There is a reason why many calming exercises, meditation videos, and other self-help techniques involve visualizing nature. Experiencing the great outdoors, either in reality or in our own minds, has therapeutic benefits. Utilizing nature for the purpose of treating human ailments is called ecotherapy.
How Is Ecotherapy Used?
Ecotherapy (also sometimes called green therapy, nature therapy, or Earth-centered therapy) is generally viewed as supplemental to other medical or mental health interventions, not as a total replacement, though its use may allow a person to reduce their dependence on medications in certain cases.
Sometimes, ecotherapy is guided by a practitioner. Other times, an individual may do exercises on their own to help them reconnect to nature in a way they find beneficial. The duration can be mere minutes to multiple days or weeks.
Ecotherapy is both ancient and also relatively new. People have been experiencing the joys of nature since the dawn of time, but efforts to provide scientific legitimacy to the practice as a medical or mental health intervention are more recent.
What Does Ecotherapy Involve?
Ecotherapy can look different when applied to different people. Activities that could be considered ecotherapy include:
- Equine (horse) assisted therapy
- Going for a walk
- Playing outside
- Scenic bike rides
- Meditating outdoors
- Pet therapy
- Growing houseplants
- Visualization exercises that include focusing on outdoor settings in one’s mind
- Visiting a garden or botanical center
- Sitting in a park
- Listening to pre-recorded nature sounds
- Journaling about seasonal changes
- Bird watching
- Visiting the ocean or other bodies of water
- Photographing nature
- Walking barefoot on grass
- Collecting seashells
- Looking at photos or paintings of nature scenes
- Observing clouds or stars
- Traditional therapy sessions conducted in an outdoor setting instead of an office
Benefits of Ecotherapy
While research is still underway to fully understand how ecotherapy works and under what conditions, The Atlantic reports that there are certain facts that make ecotherapy an excellent treatment option:
- Low cost
- Easily accessible
- Beneficial to people of all ages, races, genders, religious backgrounds, etc.
- Can increase mindfulness
- Minimal risk of negative side effects
- Can be combined with other types of interventions
- Shown to reduce anger, fatigue, and sadness
Psychology Today also reports that researchers have found ecotherapy to be just as effective in treating depression as medication, citing a University of Essex study that found 90 percent of participants in a study of depression felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk in a park, and about 75 percent reported feeling less depressed. WebMD cites the same study as finding that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation.
Web MD recommends that people who will be engaging in outdoor activities follow the safety precautions below:
- Go with a friend (or at least tell someone where you are going and when you will be there)
- Be mindful of weather conditions
- Dress for the conditions and terrain
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Take along a bottle of water to avoid dehydration
- Wear sunscreen and insect repellent as needed
Using Technology to Reconnect to Nature
According to the article from The Atlantic, traditional medical and mental health practitioners are seeing the benefits of prescribing nature to their patients. A tool that is being utilized, not just by clinicians, but also wider communities seeking the healing benefits of nature, is a website called ParkRxAmerica.org, which tracks and rates the various health-related attributes of green spaces in different areas around the country. There are 24 California parks currently on the site.
Conditions Ecotherapy Is Used to Treat
NBC News reports that doctors and therapists use ecotherapy to treat a range of medical and mental health conditions. These include:
- Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
- Post-cancer fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Substance use disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Valley Recovery Center promotes a holistic approach to treatment by addressing the various physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of each individual’s life. Due to the temperate year-round climate of our California locations, it is often not difficult for our guests to find ways to get outside to enjoy the benefits of nature. Whenever possible, we support our guests in communing with the beauty and serenity of the outdoors as a way to increase their mindfulness, manage stress, stimulate the brain in resuming the creation of natural feel-good chemicals, and support feelings of gratitude—which are all beneficial for recovery.