gardening; take part in a mindfulness meditation; or move their bodies in an intentional way, perhaps walking, jogging or cycling.

Animal-assisted therapy, involving caring for animals on a farm, or working with horses has become an extremely popular form of ecotherapy. So too has working with shelter animals or trained therapy pets.

The use of conservation activities is also gaining momentum in the ecotherapy arena. This kind of group activity helps participants connect to nature while giving back, giving them a sense of purpose and belonging.

The use of horticultural activities is also gaining in popularity. Digging in soil; planting seeds and tending to seedlings, weeding beds and pruning trees all give participants a sense of accomplishment and connect them to nature. It’s therapeutic to watch something grow, and even flourish, under our care, and ecotherapy practitioners have learned to harvest this power.

A variety of green leafy plants in pots on a shelf in a greenhouse

Effectiveness of Ecotherapy

Ecotherapy is still a relatively new concept and while the initial evidence surrounding the effectiveness of it is overwhelmingly positive, only a handful of studies exist to definitively back it up. Part of this is because it’s difficult to design a standardised, randomly controlled, blind clinical trial for ecotherapy.

For all of its benefits, ecotherapy also has some shortcomings. Not all outdoor spaces are accessible to those with various mental or physical limitations, for example. And, because ecotherapy is conducted outdoors, the weather can occasionally interfere with planned sessions. This is not to say the weather is insurmountable. After all, there are ways to bring bits of nature indoors, many of which can be used in arts and crafts activities.

A sprawling field full of red poppies

Where to Find an Ecotherapist

Professionals dedicated to ecotherapy are relatively rare as there aren’t many programs specialising in this unique blend of nature and mental health treatment. As more training programs become available–and the number is growing–we’re bound to find more practitioners. 

For the time being, it’s best to look for an ecotherapist by doing an online search or by inquiring with a therapist’s office. In the meanwhile, since ecotherapy should never be a replacement for traditional mental health therapy anyway, there are some ways we can still get started with this healing practice.

Ecotherapy Techniques We Can Do On Our Own

  • Sit outside and enjoy the view
  • Walk around our neighbourhoods or take a hike
  • Ride a bike
  • Plant and/or tend to a garden
  • Volunteer with an animal rescue group
  • Volunteer with local conservation group
  • Attend a local, outdoor festival
  • Gather some friends and family together to pick up litter or take part in a neighbourhood beautification project

Last Thoughts on Ecotherapy

Life is busy, messy and beautiful…but especially messy. It often has a tendency to leave us feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Ecotherapy is a natural, healing way for us to take in the outdoors, helping us to mindfully reconnect with the world around us. And anything that helps us feel calmer and breathe a little easier is a very good thing indeed.

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