Eco-Therapy: Nature’s Medicine

by Jessica Kirby

It is no coincidence when we walk in the woods, wander among the trees, scour the beach for treasures, or float gently in the sea we feel intimately, completely, and irrevocably better. We feel a better sense of calm, have a better outlook on life, and enjoy a better sense of connectedness to the world around us.

This overwhelming sense of deeper, happier, better being in the world can be leveraged and expanded to heal and regenerate the body and mind, and can lead to a realistic and lasting healing journey backed by experiential faith and, more recently, clinical science.

Psychotherapeutic treatment that combines practical and applied medical treatment of the human psyche with interaction with nature is called eco-therapy, and the practice is based on the profound and intrinsic assumption that the human-natural world relationship is powerful and relevant. On the most personal level, eco-therapy accounts for intimate, yet scientific experiences of the nature-human relationship and holistic indigenous wisdom, and on a wider, general scale, it considers the delicate human existence-natural environment balance in which damage to nature impacts human wellness and vice versa.

Howard Clinebell wrote a book on eco-therapy in 1996 that refers to the practice as healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. Also called green therapy or earth-centered therapy, eco-therapy is essentially, according to Clinebell, the applied practice of ecopsychology, which focuses on the theoretical, cultural, and critical components of addressing psychological healing through interaction with nature.

Clinebell said ecotheraputic work is most successful if best applied in a holistic, encompassing way that addresses inreach—receiving and being nurtured by the healing presence of nature, place, and earth; upreach—the actual experience of this more-than-human vitality as we relocate our place within the natural world; and, outreach—activities with other people that care for the plant.

In other words, to really benefit from and interact with the benefits of eco-therapy, people must receive and embrace the healing power of nature, rethink their position in the world as immersed in rather than adjacent to nature; and, engage with others to form and support a far-reaching earth-centered community. When we go to the woods, the meadows, the sea we must reach to their depths for healing energy, realign ourselves to a place of respect and care, and bring others with us to this place of joy.

Though it has always felt good to be in nature and share it with others, current science and psychological research suggests the benefits of eco-therapy are measurable and effective. In his article in Psychology Today, Dr. Steve Taylor discusses a “powerful new kind of therapy, which is just as effective against depression as traditional psychotherapy or medication—and the amazing thing is that you don’t have to pay for it.”

Contact with nature is moving up the ranks as a scientifically proven technique that successfully improves mood, alleviates the symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improves concentration and focus. A 2007 study in the UK found, of a group of people suffering from depression, 90 per cent presented a higher level of self-esteem after walking through a country park and nearly three quarters reported reduced feelings of depression. When the same research team discovered 94 per cent of a study group with mental illness believed their moods would improve through contact with nature, the culture of treatment in the UK changed to include more time for patients to experience nature.

This is just one of thousands of examples. A 2006 study by mental health organization MIND said 69 percent of people who were seeking mental health treatment and who also partook in eco-therapy activities like gardening, hiking, and even environmental conservation work showed noticeable, lasting improvement in their sense of well-being.

Another study in America suggests contact with nature can prevent mental health disorders if applied in early intervention and treatment, along with physical activity and social connectivity.

“The case example illustrates how active, social, and adventurous contact with nature may be combined with a treatment intervention to protect and enhance the health of individuals experiencing chronic mental, emotional, and physical health difficulties,” said the study’s authors.

Contact with nature improves – transforms, even – our lives, beyond recovery from illness and injury. It can take us to new places where ah-ha moments, moments when we truly see the fullness of life and of the universe, are spontaneous and abundant. Dr. Taylor calls them “awakening experiences,” describing them as moments when contact with nature makes life seem more harmonious and meaningful.

“If I go walking in the countryside,” he said, “there usually comes a point when a feeling of well-being begins to well up inside me, and when the trees and the fields and the sky around seem to be more alive and beautiful, and to be shining with a new radiance.”

Taylor and other medical scientists studying eco-therapy and its benefits say the profound effect nature has on human beings can be attributed to its natural connection to our evolutionary roots. In the same way a drum beat can elicit feelings of calm and safety as it resonates similarly to a mother’s heartbeat, connecting to nature brings about an instinctual feeling of safety and peace, a sense of coming home that reminds our deepest level of consciousness of who we used to be before closed spaces, busy lifestyles, and electronic environments became prevalent in some parts of the world. The return to nature has a calming, mind-quieting effect that is gentler on our minds as they are allowed to process less, think more slowly, and effectively rest for a spell.

“The beauty and majesty of nature acts a little like a mantra in meditation,” said Taylor, “slowing down the normal ‘thought chatter’ which runs chaotically through our minds. As a result, an inner stillness and energy fills us, generating a glow of being and intensifying our perceptions.”

 Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor of All One Era magazine