Ecotherapy

Reflexology, hypnotherapy, aromatherapy -all alternative treatments that we have heard of, if not tried.  But there is another type of therapy that you may have dipped your toe into without even realising. 

Ecotherapy aims to improve your health through engaging in outdoor activities in nature. There are a multitude of ways that this can take place, including a walk to the park, a stroll along the seafront, gardening, or even having a little cactus on your windowsill. Ecotherapy often takes place in group therapy settings, led by professionals, but you can reap the benefits outside of formal therapy.

Here are some other examples. True ecotherapy generally involves guidance from a trained therapist, but create your own nature-based wellness practice with these strategies.

  • Spend a day among trees- take a long stroll to fully experience your surroundings, touching trees, the ground, or leaves. Focus on the natural sounds. Forest bathing encourages the mindful use of your five senses as you wander through forests or woods. Maybe take a book to read under a tree, meditate, journal, or draw about your experience.
  • Outdoor meditation and yoga. Yoga and meditation offer well-established benefits, but practised outside, they can offer even more.
  • Try gardening: Mycobacterium vaccae, a type of healthy bacteria found in soil, could help trigger the release of serotonin, a hormone linked to positive moods.  Gardening is ideal for encouraging the use of all your senses to fully experience your garden:  Focus on how the soil feels in your hands. Breathe in the scent of the earth and the growing plants.  Plant seeds that encourage more wildlife.  Berry bushes attract garden birds or flowers help bumblebees. (See the Bumblebee Conservation Trust website).
  • Look for wildlife. If you don’t live near open countryside, try visiting a local park to look for squirrels, fish, insects, ducks and other birds.  Build an animal habitat, for example, build a hedgehog house or mini beast lodge. (See the Hedgehog Street website).
  • Hang a bird feeder outside a window. You could build a small wooden nesting box on a tree or under a windowsill and try birdwatching. (See the RSPB website for more information on feeding, sheltering and watching birds.
  • Visit a local community or city farm. (See the Social Farms & Gardens website for more information.
  • Night-time nature therapy is ideal for night owls. It has been suggested that “dark nature” activities like stargazing could offer similar benefits as some daytime nature therapy, including feelings of calm and relaxation and a greater sense of connection to the natural world.
  • Take your regular activities outside. Read the paper (even work documents if necessary).  Take your lunch outside.  Practice mindfulness as you notice the tastes and textures of what you eat.
  • Swap the gym treadmill for running along park trails.
  • Join a local walking or rambling group. (See the Walking For Health, Let’s Walk Cymru and Ramblers websites for more information.)
  • Follow a woodland trail. (See the Forestry Commission England and Natural Resources Wales (Cyfoeth Naturiol) websites to look for woodland near you.)
  • Go beachcombing. Visit the seaside and search the shoreline.
  • Try geocaching. This involves looking for items in hidden outdoor locations, using a device such as a mobile phone or tablet. (See The National Trust website for more information.)
  • Volunteer for a conservation project. (See The Groundwork, Wildlife Trusts and The Conservation Volunteers websites for suggestions.)
  • Adventure therapy – adventurous physical activities in a group, such as rafting, rock climbing or caving.
  • Nature play is growing in popularity as children’s play spaces are transforming from traditional playgrounds into more nature-based play. Look for children’s play spaces that incorporate more natural elements such as trees, plants and rocks.
  • Animal-assisted therapy. Stroking, playing, feeding or working with animals such as horses, dogs, and birds outdoors can offer another way to manage stress.  Try pet-sitting or dog walking. (Borrow my doggy website offers opportunities to find people in your area who are looking for people to walk their dog).
  • ‘Green Gyms’ combine physical exercise with protecting and caring for natural spaces. Find out more from The Conservation Volunteers (TCV).
  • Green exercise therapy involves doing exercise in green spaces, for example walking, running or cycling. Find out more from Walking for Health.
  • Nature arts and crafts, or doing art in or with nature. This can include creating art in green space, using the environment as inspiration or using natural materials such as wood, grass or clay.
  • Wilderness therapy involves spending time in the wild and doing activities together in a group, for example making shelters and hiking. Find out more from The Wilderness Foundation.

There are also ways to benefit from nature if you cannot get outside by bringing nature inside.

  • Grow plants or flowers on windowsills. (See the Royal Horticultural Society website for tips on planting seeds indoors.)
  • Buy flowers or potted plants for your home or office. Collect natural materials, for example leaves, flowers, feathers, tree bark or seeds – use them to decorate your living space.
  • Arrange a comfortable space to sit, for example by a window where you can look out over a view of trees or the sky.
  • Take part in a nature survey. This might involve counting birds, animals or insects in a particular time and place, or reporting individual sightings of wildlife. (See the Big Garden Birdwatch, Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Big Butterfly Count).
  • Take photos of your favourite places in nature. Use them as backgrounds on a mobile phone or computer screen, or print and put them up on your walls.
  • Listen to natural sounds, like recordings or apps that play birdsong, ocean waves or rainfall.
  • Use glass jars to make mini gardens using plants, soil, stones etc. You could even add seashells, or plastic toys or figurines.  This is a great activity to do with children too.

Many ecotherapy practices can help look after the environment too- giving something back to the area.  By walking to the local shop instead of driving, collecting rubbish, planting trees or composting you will also be addressing any anxiety related to concerns such as environmental damage and so benefit you and the planet.  How about trying plogging? It refers to the practise of litter picking as you jog! (a new term I learnt when writing this article!)

Ecotherapy gives more opportunities for social connection- a lot of outdoor activities involve meeting with other people giving human connection as well as connection with nature.  People who are more socially connected to family, friends, or their community are happier, physically healthier and live longer, with fewer mental health problems than people who are less well connected.

Many ecotherapy practises will increase motivation to get you out and moving- gardening, walking, a park run, games of frisbee in the garden. Exercise can help improve sleep and other aspects of physical health, and at the same time have a positive impact on mental health releasing endorphins, building vitamin D levels on a sunny day, relieving stress and giving your mind something to focus on instead of going over your worries and stressors of everyday life.

Ecotherapy can be easily incorporated in to daily life and it can be inexpensive or even free.  If you want to reap the full benefits of ecotherapy, you could look for an experienced therapist. Ecotherapy is still fairly new, so it may take some searching, but start with an online search for nature therapists or ecotherapists in your area, or try a directory like Psychology Today. Many therapists offer nature-based approaches without listing themselves as ecotherapists.

For more information on structured ecotherapy, contact your local Mind, look for nature-based groups or classes (e.g., walking groups or community gardens) and visit The Consortium of Therapeutic Communities website.

The following articles on Mind supported this article:
Nature and Mental Health
About Ecotherapy Programmes

See also Ecotherapy Benefits

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