How Ecotherapy can improve our Mental Health

Ecotherapy

What is Ecotherapy?

Ecotherapy (Green Therapy/Nature Therapy) is a method for increasing contact with our environment and the natural world. It is a name given to treatment programs which help improve wellbeing via activities incorporating exposure to nature. Some projects may not be advertised specifically as ecotherapy programs, but benefit can be drawn from any outdoor pursuit. Many of these activities can be untaken at any time, either on your own or as part of a group for added social benefits. For example, one could join a rambling club, gardening society, or a conservation program.

Specific ecotherapy treatments are available for a range of disorders from mild depression to more severe mental illness. They also vary between self-directed ideas to programs with professional support. Treatments may be as simple as taking regular walks in the outdoors, involve guided group activities, or be delivered in combination with formal psychological therapies.

How will I benefit from Ecotherapy?

Research has shown multiple benefits from increased exposure to nature including improvements to mood and reductions in:

  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression

Additional benefits from ecotherapy include:

  • Improved fitness and stamina – wildlife/conservation/gardening projects
  • Improved social life – group ecotherapy projects
  • Enhanced confidence – learn new skills
  • Increased connection to nature
  • Enhanced respect for the environment

Biophilia

Human beings have always had an affinity with nature. This may have stemmed from the early hunter gatherers’ knowledge of animals and plants which was necessary for survival, or from the later domestication of animals. We have studied nature, had pets and kept house plants for thousands of years. This is evidenced by early artwork and remains found in archaeology. In the past, we were also more closely attuned to seasonal patterns and animal behaviours.

This affection for nature has been termed biophilia. In the modern world it is demonstrated by the city planners remit to include green areas in cities, and the guerilla gardening movement (growing fruit and vegetables on inner city wastelands and unused spaces). Additionally, there are a growing number of garden centres, office receptions filled with houseplants and a thriving outdoor pursuits market.

In their paper questioning whether visual contact with nature impacts on health and wellbeing, Grinde & Patil 1  suggest that most research has focused on the positive effects of our association with nature. They conclude that an environment devoid of nature could have a negative effect on our mental health, as it represents a mismatch with the environment of evolutionary adaptation. This mismatch may be addressed by nature therapy (e.g. urban space therapy, plant therapy). These effects should not be underestimated. In one study, patients in hospital with a view of nature were able to leave hospital quicker and take less pain medication than those with a view of a wall. 2

I can relate to the observations of Grinde & Patil. My office building has dark grey tints on the windows to block out the sunlight (the little we do get in the UK!). The resulting effect is I can go several hours without even noticing it is a beautiful day outside. The outlook is just grey, whatever the weather, and the view from the window is of a typical urban housing estate with little to no greenery. Therefore, by the end of the day at work I am often craving to get outside to feel the sun on my face and experience the natural light. In the past, I worked in an office with no windows to the outside world at all, which was really depressing. In contrast, I have also had the good fortune to work in an old barn conversion with large windows overlooking an expanse of open countryside, where we could watch wildlife and nature from our computer terminals (I often wonder why I left this job!).

We may feel such an affinity to nature because it invokes all our senses, sometimes to extremes. Compare sitting in the same room for hours with a repetitive view to being outside with ever-changing stimuli. Consider how our perception of a particular natural location may change from one day to the next. You might be there on a warm, sunny day with a clear view for miles, no wind or sound and breathing the freshest possible air. Experience it again on a different day during a snow blizzard, freezing temperatures and the wind howling. We can’t help but be invigorated, energised and moved by the beauty and forces of nature.

The physiological effects of ecotherapy

A scientific review of Japanese studies 3 summarises evidence for the physiological effects of ecotherapy. Ecotherapy may be viewed as a set of practices aimed at achieving preventive medical effects through exposure to natural stimuli. Natural stimuli are believed to induce a state of physiological relaxation and boost the immune system to help prevent diseases. Studies have examined the physiological effects of several types of ecotherapy, including:

Shinrin-yoku – Forest Bathing

Shinrin-yoku translates to “taking in the forest atmosphere through all our senses.” Empirical studies have compared a range of physiological functions in individuals visiting forest versus urban environments. These studies indicate that forest therapy can decrease stress hormones, pulse rate and blood pressure. Forest therapy may also aid those with medical conditions. Individuals with diabetes were able to decrease their blood glucose levels after regular forest walking, while those with weakened immune functions were able to boost their NK-cell activity.

Urban Space Therapy

Urban green spaces provide an accessible source of nature. Studies suggest a positive association between exposure to urban green space and the general health of residents. One group of individuals were asked to walk in an urban park and the other group were asked to walk in a street for 15 minutes. Those who had walked in the park demonstrated physiological relaxation effects (e.g. decreases in heart rate, inhibition of sympathetic nervous activity). These effects were found in spring, autumn and winter.

Plant Therapy

Studies have demonstrated the physiological relaxation effects of exposure to the visual stimulus of fresh flowers, which rendered a state of relaxation (increased parasympathetic activity) and alleviated stress (decreased sympathetic activity). Similar effects were found for home and office plants, and for olfactory stimulation.

Wooden Material Therapy

Wood is often perceived as a material with relaxing properties. Living rooms containing a high proportion of wood have visually calming physiological effects. Wood odours, such as Japanese cedar, render a calming effect via olfactory stimulation.

