What is Ecotherapy? Nature-Based Approaches for Healing - Public Goods Blog

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What is Ecotherapy? Nature-Based Approaches for Healing

Ecotherapy, also known as green therapy or nature therapy, was developed by Theodore Roszak.

woman sitting on bench overlooking mountains during sunset

The practice emerged from the term he coined and he introduced in his 1992 book The Voice of Earth, ecopsychology, which focuses on the human relationship with nature. Ecopsychologists bring together the mind and nature.

Psychotherapist Babita Spinelli defines ecotherapy as nature therapy which incorporates nature-based approaches for healing and individual growth. “Ecotherapy is based on the foundation that people’s mental and physical well-being is impacted positively by the natural environment,” she says. “I believe in the healing power of nature and feel incorporating aspects of nature provides calming healing benefits.”

Those who practice ecotherapy healing with nature in mind believe connecting to the natural environment can renew the soul and in turn reduce stress. Practitioners who lead patients through ecotherapy sessions have found that working with the natural elements cultivates well-being and a sense of calm that heals the mind, body, and spirit.

All of nature is connected and we’re inherently a part of nature. Humans are interwoven with nature just like any other living creature. Therefore, we can have a restorative experience when in a natural setting.

There’s no denying that Earth is a life source. Grounding with Earth is a spiritual experience that also lends itself to being therapeutic. Air is the element that keeps us going. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to live. We can cultivate the expansiveness of air through ecotherapy practices that focus on breathwork.

Water is also incredibly healing and makes up 60 percent of the body. Massive bodies of water give us perspective. Water is also rejuvenating and can help us visualize sweeping away pain. The ocean can help us cultivate a sense of calm which can lead to a meditative state.

Ecotherapy patient and founder of Mental Health Match Ryan Schwartz says the practice “taps into the awe-inspiring and calming powers of nature to accelerate healing, self-understanding, and awareness.” He shared that 27 percent of people who use Mental Health Match to find a therapist request one that can provide talk therapy while connecting with nature.

How Connection to Nature is Key to Healing

heavily wooded forest

Schwartz says ecotherapy has helped him break through the noise in his head and develop a better sense of presence and awareness. “When I go out in the forest, I feel a sense of calm. I get a break from the sensory overload of modern life to reflect and just feel. It’s in that space that I have my biggest insights and understandings.”

Spending time in nature has been proven to alleviate stress which aids in healing. Spinelli has witnessed many results from ecotherapy including a decrease in depression and anxiety, overall calmness and peace, managing anger and anxiety better, and overall healing of loss. “Nature exemplifies that change isn’t always negative and is a wonderful way to gain perspective. Our problems and issues can feel small in the scheme of things. This helps clients with their anxiety and depression,” she says. “Nature is a respite in the continuous activity that takes place in our minds. We’re able to disconnect and breathe. When you’re surrounded by the serenity and calmness of nature, this is also absorbed in the mind and body.”

You can reap these benefits by spending just two hours a week in green spaces which can improve your overall well-being according to a study by the University of Exeter. Spending time in the woods lowers levels of cortisol, a dangerous stress hormone. The impact is even greater when you touch the Earth with your skin such as walking barefoot. A study conducted by Mind, a mental health charity organization, reports that a nature walk reduced symptoms of depression in 71% of participants, compared to only 45% of those who took a walk through a shopping center.”

Immersing ourselves in the natural world can reduce feelings of isolation and benefit those battling with symptoms of PTSD. Furthermore, being in nature appears to help children with ADHD increase their attention span. Ecotherapy is proven to transform physical, emotional, and mental health by reducing blood pressure.

Several countries around the world are allowing doctors to give out “nature prescriptions” to patients. The healing powers of nature are limitless and getting outside more often is harmless. The approach has been particularly popular during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

What are the Different Types of Ecotherapy?

woman meditating overlooking canyon

Ecotherapy practitioners connect nature to mental and physical healing through a range of practices. Here are a few of the different types of ecotherapy.

