You probably already know how being in nature makes you feel more refreshed. You may have even discovered that a little dose of the outdoors really lifts your mood. But mental health professionals are taking this one step further, prescribing an application of ecotherapy for improved health and wellness.
Ecotherapy by Definition
So what’s the difference between a casual stroll on a desert trail and ecotherapy? Application, mostly. Ecotherapy (also known as ECO therapy) while the most popular term for the practice, is also frequently referred to by other names including, but not limited to:
- Nature therapy
- Green therapy
- Wilderness therapy
Positive Psychology defines the field of ecotherapy as “the study of psychological processes that connect or disconnect us from nature, providing the theoretical foundation for ecotherapeutic practice…at the root of ecopsychology and ecotherapy is the idea that humans and nature are intrinsically linked. We impact our environment, and our environment impacts us.” Essentially, actively nurturing our relationship with nature promotes better emotional and mental health.
Applications can be as broad as encouraging people to think beyond themselves and put forth effort into critical issues, such as environmental and societal causes, or a more simple approach, like joining a community park clean-up program on a Saturday afternoon. Here are a few other ways people use ecotherapy:
- Gardening, both at home and in public spaces
- Making a deliberate effort to exercise or meditate outdoors
- Group-led adventure and wilderness activities
- “Dark nature” programs that encourage stargazing and other nighttime pursuits
- Animal-assisted therapy, which may include guided interactions with dogs, horses, and other creatures
- Using natural materials to make arts and crafts
One common factor in these engagements is they’re deliberately designed and frequently led by an ecopsychology-trained mental health professional. While some participants may be managing different mood disorders or working through a couples’ therapy program, others are recovering from surgery or another physical health condition.
A focus on the importance of our interconnectedness with nature is what truly makes a difference in ecotherapy. Good Therapy notes a simple 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.”
Some talk therapists also integrate nature more casually to help people during sessions. For instance, author and therapist Patricia H. Hasbach founded Northwest EcoTherapy. She’ll often host clients outdoors, such as taking a walk or sitting near a stream. She also may issue homework assignments that invite her clients to get out into nature more often between sessions. Additionally, in her book, Grounded: An Interactive Journal to Help You Reconnect With the Power of Nature and Yourself, there are other activities people can enjoy indoors to form a better connection with themselves and the natural world.
Benefits of Ecotherapy
The American Psychological Association points out three key reasons for immersing yourself in nature regularly, which we provide verbatim:
- Spending time in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and improvements in mood, mental health and emotional wellbeing.
- Feeling connected to nature can produce similar benefits to wellbeing, regardless of how much time one spends outdoors.
- Both green spaces and blue spaces (aquatic environments) produce wellbeing benefits. More remote and biodiverse spaces may be particularly helpful, though even urban parks and trees can lead to positive outcomes.
Various studies also indicate that we receive a boost of many “feel good” chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, while at the same time reducing the stress hormone cortisol. Deliberate interaction with nature also lessens our tendency to brood or ruminate on our problems because the experience is calming and provides a broader perspective of our place in the world.
Researchers also note that practices such as gökotta—the Swedish habit of awakening early to appreciate birdsong in the morning—or shinrin yoku—what the Japanese call “forest bathing”—are supposed to help spur creativity, foster appreciation of the present moment, and create a more enhanced sense of peace.
Group aspects of ecotherapy are also beneficial because they help individuals form a stronger community and reduce feelings of loneliness. Using the park clean-up program as an example, this type of volunteer activity not only makes you feel good and experience satisfaction in accomplishment, it also helps you engage with others who share your intention to beautify surroundings. Cottonwood’s Holistic Focus
Our campus environment is set on 35 beautiful acres amid the natural landscape in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert, yet we’re just minutes away from Tucson.
Our philosophy of care for behavioral health and substance use disorders in Arizona blends evidence-based treatment with holistic therapies designed to treat the whole person. We welcome the opportunity to provide you with an integrative healing atmosphere and individualized care—talk with a member of our admissions staff today.