Ecotherapy is pretty much what it sounds like. It consists of exercises, both mental and physical, that are designed to incorporate nature. The end goal is to improve your mental health, just like regular therapy. The benefits of being in the natural environment, even when you have limited contact with it, are summed up easily by E. O. Wilson. He claimed humans are biophiles, meaning we have an innate love of nature and the natural world because it’s where we grew up as a species, and what we evolved in.
Here are five ways to get back to nature and improve your mental health.
1. Animal Assistance
Using animals for therapy has been around for a long time, and there are a lot of different ways to do it. Sometimes it’s not even really therapy so much as a confidence boost. There are library programs where young children are asked to read aloud to dogs because it gives them confidence and an opportunity to practice without judgment. That’s just one example.
The studies that have been done, when conducted with people who already help an affinity for animals, found they showed promise — and it’s not limited to dogs. Positive results have been found with everything from guinea pigs to dolphins. They’ve helped people with disorders like depression, anxiety, drug addiction and even schizophrenia. Harcum College, Pet Partners and the Animal Behavior Institute all work to connect people with therapy animals.
2. Nature Meditation
The benefits of meditation are well documented. On its own, it can reduce stress, improve mental cognition and flexibility, and improve sleep. In some people, it can be as effective as medication for depression and anxiety. Some studies have also found that a connection to nature is correlated to feeling happier and more content. The more access to nature someone has, the better they feel.
Combine that with meditation, and you find the effects are enhanced. In a combination study, some people meditated, some meditated in nature and some didn’t meditate at all. Meditating in nature, specifically, helps promote our natural environment as the primary focus. The Eco Institute and Yoga Journal both have great information on the practice.
3. Wilderness Therapy
This kind of therapy is similar to camping. In fact, it can just be camping, but it’s helpful when done in a group with a focus on trust-building exercises and a lack of exposure to technology. By putting a stop to the constant stream of technology, you can give your brain a chance to do a factory reboot. Exposing yourself to nature, natural light patterns, and focusing on nature and socialization can drastically alter your mindset.
It’s referred to as the three-day effect, meaning it takes about three days for your brain to rest enough to function optimally. Going with a group and a trained leader can make a significant difference in how well it works. For more information, check out Open Sky Wilderness for individual and group therapy in the wild.
4. Social and Therapeutic Horticulture
If you’ve ever joined a community garden, you know how beneficial that can be. It’s great to get the free food, of course, but there’s something cleansing about going out and putting your hands straight into the dirt. Horticulture helps improve memory, cognition, language skills and socialization. It can help people relearn how to do things they used to know, and it’s used as part of both mental and physical therapy.
The American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) is a good place to find regional groups. There are groups all over the United States.
5. Green Gyms
Physical exercise, similar to meditation, can help regulate anxiety and depression. Of course, it’s much harder to get yourself going if you already have those issues. A good way to jump start it is to give yourself another focus. In this case, green gyms can do double duty. They are a way to combine physical training with conservation efforts. It provides you with many things traditional exercise lacks. In this case, you get socialization, but also satisfaction because the work you did is visible. You get healthier, lower your stress levels and are better able to cope with whatever life throws at you.
The Conservation Volunteers is a group dedicated to exercise while working toward conservation, but many, many groups put conservation first. If you’re looking for a workout, everything from your local gardening club to Earth Day celebrations can fit the bill.
These ecotherapy practices aren’t likely to be the first thing that’s recommended, but they are becoming more common, especially ones that have been around for a while like animal-assisted therapy. Even if you can’t find a group dedicated to ecotherapy near you, you can still do things on your own.
If you need help with mental illness, always talk to a therapist. Most of them will support your ideas to garden, get a dog or go camping!
Have you ever tried any of these activities to help strengthen your mental health? Feel free to share your stories of what worked or didn’t really work.