Embracing the Healing Potential of Natural Darkness in Ecotherapy

This study explored the profound impacts of ecotherapy using natural darkness on mental well-being and connection to the environment for participants of overnight recollective practices.


As part of a special issue of the peer-reviewed journal Ecopsychology on defining ecotherapy and its use to address mental health issues, researchers from British Columbia, led by Sean Frey, published qualitative research that explored the healing experiences participants had in natural darkness (ND) as part of the overnight recollective practices they engaged in.

Light pollution can be understood as a symptom and consequence of many modern societies’ preference for nighttime light, leading to the night being a less restful natural cycle. It has gained attention because of its adverse effects on non-human animals and plants. These include altering migration patterns and affecting feeding, foraging, hunting, hiding, communicating, reproducing, and growing.

While artificial light at night has allowed humans to reduce accidents, prevent crime, and increase productivity, such increases in light pollution, with 80% of the human population being impacted, have correlated with increases in sleep disorders, obesity rates, depressive symptoms, and cancer. The authors discuss some of this in the context of human history and the meaning of nighttime light:

Historian Roger Elkirch attributes the increase in nighttime light to humans’ attempt to reduce the ancient fear of darkness: ‘man’s first necessary evil, our oldest and most haunting terror.’ Elkirch believes this fear evolved from histories of injuries and death caused by crossing difficult terrain at night and nighttime attacks by other humans and animals. Before light offered protection, European towns would employ alternative ways of keeping safe through town watchmen, protective city gates, and linkboys, who helped navigate nocturnal terrain. Nighttime illumination in the Western world has since been diligently used to reduce nocturnal fears.”

Campfire burning near tourist illuminated tent. Night camping in mountains under starry sky and Milky way. Silhouette of big tree and distant hills on background. Tourism, outdoor activity concept

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Javier Rizo
Javier Rizo is a graduate student-trainee in the Clinical Psychology PhD program at UMass Boston. His current area of research is qualitative psychotherapy research, with a primary interest in promoting human rights-based framework in psychiatry through the education and training of mental health clinicians and researchers. Javier is committed to building a social justice psychiatry, working to incorporate humanistic, interdisciplinary and critical perspectives on mental health, with particular interest in the role of healers and common factors models of psychotherapy.