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How nature can be a powerful tool for mental health

Posted: 23/03/2021

I have always found peace in nature. Whenever things get stressful or overwhelming, I either jump on my bike, go for a walk in the bush or just sit in the garden. I think a lot of us do. There is something very calming about having the sun on your face as you trudge, peddle, swim or just sit under a tree. (And it is not a coincidence that most mindfulness exercises invite you to imagine yourself in natural spaces or have the sounds of running water in the background.)

Indigenous peoples around the world have always understood that nature has therapeutic benefits (we have a lot we can learn from their wisdom in this space). And now, more and more, we are seeing nature being studied as a tool to support wellbeing, healing and mental health. There is even a field of study dedicated to this, called nature therapy or ecotherapy.

So what is ecotherapy?

Ecotherapy is a growing field of study. Good Therapy describes ecotherapy in the following way:

‘Ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy or green therapy, is the applied practice of the emergent field of ecopsychology, which was developed by Theodore Roszak. Ecotherapy, in many cases, stems from the belief that people are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not isolated or separate from our environment.’

They suggest that ecotherapy can take many forms and can include things like nature meditation, horticulture therapy (growing things), animal-assisted therapy, physical activity in the natural environment and involvement in conservation activities.

In an article for the Sydney Morning Herald, writer Jill Stark suggests that there are many mental health benefits that come from spending time in nature.

‘In Scotland, where I grew up, “nature prescriptions” are being offered by the National Health Service to treat chronic illnesses including depression, anxiety, diabetes and heart disease.

‘GPs in the remote Shetland Islands are prescribing birdwatching, hiking and beach walks for patients with debilitating conditions.

‘It’s a form of outdoor mindfulness – where patients take time to be still and silent and absorb the raw beauty of their natural surroundings – that has been shown to help calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure and boost positive feelings.’

What are the benefits of ecotherapy or nature therapy?

Mind UK suggests that there are many benefits to spending time in nature for mental health. It can:

  • improve your mood
  • reduce feelings of stress or anger
  • help you take time out and feel more relaxed
  • improve your physical health
  • improve your confidence and self-esteem
  • help you be more active
  • help you make new connections
  • provide peer support.

We know that exercise is good for mental health but exercising in a natural environment has been shown to have measurable additional benefits. In Psychology Today, psychiatrist, Emily Dean, sites several studies that show that exercising in nature is significantly more effective than exercising indoors, in terms of reducing anxiety, depression, negative thoughts, rumination and stress.

How can I use the principles of ecotherapy in my work with people?

Ecotherapy can be used as a stand-alone therapeutic approach and it can also be used in conjunction with other programs, supports or therapeutic interventions.

So what are some simple ways you could incorporate nature into the work you do? Here are a few ideas:

  • Instead of meeting in an office, why not meet in a local park, nature reserve or by a river.
  • Support people wanting to reduce stress or anxiety to become involved in a local community garden. Even better, have your meetings in the garden while planting potatoes and picking peas! (As an added bonus, people are likely to meet others and build sustainable social connections. There may also be regular community meals using veggies from the garden, which can be great for social inclusion.)
  • Encourage people wanting to improve their mental health to exercise in nature whenever possible. You could support them to do this by arranging to have walking meetings, which has the added bonus of increasing the therapeutic benefits of your catch-up! This is also a great way to model how easy it is to incorporate nature into everyday activities.
  • Explore the idea of incorporating a therapy animal into your practice or service. If the person you are working with already has a pet, could you incorporate that pet into the work you are doing together?
  • Making a positive contribution to our community and world has been shown to have significant benefits to our health and sense of wellbeing. If the person you are working alongside has an interest in the environment, invite them to think about joining a local conservation or landcare group. Not only will they get the benefits of spending time in nature, they are also likely to have an increased sense of meaning, purpose and social inclusion.

Ecotherapeutic techniques can also be incorporated into a school curriculum to increase the health and wellbeing of students. Many schools now have onsite veggie gardens and quiet natural spaces in their playgrounds. Use these spaces whenever you can or perhaps try some of the following:

  • Teach more classes outside, under a tree or in the school veggie garden (incidental grazing encouraged!).
  • Create memory walks where you anchor stories and facts about the things you are teaching to features in the landscape. If you revisit the walk and stories regularly, you can actually build layers of knowledge over time. You may be surprised by how much the children retain using this technique. (Australian Aboriginal people have used these techniques for learning for tens of thousands of years.)
  • Take children to a quiet outdoor space and do a short mindfulness session, including some deep breathing. This is particularly effective during times they are typically restless or tired, like after lunch. You could either ask them to close their eyes and listen to the natural world around them or invite them to closely observe, with all their senses, elements in nature, like the bark on a tree or the way the ants have built a nest.

An additional benefit to incorporating nature into your practice is that it can also increase your personal sense of wellbeing. Perhaps you can also think about ways your team can spend more time in nature? Could you hold team meetings outside or have walking meetings? Could you have regular ten minute ‘self-care’ mindfulness sessions across the day in a nearby garden or green space?

Do you use nature as part of your practice? We would love to hear your stories. Please share your experiences or ideas in the comments below.

Dr. Sue King-Smith

 

The Nature of Strengths                                             $49.50 inc. GST          Product Code: 4938

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