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A guide to nature-based therapy
— and how it can help 

by Jemima Skelley

February 27, 2024

When you think about unplugging and going off the grid to de-stress, maybe you think of heading to a secluded cabin in the woods, a tranquil seaside bungalow or a cozy farm cottage where cows roam past your window. And it turns out there’s a scientific reason why we crave a bit of the great outdoors when we need a break.

Being in nature has been repeatedly linked with higher mental wellness. Researchers have linked ecotherapy with benefits for a range of conditions, including dementia, ADHD, pain, stress, PTSD, depression and anxiety.  

One study found that spending just 10 minutes absorbing nature has a positive effect on the mental health of college-age adults. And by “nature,” we don’t mean trekking to the top of a mountain or secluding yourself in the wilderness. You don’t need to move to a forest to get the benefits of nature. Just looking at a green campus lawn, walking through a small urban park or cloud-watching in a quiet place can be enough. However, participants in the study who spent the same amount of time outdoors looking at traffic and buildings noted zero positive changes to their mental health.  

Basically, our brains love it when we’re in nature. It’s easier for us to focus, it improves our working memory and it has a positive effect on our attention control (what we choose to pay attention to and what we ignore). But did you know that there’s a specific form of therapy that incorporates this idea? 

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Ah, the power of nature 

Nature therapy, also known as ecotherapy or green therapy, is all about harnessing the power of nature to improve mental health. The way it’ll actually be incorporated into an existing mental health practice will vary from person to person, but it generally involves being with a licensed professional in a green outdoor setting and consciously connecting with nature. 

Morgan Taylor, who lives in the stunning Blue Mountains just west of Sydney, Australia, says nature therapy changed her life. “I often say nature is my therapy,” she tells Chegg.  

Taylor spent this entire past winter doing ice-cold waterfall plunges and says she tries to immerse herself in nature in some way every day. “I notice a huge difference in myself when I don’t get to be in nature as often as I usually would be,” she says. “As soon as I’m able to get outside again, I feel instantly calm, and it helps me deal with any hard times going on in my life.” 

In Canada, nature therapy is now recognized by doctors in mainstream medicine, who can prescribe going outdoors as part of a wellness routine. PaRx, short for Park Prescriptions, is an initiative of the BC Parks Foundation that’s endorsed by the Canadian government, and it advises patients to get out in nature for two hours a week – walking, biking or just being outdoors.  

For some people, a massive mountain hike is just the ticket, while others get the same sense of fulfillment sitting on a park bench. Research shows that the health benefits of nature come when you personally feel like you’ve had a meaningful experience, no matter what that experience is.  

Nature therapy works because it allows us to tap into our intuition 

“We want to work with what people are feeling rather than what people are thinking,” Kit Kline, a counselor who specializes in nature-based therapy, explains. “We work more with emotion.” 

During a nature therapy session, Kline typically goes through a mindfulness exercise with her clients. “I get them to connect to nature using the five senses. What can you hear, taste, touch, smell and see? Outdoors [it’s easier] because you can hear birds, the sound of waves, the rustle of leaves,” she explains.  

Kline says that nature therapy is really all about finding answers within yourself. “When we tune into the five senses, we ultimately get to check into the sixth sense, which is our intuition –– where our knowledge is held,” she says.  

You may not actually need to be physically outside to tap into nature 

At the National Council for the Blind (NCBI) in Ireland, nature therapy classes have been introduced as a core offering in their sports and recreation activities. Held on Zoom due to COVID-19 restrictions, participants are invited to sit somewhere comfortable, either outdoors or near a window.  

“Even though it’s been online, it still seems to be impactful,” Kristina, who works at NCBI, tells us. “We’ve had people who have lost their sight say that they were transported back to memories of forests and the calming pace of nature, and it was like they were able to reconnect with their memories. It’s almost a bit surreal.” 

 

Nature therapy is centered around connecting with nature and getting grounded in a space, and it is much less reliant on conversation than traditional talk therapy. “Either way, not all of our online programs stick attendance-wise, but this is one that’s lasted now over a year with a consistent group attending,” says Kristina.

So how can you harness the power of nature-based therapy? 

Even if you don’t have the resources to work with a therapist or counselor, it’s still possible to reap the mental health benefits of nature therapy. Dedicate a set amount of hours a week to spend outdoors, and try to be mindful about it. Even if it’s just for the first five minutes of your walk before you put in a podcast, actively use your five senses to take in what’s around you. 

 

You also don’t need to live in a rural area to tap into nature. Going for a picnic in the park, starting an herb garden on your balcony and even bird-watching are all popular forms of ecotherapy.  

Remember — we are nature 

Nature therapy isn’t something that scientists are suddenly discovering –– it is grounded in and inspired by indigenous philosophy and worldviews: Everything is interconnected, and we, as humans, are part of nature.  

It’s important to acknowledge that many facets of nature theory are rooted in indigenous cultures, whether the practicing therapists realize it or not. While philosophical values differ between cultures around the world, a common theme among indigenous communities is that the land is not owned by us as humans. We’re in a symbiotic relationship with animals, rivers, oceans and mountains –– nature as a whole.  

 

“We are not separate from the natural world as humans,” says Kline, a Canadian descendent of the Wampanoag people. “So why it’s really therapeutic is that we’re actually connecting to our authentic self.” 

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