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What is Ecotherapy? A Beginner’s Guide + Tips to Get You Started

Ecotherapy is basically what it sounds like. It’s the practice of spending time in nature for healing and growth, particularly mental health. 

There are many ways that ecotherapy, or nature therapy, can be practiced. You can do things on your own, or you can work with a trained therapist who specializes in nature-based therapy. It’s not hard to do. Any time you opt for outdoor activities in nature, you’re technically participating in ecotherapy, making it an easy and affordable tool for improved wellbeing.

There are few different types including:

  • Green Exercise/Green Therapy
  • Wilderness Therapy
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy 
  • Horticultural Therapy

What are the benefits of nature-based interventions?

There are numerous studies that have shown the positive effects of spending time in nature. You’ve probably experienced this for yourself. It’s why people will often engage in outdoor activities like going for a walk or gardening to help clear their heads. 

Studies have shown that exposure to green spaces has numerous mental health benefits like:

  • Reduces symptoms of depression
  • Lowers stress levels in the body
  • Lowers anxiety
  • Positive mood
  • Reduces negative emotions
  • Overall feeling of improved psychological wellbeing
  • Reduces feelings of isolation
  • Promotes a sense of calm
  • Lessens ADHD symptoms and levels of aggression

In addition to helping us manage mental health conditions, opting for activities in nature can also improve our physical health and wellbeing. Studies have shown that spending a minimum of two hours in nature can:

  • Lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels
  • Reduce nervous system arousal
  • Enhance immune system function
  • Improve memory and cognitive function
  • Improves attention span

Additionally, there are many restorative benefits to nature. Spending time in green spaces can restore depleted cognitive reserves. This translates to improved performance on tasks, improved resilience against stressful events, and restored attention. 

Whereas a single walk in the park is not a wonder cure, the cumulative effects of daily and weekly time spent in nature certainly can be.

nature scene road with woods for ecotherapy
What is ecotherapy?

How does ecotherapy work?

Intuitively, we know that getting some fresh air or spending time around plants and animals makes us feel better. Puppies turn us to instant mush. Stepping into a serene green space activates a desire to take deep breaths and release tension from our bodies. 

The question is why?

There are some theories about why a direct connection with nature has so many benefits. One is that it is baked into our DNA. Our ancestors spent all their time in natural environments so we have an innate drive to have contact with nature.

Other theories suggest that spending time in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels. This is referred to as the stress reduction hypothesis. 

A third theory is attention restoration theory which suggests that nature restores depleted mental reserves which helps us to focus and pay attention. Because we live in an age where we are glued to technology, spending time in a natural environment is critical for our emotional and mental wellbeing. 

Ecotherapy for Physical Healing

A 1984 study found that patients recovering from gall bladder surgery had higher recovery rates if their room had a view of nature versus those patients whose rooms did not. Additionally, anxiety levels and recovery times were nearly half of those with views of a wall.

In 2008, researchers found that flowering plants and foliage correlated to faster recovery rates among patients who underwent appendectomies. They also required fewer post-operative medications, demonstrated more positive physiological responses, and had more positive emotions and greater satisfaction with their hospital rooms.

There is evidence that ecotherapy has benefits for pain management. A 1993 study found that coronary surgical patients with access to nature images showed enhance recovery rates and pain reduction. Additionally, subsequent studies have shown a direct correlation between exposure to nature views and sounds with increased pain tolerance.

Ecotherapy for Mental Health and PTSD

Individuals suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder benefit from activity-based ecotherapies like wilderness therapy and other adventure-based therapies. For veterans struggling with PTSD, engaging in organized outdoor activities like white water rafting, hiking, or fly fishing enables them to utilize many of the skills they developed during active duty while connecting with nature.

Exposure to green spaces and direct interaction with nature (ex: gardening) has also been proven to reduce stress and anxiety levels, boost mood, alleviate depression symptoms, and reduce aggression.

Additionally, exposure to natural soundscapes had positive effects on nervous system recovery. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system and promotes a feeling of calm and clarity. Conversely, exposure to urban soundscapes and technology sounds had the opposite effect, fueling stress levels and promoting mental fatigue. It’s why ecotherapy is also effective for kids and adults who struggle with ADHD.

For individuals struggling with mental health illnesses or PTSD who live in urban environments, it is even more imperative to spend time in green spaces.

benefits of nature therapy

Ecotherapy for Addiction Recovery

Addiction recovery is another area where ecotherapy has shown promising outcomes. A Plymouth University study showed that access to green spaces like parks and views of greenery reduced the intensity of cravings and frequency for people in recovery.

Nature therapy is also believed to be effective for people in sobriety because it reduces feelings of isolation and promotes an overall sense of belonging, something that is vitally critical to sobriety maintenance.

Alcohol addiction is complex. Most people who struggle with addiction are battling co-occurring mental health problems like anxiety and depression and past trauma. Ecotherapy is another approach to addiction treatment that has the ability to address all the underlying issues that fuel addictive behavior.

Ecotherapy has also been associated with increased levels of resilience, another critical skill for long-term sobriety.

