Ecotherapy is an umbrella term for loosely structured activities that focus on connecting with nature as a therapeutic approach to healing.
It is based on systems theory, a holistic study that views individuals and groups as its own ecosystem, and each aspect of that group affects one another.
Also known as green exercise, nature therapy, green therapy and horticultural therapy, there is a growing body of research that suggests both ecotherapy and ecotherapy combined with more traditional forms of talking therapy, can have a significant impact on improving emotional well-being, and reduce many symptoms of common mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD.
What is ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy is a type of therapeutic treatment that exists on the belief that we are all intrinsically connected to the earth and natural world, and that our subconscious minds aren’t a separate entity from our environment. From this, we can access balance and calm from the connection with nature. Nurturing that connection can be highly beneficial for our mental health.
Ecotherapy means ‘restoring wellbeing through contact with nature’.
- Counsellor Virginia Sherborne
“From the feeling of awe that comes with gazing at an amazing sunset, to the tired happiness we see in children at the end of a long day’s play on the beach, to the sense that mulling over a problem while taking a walk can be helpful: these are examples of the beneficial effects of nature,” says Virginia.
Ecotherapy encompasses a wide range of treatments that focus on doing gentle physical activities in nature, placing the relationship between nature and the individual having therapy, at the heart of the treatment.
Generally, ecotherapy consists of the following structures:
- The focus is on the activity, rather than an individual’s health or condition.
- The activities are led by trained professionals (often professional therapists or counsellors).
- One of the main focuses is appreciating and interacting with the natural world.
- The activities encourage social engagement, spending time with other like-minded individuals (if you wish and this is at your own pace).
- The activities take place in a green space such as a local park or wildlife conservation.
It is the belief of many practising ecotherapists that the earth has restorative balance capabilities, and connecting with the natural world can enhance balance in the human mind, and thus recovery from mental illness.
Ecotherapy can be broken down into a number of different programmes, the following are some of the most common:
Particularly helpful for people struggling with stress, burnout and substance abuse, horticultural therapy uses the act of gardening to promote emotional well-being. This includes, weeding, planting seedlings, repotting plants, growing produce and mowing the lawn. Some local farms also offer basic farming skills programmes such as tending to crops or caring for animals.
This involves participants doing physical activities in green spaces. This could be using outdoor gyms, getting together for a bike ride or going on a walk in a group setting.
Also known as ‘green gyms’, conservation therapy combines physical exercise with local conservation projects in natural settings. For example, working on and protecting ancient woodland or at risk of extinction wildlife habitats.
Although it sounds slightly sinister, it simply refers to activities in nature that take place at night, in particular, stargazing.
Learn more about ‘mindful stargazing’ and how it can be effective in calming anxiety.
Wilderness or adventure therapy
This typically involves taking part in activities that allow participants to become at one with nature, fully immersing themselves in the natural space, within a group setting. This could include camping, hiking, building natural shelters or rock climbing. This approach can be particularly beneficial for young adults as it teaches them coping mechanisms and therapeutic skills.
A connection with an animal can, for some, create a deep sense of trust and inner peace. The animal-assisted therapy programme specifically focuses on building therapeutic relationships with animals in natural settings such as dogs, or horses in equine therapy, to aid the healing process.
Walk and talk
The most traditional form of ‘therapy’ as most would know it, walk and talk therapy involves taking traditional counselling sessions to outdoor settings and including nature in the therapeutic process. This could be in local gardens, or walking along the coast and can be particularly effective in using the weather to aid expression in a counselling setting: the weather can provide metaphorical descriptions of problems that an individual might struggle to detail.
Ecotherapy programmes can be undertaken on their own, or you might do them as part of a wider treatment programme. This could include medications, talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy, play therapy (for younger children) or music therapy.
How can ecotherapy support mental health?
Counsellor Dale Marshall says that it’s not only revisiting the connection to nature that can alleviate some mental strain, but the lack of connection could have been detrimental to our mental health in the first place. Closing that gap is paramount.
“Over time, particularly in the western civilisation, we have become increasingly alienated from the natural world; we have come to see nature as something "out there", and ourselves as separate and different from the natural world.
“Ecopsychologists and ecotherapists suggest that this alienation and separation has significantly impacted on our emotional well-being and our behaviour towards our environment.”
With a growing body of research that supports ecotherapy as a successful therapeutic intervention to promote long-term positive emotional well-being - plus the 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic that significantly changed our perspectives on the respect we place on nature - ecotherapy is a credible therapy emerging in the treatment of poor mental health.
A 2007 study by leading mental health charity Mind revealed that 71% of participants reported decreased levels of depression after a green walk, 90% felt their self-esteem increased and 71% said they felt less tense. Research also suggests that when exposed to stress, the sounds of nature can have a calming effect far quicker than city sounds.
A 2019 study also found that prescribing gardening as part of treatment for patients in psychiatric hospitals can improve mood and anxiety levels, as well as the patients' understanding of mental health.
Ecotherapy is also thought to support:
- children with behaviour conditions such as ADHD
- decreased stress levels
- decreased chronic pain levels
It is the sense of being connected, even part of the natural ecosystem that can restore balance in the mind and promote inner healing for mental health conditions.
Benefits of ecotherapy
Ecotherapy is based on a holistic approach to healing, so whilst research shows us how beneficial it can be for the mind, other aspects benefit whole-body health and contribute to overall well-being.
Participants in a Mind-led gardening project reported wanting to eat more healthily after growing their own produce, and as Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant says, there is a whole raft of other benefits, such as sunlight which can affect your serotonin, circadian rhythms, and vitamin D production.
“Outdoor activity gets our blood flowing, improves our cardiovascular system, and helps us benefit from the neurological processes of exercising.
“It [ecotherapy] awakens our senses and fills us with the clarity that we need in the busy modern world. We often feel more grateful when we are in the full sensory experience of nature, and we connect with the idea of being part of something much larger when we stand beside a great oak.”
Let’s look at some of these benefits in more depth.
For individuals struggling with loneliness, ecotherapy can be helpful in restoring that connection to other people as, for the most part, it takes place in group settings. It can induce feelings of community solidarity and reduce feelings of social isolation and low self-esteem.
Motivation to exercise
When you’re struggling with your mental health, often exercise can be the last thing you want to do. Exercise itself can seem daunting. But the green exercise programme in ecotherapy provides a gentle approach to moving your body in a fun and collaborative way. The therapist will participate fully in the activity, ensuring your goals are met within a realistic and achievable set-up.
A sense of pride and purpose
Working on a collective goal and seeing the fruits of your labour invokes a sense of pride and purpose. Some people struggle to identify their purpose in life and having a project where others depend on your participation and enjoy your company reinforces that sense of purpose.
Spending time in nature is a complete sensory experience. The natural world has the ability to place you right in the middle of the here and now, and this can be really beneficial for people who struggle with anxiety and spiralling negative thought cycles.
Tuning in to the calming sounds of nature can detach you from everyday life and give you time to focus on what is right in front of you, instead of what could or has happened.
How to find an ecotherapist
Whilst ecotherapy may still be an emerging field in therapy, there are plenty of therapists who offer this approach and to reap the full benefits of the practice, it’s always best to work with a therapist on one of the programmes mentioned above.
Therapy can be a combined approach between nature-based exercises and more traditional talking methods, so if you’ve found a counsellor you are keen to work with it’s always worth mentioning you’re interested in ecotherapy.
If you’re ready to find a therapist, use our advanced search tool and type 'ecotherapy' into the keyword section. Browse through the profiles and once you have found a professional that resonates with you, send them an email directly from their profile.
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