Exploring Ecotherapy

[What is Ecotherapy?]

De-linked from the natural rhythms of our bodies and the rest of the planet, we struggle with diminishing success to adapt to the strange mechanical and disembodied world we have created. – Linda Buzzell 

It wasn’t all that long ago that our lives were more intertwined with nature and its pace. We were highly dependent on and in tune with the natural cycles of seasons, plant and animal life. Fast forward to the era of “cybertime”, where most of our time is spent in front of screens and it is increasingly difficult to quiet our minds. We constantly take work home with us, flip mindlessly through social feeds, forever connected- expected to be reachable at all times. 

What better time than now, as we ramp up our pace of living for back to routine, to consider the role ecotherapy plays as an outlet to express yourself and de-stress!

Ecotherapy encompasses working in, and experiencing nature in a way that benefits your mental and physical health. Luckily,  you don’t have to travel to a remote, rural area to benefit from this form of therapy. Settings for this practice can range from parks and gardens, to farms and woodlands. 

Ecotherapy can take on a surprising variety of forms to suit diverse needs. Keep reading to find a format that suits your interests! 

  • Adventure Therapy:Group activities (rock climbing, water rafting) usually paired with psychological exercises
  • Animal-Assisted Therapy:Visiting a farm to spend intentional, sometimes guided, time with animals
  • Environmental Conservation:Contributing to conservation of natural habitats, can be combined with physical activity
  • Gardening:Growing food in an indoor OR outdoor allotment
  • Green Exercise:Exercise that takes place outdoors (trail running, cycling, kayaking, hiking), may be led by a trainer
  • Nature Arts & Crafts:Creating art outdoors, or using collected materials (wood, grass, clay, rocks)
  • True Ecotherapy:Spending time in an outdoor setting with a licensed therapist, usually engaging in CBT
  • Wilderness Therapy:Spending time in the wilderness hiking and building shelter, often forming deep connections to nature 

Reflection: Have you ever participated in organized ecotherapy?

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[Benefits of Ecotherapy]

Imagine your family doctor signing off on a prescription that reads, “Spend 30 minutes 3-4 times per week in nature”. Whether for enjoyment, as part of a volunteer or paid position. 

This is something that is already taking place, halfway across the world…

Physicians in Scotland recognize the important role nature plays in their patients’ physical AND mental health. The program involves discussing the benefits of nature and providing a calendar containing outdoor activities tailored to each region. 

This must mean forms of ecotherapy lead to pretty clear outcomes on our health?

Let’s dive right into some of the tangible health outcomes that are byproducts of spending more time outdoors!

  • Improves Mental Health
    • Ex: Reduced stress, depression, anxiety, anger and improved mood, self-esteem and emotional resilience! These results are thought to result from a combination of being active, outdoors, and socially engaged- especially when ecotherapy takes place in a group setting. Improvements in mood may even be superior to when similar activity is performed indoors!
  • Improves Physical Health
    • Influences on physical health are achieved through regular opportunities for being active, improved energy due to fresh air and reduced stress hormone circulation- in addition to several other indicators of physiological relaxation. 
  • Improves Social Health
    • Having a scheduled reason to socialize and reduces loneliness, which is increasingly being understood as a contributor to poor health outcomes. These regular opportunities to connect with others also build your support network and give you something to look forward to each week!
  • Mindfulness Practice
    • Being immersed in the natural world is a way of shifting your focus away from stressful or upsetting thoughts (rumination). Instead, you may focus on natural elements (natural cycles of each day, season, weather), the task at hand (conservation efforts, gardening, socializing) or your innate connection with 🌲🌾🌬️🌊.

Reflection: Have you experienced any of these benefits of nature first hand? 

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[Build your own Ecotherapy Program]

When it comes to adding in or modifying your health behaviours, it’s important to explore WHY you desire a change. In light of our recent discussion around ecotherapy, are you seeking any of the following in your life currently?

  • Mental/emotional outlet -> destress, unwind
  • To be more present and feel connected to a larger purpose
  • A means to become more socially connected
  • Regularly scheduled event each week to look forward to
  • [Insert ANY of the health benefits we discussed above!]

When you reflect on your WHY, in regards to any health behaviour change, it strengthens your focus and drive toward making any given change to your current routine. For example, let’s look at how adding a few extra details and a “why” to the following goal makes it more specific and actionable.

i.e. “Spend more time outside” -> “Go for a 20-minute walk after dinner twice per week in order to destress and clear my mind before bed”

Next, put pen to paper! No matter how big or small your goal, we are more accountable when we’ve written down our plan. Not to mention, writing it into a planner or calendar means you’ve found an appropriate day and time for it to fit into your schedule. Prepare to be flexible with the time, in case something comes up in your week.

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If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.- Rainer Maria Rilke

This beautiful quote from Rainer Maria Rilke speaks so nicely to the role ecotherapy plays in our overall health. It helps ground us. Calm us down from the HYPE of life. Supports our mental and emotional health as we unplug from our overactive lives. 

Below, we are excited to share a variety of ways you can do ecotherapy by yourself, even in the comfort of your home!

  • Bring Nature Inside
    • Create a comfortable sitting area in front of a greenspace (indoor plants, window overlooking greenery) that you designate as a screen-free space (i.e. for reading)
    • Start an indoor plant collection! Let us know if you need any starter plant tips 😊
    • Take photos of your favourite natural areas and frame them or use them as a phone/laptop background
    • Reflection: What are some ways you bring nature inside your home? 
  • Dip Your Toes in Horticulture(Read: Just paint your thumb green already, no one will know the difference)
    • If you are #condoliving, grow some herbs from seed/starter plant, or salad greens!
    • Plant some veggies next season at a community garden plot!
  • Get Close to Animals
    • Go on animal sighting strolls! Leave your screen behind and be on the lookout for insects and animals, whether in the countryside, or a city park!
    • Volunteer as a dog-walker at your local shelter, or offer to walk a neighbour or friend’s dog once per week! You can reap the benefits of being around an animal without the responsibility of owning one!
    • Hang a bird feeder in your yard or outside a window
  • Give Back to Mother Nature 
    • Plan a pollinator-friendly garden (think black eyed susan, milkweed, columbine, herbs and more!
    • Join in on a local environmental conservation project (may include tree planting, site clean-up, garbage pick-up, etc!)
  • Find any excuse to get outside
    • Plan a regular outdoor walk into your schedule- invite a friend to hold you accountable
    • Enjoy a walk or outdoor activity as a means of “catching up” with friends!
    • Check out your region or city’s website for any outdoor classes or nature-inspired courses being held

I (Syd) can’t wait to build a garden at my new home and find space for pollinator-friendly plants. What does your personal ecotherapy program look like?

Sources: National Association for Mental Health

Article & Photos by: Sydney Withers RD