the great outdoors of ecotherapy

Who knew therapy could come from outside the counselor’s office? Or beyond a bottle of pills?

It’s hard to believe a doctor could prescribe a struggling patient a certain length of time spent outside as a valid treatment. Or that there’s properties in soil that help relieve depression. Or hearing rustling leaves will alleviate stress.

In traditional healthcare, that sounds like plain jibberish, some hippie “remedies” that somehow will make you invincible.

I don’t believe that to be the case, not to that extent, but there’s a growing field (not the ones with wheat and corn!) of study dedicated to the healing of the outdoors: ecotherapy.

What is ecotherapy?

Ecotherapy is a profession just beginning to sprout (and allows for plenty of plant puns). While ecotherapy shouldn’t replace evidence-based practice, there is increased interesting in learning more about how a therapy session outside or listening to nature could improve our health.

According to Howard Clinebell, who wrote a 1996 book on the topic, “ecotherapy” refers to healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth. He also called it “green therapy” and “earth-centered therapy.” It takes modern psychological study, mashes it with ancient indigenous wisdom, and concludes that humanity is inseparable from nature.

Think of how often we in our daily lives actually go outside, at least beyond walking in and out of buildings for work or class. Not much, frankly. We have all the entertainment we need indoors thanks to technology. Even when we are outside, we still have our phones glued to our hands and barely acknowledge what we pass as we walk by.

Is it just pseudoscience?

Becoming a tree hugger isn’t a new concept. In 1862, Henry David Thoreau was toting the importance of walking in nature to keep us active and healthy. Another point made in that time of tuberculosis was to just destroy all our homes and sleep in open air. A tad harsh, but the thought’s there.

Now we’re adjusting that suggestion into specific routines to follow, like prescribing obese, anxious, or depressed children to visit a park for a certain length of time. Or going on a hike or walk every few days. It feels as if we’re reverting back to our essence because we’ve changed our way of living so quickly.

We continue to find new evidence showing that this is indeed beneficial for us to do. In 2007, researchers found that after a group of depressed people took a nature walk, over three-quarters of them felt less depressed. Another survey found around 94 percent of people with mental illness found that contact with nature helps alleviate their symptoms.

Incorporating ecotherapy into everyday life.

Ecotherapy is quite flexible to fit specific needs in specific settings. Those in rural and urban areas can practice it. Activities can include working in nature, like gardening or getting involved in a conservation project, or just experiencing nature, where the listening and mindfulness exercises come into play.

Bringing up the working element, I especially find this idea quite fascinating. Not only can we benefit from improved self-esteem and extra vitamin D, but we can also make a difference in our communities through outdoor-based projects. My mind immediately goes to Habitat for Humanity and community gardens to support local produce that could go toward alleviating hunger or supporting farmers markets. The possibilities are endless…at least depending on the weather.

Yes, the vitamin D is important. Feeling like you’re a part of something beyond yourself is important. Just a reason to get out of bed is important. Maybe we haven’t found the statistical connection to say nature cures us, but it doesn’t make us worse off.

During my semester in Canada, I really relied upon walks through the nearby forests or just reading outside in my spare moments to be so therapeutic when I was stressing about grades and life in general.

I’m not in that same landscape here in the Midwest, but I’d love to incorporate more nature into my daily routine. Going back to last Friday’s post about Seasonal Affective Disorder, there’s a reason light therapy is so helpful for people: sunlight and our natural response to it makes a difference. So if we have the luxury to step outside and just walk around the block, why not do it?

As a species that evolved from living in nature as hunters and gatherers, we have always been closely bonded with the earth. It’s no wonder we are left awestruck by simple moments like sunrises and trees rustling in a breeze.

Returning to green spaces is like coming back home, providing a much needed sense of calmness and tranquility. Ecotherapy then is a natural desire to disconnect from a man-made metropolis and to find stillness in fellow living organisms.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Author: Allie

A flower child passionate about faith, social justice, and love.

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