In addition to these incredible benefits, spending time outdoors helps combat boredom, connect with others, and give your mind a break from the constant tug and pull of cravings.

Types of Ecotherapy

1. Wildnerness Therapy

Wilderness therapy is an intervention therapy primarily targeted at at-risk youth and adolescents. Programs like Outward Bound aim to combine outdoor, collaborative activities with counseling to help participants learn skills to navigate challenges and gain self-confidence. They design outdoor activities that mimic challenges they face in everyday life. They also learn how to set healthy boundaries and overcome maladaptive behavioral habits.

2. Adventure-Based Therapy

Adventure therapy is a type of mental health therapy that combines nature, community, and daring outdoor activities. It is a highly experiential therapy that involves wildness exhibitions and other recreational activities that test participants’ limits and teach them how to work together to overcome challenges. These programs are designed to help participants work collaboratively, connect spiritually to nature and themselves, and connect outdoor activities with their own life experiences.

Common adventure-based therapy activities include:

  • Kayaking
  • Rock climbing
  • Cave exploring
  • Camping
  • Snow camping
  • Canoeing
  • White water rafting

This is a common type of ecotherapy used to treat PTSD, mental health struggles, and addiction.

3. Horticultural Therapy

Horticultural therapy is a type of therapy that involves working with plants and other natural materials. It’s been shown to help improve mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Horticultural Therapy can involve anything from planting flowers together, creating bouqets, picking fruit, or community gardening. Proponents say horticultural therapy helps them feel calm and relaxed because they are spending time outdoors while doing something they enjoy.

It’s also used in physical therapy to help participants strengthen muscles and improve coordination, balance, and endurance.

horticultural therapy

4. Animal-Assisted Therapy (Pet Therapy)

Animal-assisted interventions use dogs or other animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems, both physical and mental. An example would be a hospital offering animal-assisted therapy to patients in a cancer ward. A handler comes in with a dog and patients are able to interact with the animal and pet it for 10-15 minutes.

The results? Patients report feeling more relaxed and optimistic.

This type of therapy relies on something called the human-animal bond which is people’s innate desire to interact with animals. Forming bonds with animals can help improve mental health, promote a greater sense of calm, and reduce stress and anxiety. Animal-assisted therapy can also alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness.

5. Green Exercise

Green exercise is another type of ecotherapy that is exactly what it sounds like: exercising in a green environment. It combines the numerous benefits of physical activity with all the benefits of spending time outdoors. Examples of green exercise include:

  • Riding a bicycle
  • Going for a run
  • Doing yard work or gardening
  • Kayaking
  • Hiking
  • Going for walks
  • Horse riding

How to Get Started with Ecotherapy

There are DIY nature therapy strategies you can apply as well as programs and sessions you can do with a mental health professional trained in nature-based approaches who can provide you with a structured activity designed with your specific needs in mind. Here are some things you can try at home.

1. Nature Meditations

Nature meditations combine the healing benefits of meditation with the great outdoors. There are a few ways you can practice nature meditations on your own.You can sit outside and do basic breathing meditations. You can try a walking meditation through your yard or park. Take time to be still and focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. You’re using mindfulness to connect with nature.

2. Nature Arts and Crafts

There are a couple of ways you can approach this technique. One way is to engage in arts and crafts activities that take you outside. Examples include painting projects, woodworking, sculpting, or pottery. You can even take hobbies you might normally do indoors and bring them outside like knitting or writing in the garden instead of your house. You might also enjoy building things for your backyard like bird feeders or fun decorations for your garden. Some people also enjoy using nature as part of their artwork. Nature art involves collecting various pieces from nature to use in a craft.

You don’t have to figure this out on your own.

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3. Plan Nature-Based Field Trips

You can do this alone or with a group. Take a trip to a local park or nature preserve. Visit the botanical gardens or zoo. Another great idea is heading to a “you pick” farm and picking fruits and vegetables to take home. This activity gives you the added benefit of improving your diet.

The point is to be intentional about how you spend your time and making an effort to incorporate nature into your activities.

4. Join Outdoor Groups

Search for groups that exercise outside like running, walking, or cycling groups. It’s a great way to make new friends, get outside, and get some exercise. Additionally, you can find things like urban foraging groups or search for outdoor adventure Meet Ups.

5. Start a garden.

If you have a yard, try starting a small garden. If you’re an apartment dweller, you can try balcony or windowsill gardens as well. The objective here is two-fold: spending time in nature AND getting your hands dirty.

Studies have shown that digging in the dirt can make you happy. When you dig, microbes in the soil are released. Inhaling these microbes stimulates serotonin production, the happy chemicals in our brains. It’s one of the numerous benefits of gardening you can enjoy. 

Final thoughts on ecotherapy

Ecotherapy is a cost-effective way to connect with nature while improving your mental and physical wellbeing. We live in a tech-obsessed world. Much of our lives are co-opted by screens with detrimental effects on our health and quality of life. Ecotherapy is the perfect antidote to our modern way of life. That’s why it is becoming increasingly popular in various therapies. But you don’t need a medical professional to practice nature-based therapies. You just need to get outside.

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