Tune in to what’s important by stepping outside…
It might not be a huge surprise to hear that being outside, getting fresh air and exercise is not only good for your physical health it can also be beneficial for your mental health. But did you know that so-called eco-therapy – a form of therapy based on interacting with nature – is growing in popularity as a practice for anyone experiencing stress, anxiety or hard times in general.
Eco-therapy, or nature therapy as it’s sometimes known, is an approach that focuses on the benefit of being within and interacting with the natural environment. 1 The idea is that taking part in outdoor activities and engaging with nature can be regenerative, for both your mind and body.
It offers the chance to enjoy fresh air, appreciate the beauty of nature, experience the changing seasons and notice the finer details that are often missed when we’re all so busy in our daily lives.
In fact, in some cases,2 practitioners are prescribing eco-therapy as a way to help reduce conditions such as stress and depression and boost self-esteem and confidence.
What does eco-therapy involve?
Eco-therapy programmes focus on bringing together groups of people in rural or urban areas and introducing activities where you can either experience nature first hand or get involved with nature. 3
There’s an emphasis on getting involved, becoming active, learning and sharing skills. But it’s also about taking more notice of your surroundings and paying attention to the sights, sounds and smells you encounter. “Being present” in the moment.
Eco-therapy activities can involve:
- Environmental conservation – hands-on activities involved with caring for the environment, such as planting trees or clearing woods.
- Outdoor exercise – taking part in physical activities in green spaces, such as yoga or tai chi in a park, or walking as a group in the countryside.
- Horticulture – getting involved with gardening.
- Allotment gardening – planting, caring for and harvesting your own food.
- Animal therapy – learning to look after and care for animals.
How can it help?
The benefits of access to sunlight are recognised as being beneficial for easing symptoms of the mood condition seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and eco-therapy works in a similar way.
Research has found eco-therapy can be good to try for those experiencing mild to moderate depression (sometimes alongside other therapies, such as counselling, medication or cognitive behavioural therapy), as being outside and doing practical work can help improve wellbeing and self-esteem.
It’s also reported to be useful for easing stress, helping people feel calmer and more relaxed. It’s natural to not feel like exercising when you’re feeling depressed or are stressed out, and some people find it hard to motivate themselves to get up and out. But being outside, engaging in gentle activities and breathing in fresh air can gradually help you relax and become calmer.
It’s a good way too for you to connect with other people. Depression and related health issues can often lead to people becoming isolated and alone, but being part of a group where people understand can be rewarding and uplifting.
Of course, even though it’s begun to be used with some success in specific practice, eco-therapy is something that anyone can think about bringing into their life as a general and positive philosophy, not just a reaction to stress or other issues.
If you are keen to give it a go but don’t have access to an eco-therapy programme, or even a group of people to try it with, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways in which you can incorporate the principles of eco-therapy into your life and create your own do-it-yourself approach to help clear your head, relax your body and support your state of mind.
You don’t have to live in the heart of the countryside either. Having access to an urban park or green space helps, but at its most basic level, benefits can be gained from simply being outside.
Here are some ideas for ways in which you could incorporate eco-therapy into your life.
- Start with the nature on your doorstep. Tend to the plants in your garden or cut your lawn. If you don’t have a garden, buy some pots or a window box and take pleasure in planting them with flowers or herbs.
- You may not have ridden a bicycle for years, but give it a go. Hire a bike, find a safe cycle track and go for a ride. Cycling is a good form of exercise and can help generate feel-good endorphins, which may uplift your mood.
- Become a conservation volunteer. Find a local conservation project and see if there’s a task you can help with. From cutting grass to trimming back undergrowth, there are lots of opportunities to help preserve natural beauty for future generations.
- Take a walk through the woods and observe the trees. Appreciate the colours of the leaves, the fruits of the trees and the wildlife nesting or living in the wood. Don’t just walk through, try to absorb that feeling on being at the centre of a living, breathing network – which you are a part of.
- Take a trip to the beach. Explore rock pools, collect shells, listen to seagulls and watch the waves roll in. The sound of the waves and contemplating the infinite horizon is at once calming, and humbling – putting problems into perspective.
- Create your own natural art. Collect pine cones, seashells, sea glass, pebbles or leaves. Keep an open mind and see what you can create.
Planning your own programme, and sticking to it will not only be fulfilling, but inspiring. Eco-therapy is something everyone could benefit from. Activities such as these can involve all the family, from the young to the old, and offer physical as well as emotional benefits.
Give it a try, no matter the time of year, and you’ll soon discover that adding a bit of structure to how you go out into nature can help lessen the impact of the challenges and stresses we can all find ourselves facing – and increase our appreciation for the larger world, and our place in it.