I have been an avid traveller for a long time. Travelling can be very dynamic, ranging from city lights to amusement parks to monuments to religious places. I have enjoyed all of them to the core. However, the most appealing has always been associated with nature. It has been the most rewarding and refreshing: going to nature camps, nature walks, staying in nature resorts.
It is primarily because being in nature kind of replenishes the soul. I tend to feel most connected with myself when I am in connection with nature. It makes me feel a sense of belonging, calm and complete. I feel free, like I can “just be.”
It’s because of this love for nature that I became interested in the field of ecotherapy.
Ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy or green therapy, is the applied practice of the emergent field of ecopsychology, which was developed by Theodore Roszak. Ecotherapy, in many cases, stems from the belief that people are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not isolated or separate from our environment. Ecopsychology is informed by systems theory and provides individuals with an opportunity to explore their relationship with nature—an area that may be overlooked in many other types of psychotherapy. While some professionals teach and practice ecopsychology exclusively, other mental health practitioners incorporate aspects of ecotherapy into their existing practices.
Connection with earth: the core of ecotherapy
Connection with the earth and its systems are at the core of ecotherapy. Many clinicians who practice ecotherapy believe that the earth has a self-righting capacity which operates through the complex systems of integrated balance, and that if people can harmonize with these systems, they may experience improved mental health. Personal well-being and planetary well-being, as proposed in many tenets of ecotherapy, are not separate from each other. People’s lives are therefore seen as part of a greater system of interaction.
What is ecotherapy?
Do you love hiking, backpacking, gardening or taking walks in beautiful places? If so, you know how these help you relax, recharge and gain a broader perspective on life. You’ve felt the magic and inspiration from nature awakening all your senses and filling you with awe. The 25-year-old field of ecotherapy explores how our relationship with nature is an essential and therapeutic part of our humanity.
Ecotherapy affirms that to be truly healthy and whole, we need to live with the conscious awareness that we are connected with all of life: water, land, air, and creatures. Ecotherapy has ancient roots in indigenous people’s knowledge of the healing powers of nature and practices of honouring the Earth. Its modern roots are in the interface of ecology, environmental activism, and psychology, to name a few.
Understanding ecotherapy further
Eco-therapy is influenced partly by psychodynamic object relations theory, social systems theory, and the psychology of religion. Object relations theory tries to explain the way we relate to others. Social systems theory helps us to understand how we function not only in human systems but also within the greater multi-species systems. And the psychology of religion helps us understand how humans exist within the context of nature phenomena.
To build on this last perspective, in its exploration of how Homo sapiens bond with nature, ecotherapy is interested in the examples provided by a wide variety of ancient and contemporary native cultures. Thus we can look at ecotherapy as a way of returning to our roots—the way our ancestors acted for thousands of years.
Ecotherapy is a great fit if you:
~ Are going through a major transition and need some grounding and clarity
~ Are overwhelmed at work or home and want rejuvenation, calm and peace
~ Enjoy clearing your mind and finding solutions to your problems outdoors
~ Have always felt a sacredness in the natural world
~ Want to honour a rite of passage (marriage, birth, retirement or relationship ending)
~ Know that being in nature is healing and want more of it
~ Would like to spend more time outside, but don’t quite know how to do that
~ Feel uncomfortable about going outside alone, and would like this to change
~ Want to heal from a traumatic outdoor experience
Contact with nature
Our species has spent many millennia in relationships with the natural environment, but have only lived in urban ones for a few hundred years. We apparently have adapted well to urban living, and we all derive benefit from our much improved standards of life today, with its modern amenities and its almost unlimited possibilities. But, though protecting ourselves from nature and the elements and arranging ourselves in concrete jungles may be practical, and for many of us even desirable, it does not come without a cost.
While the costs are still being catalogued, we clearly know that we love to get out into nature. What we are coming to know only lately is just how beneficial that contact is, and in how many ways. There is plenty of evidence to show that regular contact with the natural environment enhances both physical health and mental wellbeing. The consistent message from intuitive good-sense and the research is that contact with green space improves psychological health and mental wellbeing. It reduces stress and improves mood. It provides a restorative environment for people to relax, unwind, and recharge their batteries. In walking groups and other outdoor activities, connection with nature facilitates social contact and brings people together.
