Ecotherapy could be a key part of tackling mental ill health (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)
Have you ever walked through a forest and instantly felt at peace?
There’s a scientific reason for this – there’s a load of evidence that suggests ecotherapy has big benefits for your mental health, and psychologists are now incorporating nature-based sessions into their practices.
If you haven’t heard of it, ecotherapy is the umbrella term for structured, nature-based activities to boost mental health and wellbeing. These could include community gardening or farming, guided walks, wilderness retreats and even animal assisted therapy.
Ecotherapy might also be referred to as things like green exercise, green care and green therapy, depending on who you speak to.
Psychotherapist and college educator Dr Patricia Hasbach is a pioneer in the field of ecotherapy and she’s just penned new book Grounded, which is an interactive journal full of prompts and activities designed to deepen your connection with nature.
‘Many activities that involve interactions between humans and nature are referred to as ecotherapy,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But from my perspective as a clinician, ecotherapy involves a patient, a therapist or facilitator, and the natural world.
‘There is an intention involved for bringing nature into the therapeutic process that is unique for each client or for their particular presenting issue.
‘Sometimes a session is held outdoors and might involve “walk and talk” therapy, sometimes a therapist holds sessions in a specific location, such as a garden, which is abundant with nature.
‘Other times ecotherapy involves writing a nature prescription – a homework assignment to do between sessions that includes interacting with the natural world.
There’s power in reconnecting with nature (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)
‘All forms of ecotherapy are grounded in the theories of ecopsychology, which has the core assumption that our inner and outer worlds are intimately connected.’
While the origins of ecotherapy aren’t confirmed, Dr Hasbach refences some of the writings of early practitioners of psychology such as Freud, Jung, and William James, who all refer to incorporating nature into their work with patients.
And, while some people might still be sceptical about nature’s abilities to treat things like depression, anxiety and fear, she states that strong data now supports the concept.
‘There is a robust body of literature that supports the assertion that interaction with nature is good for our mental health and fosters wellbeing,’ she notes. ‘We have qualitative data and empirical data that supports what we know intuitively.
‘Studies show that time spent in nature lowers stress, reduces ruminations (negative thoughts often associated with depression), and lessens anxiety.
‘Contact with nature is also shown to heighten creativity, produce states of calm, and can impact pro-social and pro-environmental behaviours.’
According to Dr Hasbach, there are three main theories that form the foundations of ecotherapy.
‘The biophilia hypothesis, posited by the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, which states that humans have an innate need to connect with nature and other living beings,’ she notes. ‘As a species, humans evolved embedded within the natural world. We are nature.
‘Then there’s Attention Restoration Theory, introduced by Kaplan and Kaplan, which recognises that humans get fatigued by constant directed attention, such as focusing on a computer screen. ART says that interactions with nature such as watching clouds float by overhead or listening to the rustling of leaves helps to foster soft fascination, which eases our directed attention.
Get out and about (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)
‘And finally, Stress Reduction Theory recognises that being in nature helps us slow our pace and be more mindful of our sensory surroundings.’
It is estimated that one in six people experience mental health problems each week and mental ill-health is one of the most common causes of disease worldwide, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
Mental health charity Mind provides information about different types of treatment for mental health problems including ecotherapy, so people can make informed choices about what would help them best.
‘Ecotherapy is a formal type of therapeutic treatment that is usually led by trained professionals,’ explains Jess D’Cruz, Information Content Manager at Mind. ‘It involves varying amounts of physical activity, depending on the type of programme and can include activities such as working or spending time with others in nature and gardening or growing food.
The importance of a therapist when it comes to ecotherapy
The key thing to remember with ecotherapy is that it needs a professional to facilitate the session.
Green Exercise trailblazer Dr Carly Wood, from the School of Sport, Rehabilitation and Exercise Sciences at University of Essex, says that the role of the therapist is often overlooked, but that they are vital to the treatment and results of the practice of ecotherapy.
She tells us: ‘A therapist is the key to facilitating the clients’ interactions with both the natural and social environment and setting clinical aims for the session.
‘Examples of ecotherapy activities might include gardening, farming, woodland walks, and nature art and crafts and like the client, the therapist actively takes part in the ecotherapy session – in fact, it’s often difficult to distinguish between the client and therapist.
‘The therapist is also there to ensure that each of the sessions has a defined purpose. For example, in the case of an ecotherapy gardening project, the aim might be to develop a community garden.
‘In recreation activities the specific environment, types and frequency of social interaction and purpose of the chosen activity are all driven by the participant.’
‘Some ecotherapy programmes involve building therapeutic relationships with animals, by feeding or petting them and some involve more adventurous physical activities with a group, such as rafting, rock climbing or hiking – there are lots of options to suit your interests.’
Jess agrees that the research shows ecotherapy can help with mild to moderate depression, and, while this might be down to the physical activity aspect during sessions, it’s also partly to do with the social contact.
‘Regular physical activity can help improve sleep and mood and reduce stress and anxiety however, many of us living with mental health problems can feel lonely at times and many ecotherapy programmes include social activities, such as cooking and sharing meals together,’ she notes. ‘This can help you meet and get to know new people and connect to your local community.
‘Usually, the main focus of ecotherapy is working together on a shared activity, which can feel more comfortable for those of us who might find talking therapies difficult.’
Where to find ecotherapy in the UK
The Centre for Ecotherapy
Located at Stanmer Park, just outside of Brighton, this provides support for vulnerable people in the local community who want to improve their wellbeing through nature-based and horticultural therapies and mindfulness.
The centre houses two large areas of land – an organic allotment garden and an organic wilderness area populated with trees, shrubs and plenty of wildlife.
They offer everything from bespoke sessions, team building days and ecotherapy consultations.
Head to Stanmer Park to find The Centre for Ecotherapy (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Ecotherapist Leona Johnson facilitates various sessions in the woods in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire and also Manchester. She aims to empower you with ancient skills to help you connect with nature through things like wild foraging, wild singing, bushcraft, whittling and green woodworking.
There are also fire quests (five part guided experience, followed by a weekend in nature), retreats and sessions for children.
Armathwaite Hall Hotel and Spa in the Lake District is offering an animal mindfulness and forest bathing package.
Guests will observe and connect mindfully with some of the world’s most endangered species, including red pandas, tapirs, lemurs and gibbons. They will also meet alpacas and giant tortoises, in the two-hour session.
After this, they will soak up nature in a two-hour guided forest bathing session.
Healing in Nature
Eco practitioner Ann Lowe runs sessions across the north west of England and they are open to anyone over the age of 18. Her one-hour appointments involve a walk in a local beauty spot where you will explore your thoughts and concerns in nature.
The area and its surroundings give an opportunity to talk about these issues from a different perspective. For those with reduced mobility, Ann can work in a garden using the same mindful techniques.
Horticultural Therapy UK
This Facebook community group is run by gardener and horticultural teacher Sue Williams, who set it up after lockdown.
Horticultural therapy uses gardening, plants and horticulture to help individuals and the group offers general discussion for those interested in the topic, company for those suffering with mental illness and advice on horticultural therapy.
From September 2022, they are also planning to organise real life sessions as a means to offer solace after things like bereavement and for those dealing with mental health issues.
Grounded: A Guided Journal to Help You Reconnect with the Power of Nature and Yourself by Dr Patricia Hasbach is out now.
To chat about mental health in an open, non-judgmental space, join our Mentally Yours Facebook group.
Follow us on Twitter at @MentallyYrs.