I often say to clients where and when it is appropriate, to ‘go outdoors for a little, breathe in fresh air, look at nature in the flowers, trees etc. Observe bees, butterfly’s and animals.’ Some clients do, some do not. I believe that in some cases, interacting with nature can help conventional therapies and can even enhance therapy. For me – being outside with nature has helped with the many challenges and tests that life has thrown at me, and has at times, brought me to an improved understanding of life, its fragility and its transience. This article looks at the many benefits of threading interaction with nature throughout our lives, and in the context of therapy.
What is ‘Ecotherapy’?
‘Eotherapy’ or nature- based approaches to therapeutic healing includes many types of interventions, e.g. nature meditation, walking alone or with a therapist or group in nature and so on. It seems that it can be – and is – anything that involves the individual, some contact with the natural world and the overall aim of positive mental health.
So, what is it about being outdoors and in nature that aids our positive mental health? Let’s look at the science. I first learned about ions from my science teacher back in the 70’s! Where there is breaking water for example, at the seaside, waterfall, river or stream, negative ions are largely increased in numbers. Negative ions can stimulate your senses and can enhance mood. Personally, I find it almost impossible to be sad or low walking along the seashore with the waves breaking. Try it!
TIME magazine featured an article in its August 7th 2017 edition by Alice Parks, who advised that ‘if you find yourself in the doldrums after hours at your desk, it might not hurt to get up and look for some light—as long as it comes from the sun, not the ceiling.’ She wrote about the lethargy and feelings of sadness and hopelessness that come when the weather forces people to spend more time indoors and the season provides little opportunity for exposure to natural light. https://time.com/4888327/why-sunlight-is-so-good-for-you/ It was Dr. Norman Rosenthal at Georgetown University who coined the term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) to describe the so-called winter blues.
The strongest support for the role of sunlight in health comes from its effect on mood. Studies generally focus on the brain chemical that is most directly linked to mood, serotonin: higher levels of serotonin correlate with better mood and feelings of satisfaction and calmness, and lower levels link to depression and anxiety. (Many antidepressants work by boosting levels of serotonin among brain neurons.)
One Australian study that measured levels of brain chemicals flowing directly out of the brain found that people had higher serotonin levels on bright sunny days than on cloudy ones. That effect remained no matter how cold or hot the weather was. https://time.com/collection/guide-to-happiness/4888327/why-sunlight-is-so-good-for-you/
When I need a boost and am in my midland county in Ireland – I automatically head for the trees! I either walk in a local wood or forest or I sit under the two enormous beech trees on the edge of my garden. A smaller beech offers a special space of its own at the edge of the herb garden. Jill Suttie, in an article in the Greater Good Magazine in April 2019, wrote ‘After all, trees are important to our lives in many ways. The most obvious is their role in producing the oxygen we breathe and sequestering carbon dioxide to help protect our atmosphere; but science suggests trees provide other important benefits, too. Trees help us feel less stressed and more restored and trees improve our health.’https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_trees_can_make_you_happier
So, after all that………
So, perhaps when working on improving your mental health, factor in some time outdoors. Keep a diary of your mood before and after being outdoors. I would encourage you to find a place that is easily accessible for you, in your particular circumstances and ask you to give it a try! A study published August 20th 2020, in People and Nature, an open-access journal of the British Ecological Society found that ‘the increase in happiness from a visit to an outpost of urban nature is equivalent to the mood spike at Christmas – by far the happiest day each year on Twitter.’ Visitors, the study found, use happier words and express less negativity on Twitter than they did before their visit. Yet another article in Breathe Magazine, Issue 32 states that ‘It is widely accepted that people feel better around nature. A Danish review of more than 130 students shows exposure to woodland can significantly reduce levels of physical and emotional stress’.
Remember, it is not about the exercise or increased fitness levels – albeit a bonus – it is about the exposure to natural light, fresh air and those negative ions. A walk along the seashore, a walk in a forest or – as I frequently do – sitting under a tree with the wood-chimes blowing gently in the leaves, and taking deep breaths. Again, it is not about the being in the present or being mindful – but again, this can be a bonus. It is about re-connecting with that part of us which has gotten lost in the 21st Century. It is about soaking up food for the soul – nature.
Go for it!
So, does exposure to nature reduce depression, anxiety and stress? And does time spent in nature provide a wealth of mental health benefits? What I believe strongly is that ecotherapy certainly helps. So, what have we got to lose? Ecotherapy is available, its free and it is all around us. We just need to factor it in to our lives. The phrase ‘being at one with nature’ must stand for something. I believe it means that we are missing a vital part of our makeup as human beings, if we do not allow ourselves time and space in nature. That part is what allows us to connect with ourselves, to breathe, to form a positive outlook, to be happy. Let’s give it a go!