Forest bathing: Also known as shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is the Japanese practice of being present in a forest and engaging the five senses. “Forest Therapy enables the opportunity to become mindful and present in your body. Look at a river for 15 minutes, silence your brain, heighten your awareness and senses. Those experiences provide the opportunity to increase alpha brain waves which can stimulate creativity and minimize depression,” says Monica Ines Perez-Eguia who is studying to become a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide.

Halotherapy: An alternative treatment that involves breathing dry salty air. Halotherapy is antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. It allows for natural detoxification which can help you breathe easier and deeply relax. The treatments often take place in a pink Himalayan salt room which counterbalances the influx of positive ions from the electronic devices we use daily and can result in improving overall mental and emotional health.

Horticultural therapy: Gardening to reconnect with the Earth is a form of ecotherapy. Gardening at home or in a community garden can help ease stress. However, you don’t have to go outside to experience the benefits of horticultural therapy. Interacting with indoor plants can also reduce stress.

Sit Spot: This grounding exercise guides practitioners to choose a place outdoors in nature to sit for 20 minutes. The idea is to quiet the mind and tune into the surrounding sounds, sights, smells. During Sit Spot you can touch natural items around you, notice the way the wind feels as it graces your skin, and observe living creatures around you such as birds and bugs. Perez-Eguia practices sit spot three times a week as a part of her ecotherapy practice.

Walk and Talk Therapy: Spinelli’s preferred way to incorporate ecotherapy into her practice is Walk and Talk Therapy. During the ecotherapy session, she walks with clients in a park, a neighborhood lined with trees, a beach, or a path surrounding a lake in a similar method to traditional Talk Therapy.

How Can You Incorporate Nature-Based Therapy into Your Life to Transform your Physical, Emotional, and Mental Health?

people sitting outside in a city park

Ecotherapist advocate for making nature a routine part of life. Through ecotherapy sessions with a practitioner or by creating your own rituals you can incorporate nature-based therapy into your daily life. “Nature is a calming force to balance the chaos that takes place in our lives and within our internal states of mind,” Spinelli says. “Nature also encourages inner reflection and quiets the mind.”

Psychologist Dr. Nekeshia Hammond advocates that nature is a tool for positive mental health as it can “soothe overwhelming thoughts and reduce distress.” She notes that nature comes in many forms and there there are many free ways to spend time in nature but that the most important thing is “spending time outdoors in the way the individual best enjoys.”

Dr. Hammond recommends watching sunrises or sunsets, taking a stroll on the beach, visiting a park, hiking a trail, going to a botanical garden, and kayaking. Self ecotherapy can be utilized throughout the day by stepping outside and breathing the fresh air to start your day or opting to walk rather than drive.

Practice short activities that can stimulate your senses in nature such as walking barefoot in grass, mud, or sand. Take a break from your workday for five minutes to listen to the rainfall or birds chirp. Don’t knock tree-hugging or taking a nap outside—both can be effective ecotherapy methods.

At least once a week, make time to go on a mindful walk. Stroll slowly and appreciate your natural surroundings as you feel the elements on your skin. Take a few deep breaths in front of a beautiful tree, watch how the branches sway in the wind, and listen to the sounds the leaves make as they’re rustled.

If you can’t get outside, try playing music with nature sounds at home or watching nature videos during your ecotherapy practice. Perez-Eguia also recommends touching your house plants. “Touching a leaf and looking at its colors and patterns provides seconds of relief and supports your microbiome,“ she says.

Incorporate Nature-Based Products into your Body, Beauty, and Food Regimens

To further strengthen your connection to nature and live in harmony with the Earth opt to use nature-based items in your diet, hygiene, and beauty routines. You can do your part to protect the environment that provides so much for us by following a vegan diet and avoiding beauty and home products loaded with harsh chemicals. You’ll improve your health and the health of the planet by consuming fewer toxins.

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