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Can Nature and Ecotherapy Improve Mental Health?




People are stuck inside now more than ever before. The impacts of living life in a cubicle, car, and home can be seen and felt in your mental health. While you may not realize it, these unnatural environments can cause mental decline.

If you’ve ever felt a great sense of peace after taking a nature walk, then you have an idea about the restorative power of nature on your emotional wellbeing.  Recently, psychological studies are revealing that nature has an undeniable positive impact on mental health.

In fact, the American Psychological Association has cited multiple examples of how being nurtured by nature can render outstanding benefits for healing mental imbalances.  Whether you’re looking for relief from depression or just need a boost in your mood, here are some insights about ecotherapy and a few measurable benefits nature has on mental health.

What is Ecotherapy?

The term ecotherapy is a current trend and it is, indeed real. The practice of ecotherapy is about incorporating nature into traditional therapy strategies in order to accelerate recovery from mental illness or improve chronic mental issues.

Some suggested activities in ecotherapy include hiking in the woods, planting a garden, going fishing, foraging in the forest, or bird watching outdoors. In essence, ecotherapy combines standard behavioral therapy with any activity in nature that may trigger calming effects and assist in establishing mental stability. Discover some of the ways that nature and ecotherapy improve mental health.

Nature Calms Your Mind

Being aware of surroundings and enjoying the great outdoors has a proven way of reducing stress.  In fact, a research paper published in 2012 by Dr. Catharine Thompson from the University of Edinburgh and co-authored by health researcher Richard Mitchell from the University of Glasgow cited that regular exposure to nature effectively reduces cortisol, which is known as the “stress hormone.” 

Furthermore, the paper concluded that spending time in nature reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension.  This means employing ecotherapy such as taking a walk in a natural setting can render a soothing, calming effect.  In this way, nature can contribute to the reduction of anxiety, ease jangled nerves, and help with feelings of panic and stress.

Nature Provides Meaning and Connection

According to Lisa Nisbet, a psychologist with Trent University in Ontario, Canada, nature can provide a sense of connection with something far greater than oneself. This is incredibly helpful when it comes to calming mental health issues born from bipolar or dissociative disorders.  

In other words, using ecotherapy by communing with nature has a way of augmenting a sense of self and bolstering self-assurance. Nature may also help manage quiet BPD symptoms (Borderline Personality Disorder) because spending time in nature strengthens an individual’s connection to the environment as well as render a sense of awe for the vast majesty of the outdoors.

This sensation of connection was explored by the human research lab at the University of Illinois.  Human test subjects agreed to undergo functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) analysis while observing images in nature.  The results indicated that the areas of the brain that trigger sensations of love, peace and empathy were activated after viewing these natural scenes. 

Contrarily, when shown images of populated cities or industrial sites, the areas of the brain associated with anxiety, separation and fear were stimulated.  This study is one of many examples of how nature and ecotherapy can conjure feelings of inclusion and connectivity (or separation) to our environment.

Natural Elements Are Healing

Hospital studies revealed that patients who have a living plant in their hospital rooms, or have a view of a natural landscape were better able to tolerate pain. Furthermore, patients exposed to nature were able to heal more quickly than patients without the presence of natural elements.  

The reason for this phenomenon deals with how the brain responds to natural elements. When subjected to nature, the sensors in the brain responsible for feelings of comfort, safety and tranquility are activated. The mind and body responds to these neurological messages by becoming more balanced, calm and more apt to heal. 

Nature Helps With Mental Clarity

Furthermore, plants and trees release oxygen which is known to boost physical and mental energy.  In fact, a study conducted at the Royal College of Agriculture in England revealed that students demonstrated 70% increased attention levels when live plants were present in classrooms.  In short, the oxygen-generating power of plants and nature helps clear the mind, restore energy and assist in balancing the brain.

Is Ecotherapy Right for You?

Your specific needs and mental condition is the only way to answer this question. For instance, if you have a latent terror of the outdoors, then ecotherapy obviously isn’t the right choice for you regardless of what the research shows.  However, if you’re open to introducing nature into your mental health routines or therapy strategies, you might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Finally, if you struggle with mental difficulties, you should consult your therapist and physician to see if ecotherapy is a viable addition to your ongoing treatment.

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