Don’t you love the feeling you get when you drive out of the city, the skyscrapers and traffic sounds fade away and you find yourself surrounded by crisp air, lush trees, and chirping birds? Ahh…the peace, the quiet, the release. If you’ve had this type of experience, you’re not alone: increasing research demonstrates the many mental health benefits of spending time in nature.
Ecotherapy, applied ecopsychology or nature-informed therapy involves connecting with nature for healing and growth. Increasing numbers of therapists are incorporating it into their practice. For example, Registered Psychotherapist and ecotherapist Eric Windhorst (who lives and works in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada) has been integrating nature-based approaches into his practice for about five years. Eric credits nature-informed therapy for catalyzing his own and several client’s psychological healing and growth. Here are five ways nature therapy can be so helpful in improving your mental health:
1. Bye-Bye Burnout
Whether it’s a conflict at work, late for that meeting, or you’re feeling stuck with your life direction, this can cause stress which automatically triggers your sympathetic nervous system a.k.a. the “fight, flight or freeze” response. This process automatically releases stress hormones throughout your body, creating other physiological and psychological responses that can basically lead to burnout. The good news is that a simple walk in the woods can help switch on the parasympathetic nervous system which actually helps reduce anxiety and calm the mind, in fact, ecotherapy can even help alleviate ADHD and PTSD symptoms. According to Good Therapy, the key is “to integrate ecotherapy and nature into your routine on the regular for those wellness benefits.”
A lot of these benefits are associated with mindfulness. Yes, mindfulness is a term that seems to be thrown around a lot these days but it refers to the ability to be in the present moment without judgement and plays a part when it comes to treating burnout. Studies show that when you’re sitting next to that river stream or hiking through a lush canopy of trees, it can feel peaceful because you’re grounded in the moment, mindful of your surroundings and more attuned to your own thoughts and breathing patterns.
2. Enhances Immunity
So, there’s these tiny invisible (and therapeutic) molecules called negative ions that exist in nature, especially around waterfalls, on the ocean surf, and widespread in mountains and forests. They’re created by the effects of water, air, sunlight and the Earth’s inherent radiation. According to the Faculty of Forestry at UBC National Parks Research Center “negative ions can improve sleep quality, accelerate cell regeneration, enhance memory and have a positive effect on mood.” If you live in the city, there are much lower rates of negative ions compared to large green areas because of pollution and the high use electronic devices. Increasing levels of stress correlate with living in highly populated urban areas that are further away from green or “blue” space, which in turn, affects overall immunity.
3. Prevents & Treats Chronic Illness
Spending time regularly in nature where you’re active (hiking, swimming, fishing, running, kayaking) is now a medical prescription for those who suffer from chronic illnesses (ex. kidney disease, high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammation). It’s called Park Prescriptions, and it is considered to be an effective prescription to prevent and treat chronic disease, as well as promote overall wellness. According to Park Prescriptions, “viewing and spending time in green spaces lowers cortisol levels and blood pressure” among other major health benefits. This is because spending time outdoors creates pleasant feelings and lowers stress levels (as mentioned). Apparently even just looking out the window can help make you feel better!
4. Promotes Spiritual Experiences
With everyone on high alert, The pandemic has pushed people to find solace in the wild, away from their screens and has led people to face certain existential questions. Although spirituality can sometimes be an elusive topic, research shows that when people reconnect with nature it can help foster a sense of purpose and help nurture their spirituality. This could mean making sense of what is considered sacred or even tapping into a feeling that we are part of something larger. Some may have a self-transcendent experience while immersed in nature, allowing them to feel more connected to themselves and others. As ecotherapist Eric Windhorst notes, “this widened, connected sense of self often precipitates grounding in one’s body and on the Earth, while concurrently encouraging a person to see their difficulties from a different vantage point: it puts things in perspective.”
Ecotherapy encompasses a broad range of practices like horticultural therapy, walk & talk therapy, equine therapy, forest bathing, wilderness group therapy, body movement, mindfulness, and animal-assisted therapies. Animals-Assisted therapy is all the rage as it allows people to benefit from supportive companionship while living with mental illness. There has been research on the positive outcomes specifically for children, prisoners and the elderly, including improvements in mood and increased social interaction. Dr. Warren Corson III Clinician, Clinical & Executive Director of the Community Counseling Centers of Central Connecticut, says that, “once we allow ourselves to embrace nature we often find that artificial stress and depression that can be byproducts of today’s fast-paced industrialized world start to fade away. Following the beat of nature restores our basic rhythm from birth.” Helping someone out of depression can take many forms of therapy or health interventions but awakening the senses and being in a safe space where animals are present, can help counteract stress and kickstart the healing process.