And something deeper is going on too. Any kind of contact with the natural world seems to help, from digging the allocated areas, to weeding waste ground in city centres, to contact with animals. In India, informal groups are springing up, with volunteers clearing the countryside, restoring canals and the like, and flash mobs descending on city waste ground to provide natural enclaves amid urban chaos.
Ways to engage with the natural world:
- Work in nature: take up gardening, farming, or a conservation project
- Experience nature: go for a walk, go camping, cycle through green spaces, swim in the sea—it is all about immersing yourself in nature!
- Spend time with animals: create habitats for birds and wildlife, go birdwatching and animal spotting, but remember to never disturb them in their natural habitat
Nature heals us like nothing else
Ecotherapy offers simple yet powerful techniques that can easily fit into your daily routine to help lift your mood and boost your energy. Receiving an outdoor ecotherapy session in a beautiful setting helps you access a calm, well-resourced state of being, which can allow for deeper healing than indoor psychotherapy.
Many of us don’t have safe places to explore and express strong or vulnerable feelings, and they remain bottled up inside. Connecting with the wildness of nature helps us in experiencing our primal and authentic self, clarify what we most value, and gain the strength to speak from this truth.
Outdoor ecotherapy sessions offer a wider range of possibilities for embodying and expressing yourself. Imagine crying into the soft Earth and letting it hold your tears, or throwing a pinecone with all your might to release your anger. In nature, there are also countless opportunities for self-care. You can be held by the solidness of a strong tree trunk, or feel the joy in your body watching autumn leaves flutter to the ground.
The impact of ecotherapy is subjective and multidimensional, but it may:
- lift depression
- release stress and anxiety
- stimulate the senses
- improve sleep
- reduce pain
- diminish mental fatigue
- counter isolation
- lessen eating disorder symptoms
- strengthen the immune system
- enhance mental and physical recuperation from surgery
- lessen post-traumatic stress
Ecotherapy reduces overwhelm
Modern life is very hectic, and many of us feel completely overwhelmed. This can make us feel self-critical, ineffective, and hopeless about ever being able to change our situation. Mindfully connecting with nature, even in the midst of a city, is one of the best ways to reduce stress and overwhelm and dramatically shift your mental and emotional state. Even just a few minutes can help you feel calmer and more spacious, and allow you to return to your tasks with more focus and even creativity.
Ecotherapy takes advantage of the calming and balancing benefits of the human-nature relationship. From lowering blood pressure and pulse, to slowing our breathing and giving us increased mental clarity, it has been shown that the sounds and rhythms of the natural world are calming.
Water flowing in streams or birds chirping seems to naturally alleviate human stress and anxiety. When in nature, mindfully focusing our awareness on the experience of the natural world around us is the best way to access these therapeutic benefits.
Being physically active causes our body to release endorphins, which are the feel-good chemicals or “happy hormones” in our brains. People who run are already familiar with the “runner’s high.”
Ecotherapy to cope with stresses of life
Looking at the present state of the world, it is quite obvious that we are far removed from our original hunter-gatherer existence and have become increasingly alienated from the world of nature. The onset of the Cyber Age has added to this sense of alienation. The situation has worsened with the increasing urbanisation of the population.
But we need to recognise that human well-being and ecological well-being are closely intertwined. Increasingly, human action is contributing to our planet’s ecological deterioration. But, by relearning how to care for our natural environment, we can conquer the consequences of eco-stress—the inner deadness and self-alienation from the world.
How ecotherapy can help, in a nutshell:
- Improves physical and mental wellbeing through activities in nature
- Alleviates personal distress
- Immersion in greenery or vast landscapes can reduce depression, delinquency, addiction, etc
- Offers detox from harmful patterns and helps impulse control
- Builds confidence and self-esteem
- Helps you become more aware
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.