Nature Deficit Disorder

In his book “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv states that staying indoors may have several negative effects, especially for children. These include: behavioural issues, depression, lack of respect for the environment, and obesity. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthly childhood development, and also for the physical and emotional health of adults. 4 

The growing trend for this lack of exposure to nature may be caused by the lure of technology, parental safety fears and a loss of natural spaces near urban areas. There is currently a lack of research in this area. By giving the consequences of this modern phenomenon the label of Nature Deficit Disorder, Louv has invited important dialogue on the topic.

How to avoid Nature Deficit Disorder with Ecotherapy

The obvious solution to nature deficit disorder is prevention, i.e. we need to get outside as often as possible. For those who lead busy lives, a lunchtime walk in the park, setting up a vegetable garden or allotment can all help fill in the gaps between larger periods of exposure like hiking or even Forest bathing at weekends. The key is regular exposure to the natural world.

If you are not able to get outside and experience nature as much as you would like there are multiple things you can do to bring nature to you such as:

Using indoor plants for Ecotherapy

Keeping plants indoors is a good way to bring the outdoors in. Whether it’s in the home or office the visual stimuli, purification of the air and odour absorption can all have a positive effect.

An interesting study by Lee et al. 5 concluded that interaction with indoor plants could reduce physiological and psychological stress compared with carrying out more mentally taxing work. Their experiment involved group of people carrying out two tasks, one a computer task and the other transplanting a house plant.

As well as plants you can grow herbs and small vegetables for the kitchen. Some people even grow tomatoes in the conservatory, giving a ready supply of organic food.

Use living walls to enhance Mental Wellness

Taking indoor planting to a new level, if you do not have much space for a garden, then a living wall allows you to grow a variety of plants and vegetables in a small garden space or even indoors. They are becoming increasingly popular in larger corporate offices and inner-city apartment blocks, where people often only have a balcony for an outdoor space.

Larger installations are not cheap as they include automatic watering and lightweight materials but if you have the space you can buy a range of suitable plant holders to fit in a display on a vertical wall.

Fill your home with natural materials

Ever noticed how tactile wood, wool carpets and natural stone products are compared to concrete, plasterboard and lino? Furnishing your home with warm natural materials will also enhance your mental wellbeing. Studies have shown that people find natural materials warmer and more relaxing than other building products 6. Other studies concluded that pupils studying in rooms decorated with natural materials were calmer and had lower blood pressure.

Consider bringing more natural materials into your home and how the layout of your possessions can enhance energy flow in the home (read Hygge and Feng Shui)

Pets and Animals

Even domesticated animals such as cats and dogs can keep us in touch with nature. Keeping pets has multiple benefits for physical and mental health including:

  • Keeping fit and further exposure to nature – walking the dog or horse riding
  • Companionship
  • Lower stress levels – watching tropical fish or stroking a cat or dog can lower blood pressure
  • Social – good for opening discussions with like-minded animal lovers

Different animals take different levels of responsibility and time to look after. A dog may be quite onerous and the pro’s and cons’ of ownership should be considered carefully. Even a simple pond or fish tank, however, can relax us. We can attest to the de-stressing benefits of having a pond in the garden with a small trickling waterfall and colourful Koi Carp.

For a formal therapy consider Animal Assisted Therapy which focusses on bonding closely with animals and is led by an experienced therapist.

Try Ecotherapy to avoid SAD

Another negative effect of staying indoors is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a form of depression that varies with the seasons and is particularly bad during the darker Winter months. As the name suggests the symptoms maybe more associated to the lack of sunlight, or the effect on our internal body clocks, rather than a lack of exposure to nature itself. However, it may be possible to offset the symptoms by spending more time outdoors (whether its sunny or not!).

Ecotherapy resources:

Centre for ecotherapy – UK: Support for vulnerable people in the local community, aiming to improve and maintain well-­being through the use of nature-based and horticultural therapies, mindfulness and practical activities.

Care Farming – UK: Care farms provide health, social or educational care services for individuals from one or a range of vulnerable groups via the therapeutic use of farming practises.

Animal Assisted Therapy – UK: Providing innovative, caring and supportive life experiences, work opportunities and structured learning programmes for people who would benefit from the therapeutic effects of working with animals, horticulture and the environment.

How to become an Ecotherapist

Whilst it is a relatively new field, there are several training programs for those wishing to qualify as an ecotherapist including online courses, diplomas and university degrees:

Online ecotherapy training: The Earth Body Institute

Prescott College – Arizona USA: The five-course concentration in Ecotherapy integrates perspectives from the following various ecological areas as an approach to practicing counseling:

References & Further Reading:

1 Grinde, B & Patil, G.G. (2009). Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6, (9): 2332–2343.

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.

3 Song et al. (2016) Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 13 (8): 781

4 Louv, R. (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books:

5 Lee et al. (2015). Interaction with indoor plants may reduce psychological and physiological stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in young adults: a randomized crossover study. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 34,1: 21

6 Rice et al. (2006) Appearance wood products and psychological well-being. Wood Fiber Science 38(4):644-659.

Further Advice on Ecotherapy:

Mind Website

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