What is ecotherapy?

In their 2007 report labelled ‘Ecotherapy’ mental health charity Mind defined the term broadly encompassing a diverse range of activities that shared as a common theme some form of contact with or activity within nature

They subsequently refined their definition in 2013 to include some sort of formal therapy or counselling alongside the practice of nature connection.

A review of the majority of ecotherapy projects in the UK reveals that one-to-one counselling or psychotherapy does not take place in most programs.

Reading through the scientific literature there appears to be a spectrum from being in or engaging with nature at one end all the way through to a psychotherapeutic session that happens to take place outdoors. Generally, for convenience, the former end of the spectrum is referred to as ecotherapy and the latter end as ecopsychotherapy.

Another way to frame the distinction is by looking at the emphasis being placed on the role of nature in the practice. In the case of ecotherapy nature is considered the healer. By organising activities and creating a space we allow people to rediscover their connection with nature and enjoy the healing benefits that relationship confers. In Ecopsychotherapy nature is reduced to a tool used by the therapist whether merely as a backdrop to the practice or more actively; e.g as the third space that holds the relationship between client and therapist in relational therapy.

Ecospychotherapy has a framework, structure and techniques that lend themselves to the boards, journals and machinations of the psychotherapeutic community. It allows the rational mind to engage in theories, hypotheses and attempts at explaining and developing the processes involved.

Ecotherapy by contrast is a practice where a relationship with nature is encouraged to flourish with the conviction that it will yield benefits for both the practitioner and the earth. These benefits have been demonstrated through time in cohort studies and research conducted on practices ranging from forest bathing to wild swimming. This research has led to partnerships such as the one between RSPB Scotland and local health authorities in Scotland enabling GPs to prescribe nature as a part of their patient’s treatment. The Japanese have been prescribing this for over 40 years.

We do not need to understand how nature heals. The need to do so may in part be due to the dominance of our current scientific paradigm. This necessitates positing ideas and theories and devoting resources into validating and refining them; often yielding benefits and insight. In part it may also be due to our arrogance and the assumption that if we know the mechanism by which something works; we can improve upon it and make it more efficient. When it comes to nature all evidence would point to the contrary. Far from improve upon it we have wreaked untold damage and interfered in catastrophically destructive fashion. Its complexity is simply too vast and operates on levels that modern science may never discover and certainly will never quantify. There is no nature 2.0 waiting to be discovered.

The only way you improve on the benefits of being in nature is by deepening your connection with the natural world and recognising your place within it.

The recorded benefits of doing so commonly include:

Psychological benefits:

  • Reducing stress and promoting feelings of calm, healing and regeneration through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Increasing general feelings of health and happiness, including eudaemonic wellbeing – giving value to life
  • Reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Improves mood and promotes positive emotions through contact with animals and observation of beauty in nature
  • Promoting the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, endorphins and the bonding hormone oxytocin
  • Developing skills and coping strategies
  • Improving attention levels
  • Increasing social connectivity; reducing feelings of isolation and loneliness

Physiological benefits

  • Aerobic activity lowers blood pressure and improves blood sugar regulation
  • Decreasing prevalence of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension
  • Stimulating the production of hormones associated with a reduction in coronary heart disease and Alzheimer’s
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Hospitals with green views reduce the need for pain medication
  • Generating the sensation of awe can reduce inflammation in the body
  • Contact with animals improves recovery from heart attack and critical illness

 Who needs ecotherapy?

This question is based on the current paradigm assumption that time in nature is a beneficial experience that can be a useful part of a wellness plan. This thinking has resulted from our increasing disconnection from nature and our unprecedented capacity to do so. Even in language and thinking we tend to refer to nature as separate from humans as if we can exist in the world apart from nature. There is an unconscious separating of the human and natural worlds.

Often with physical ailments and mental health challenges the early signs are missed and we accommodate, excuse or medicate them out of our awareness. This process continues until it fails and that is invariably the point at which we seek help. There may be an event that triggers the collapse of our coping mechanisms or a sequence of events and actions that we start to piece together after the event as a way of understanding the experience. It is easy in this back story to miss elements we may consider unimportant or would never think to include.

Connection with nature is considered by many ecotherapists to be an essential aspect of being human. One of the key elements all too often overlooked. It is not something we can do to raise us up but instead something without which we are diminished. It should not be viewed as an optional element to enable healthy living that can be incorporated like a dietary supplement. It is as essential to healthy living as exercise, sleep or a nutritious diet.

As Thomas Berry put it so eloquently in his essay on loneliness and presence:

We have only begum to realise that we are… a single if also immensely significant component in the great community of existence. We might remember that the reality of our own existence can be validated only in the context of honouring the larger communication that the natural world offers us in terms of wonder for the mind, beauty for the imagination, and intimacy for the emotions.