What Is EcoTherapy? Explore the History and Benefits of the Practice

Are you interested in learning more about the healing power of nature? Discover more about the practice of ecotherapy aka nature therapy and the many benefits we can enjoy from simply reconnecting with the natural world.

Humans have always had a deep connection with nature. The land we live on provides food, shelter, medicine, and even comfort.

We receive food in the form of plants and animals. Nature provides the original source of our medicines in the form of herbs and plants. Our shelters are sourced from the land’s trees and metals from the earth. And man has always sought comfort from nature – whether it’s a fisherman enjoying his time on the boat or a quiet walk in nature to calm the mind.

woman looking out over a sea of nature and green trees with a town just visible in the distance

However, with an increased focus on technology, sometimes we lose sight of just interconnected and dependent we really are with the world around us.

Learn about the practice of ecotherapy and how it can reconnect the psyche and the body with the Earth’s sources of all healing.

What Is the Definition of Ecotherapy?

Ecotherapy is a broad term used for nature-based methods of healing. 

Sometimes also referred to as nature therapy, ecotherapy helps treat both the physical and psychological ailments of the human condition by reestablishing a strong connection with the natural world.

Examples include:

  • The physician prescribing time spent outdoors in parks for treating high blood pressure.
  • Hospitals that use gardens to promote social interaction and stress relief.
  • Wilderness retreats that offer guided nature tours and help teenagers or adults learn coping skills and build confidence. 

Many times ecotherapy has a conservation slant. If we nurture a healthy relationship with the Earth, we, in turn, receive all the benefits nature has to offer. 

Understanding Ecotherapy Treatment

Ecotherapy treatment combines the latest scientific research on the effect nature has on us with the indigenous wisdom collected over thousands of years. 

The basis for understanding how ecotherapy treatment works is if we begin once again to engage with nature, we create the process of healing, leading to positive physical and mental benefits. 

However, if we create something detrimental to nature, we will debilitate our medicine chest, leading to a decline in our health. Living a life in balance with nature has significant impacts on us – Physical, mental, and spiritual. 

The treatments within ecotherapy vary. They can be very individual or within a group or therapy-type environment. Ecotherapy can be as easy as putting your hands into the soil, working your garden, or a group therapy session. A group session can be a more conventional western environment, or it can be one of indigenous healing.

A western-type setting would be a farm or camp in nature where you can engage with nature. This might involve meditation, or working on a farm, gardening, or a horticultural atmosphere. Things as simple as a walk through nature, show how natural this therapy is.  

Benefits of Ecotherapy

The benefits of ecotherapy encompass physical, mental, and spiritual rejuvenation. Here are just a few of the benefits that have been documented. 

  • Lower Stress – Many studies have shown that time spent in nature results in a reduction in cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.
  • Reduce Social Isolation – By participating in a group setting of ecotherapy such as care farming or conservation efforts.
  • Build Confidence – Wilderness camps are well known for increasing a person’s feelings of self-worth and confidence to tackle any given challenge. Students learn practical survival skills. They use these skills to solve problems on their own as well as within a group. 
  • Foster Trust – Team building exercises like participating in a ropes course or rock climbing teach individuals to rely on each other. Animal-assisted therapy is another method used to build trust is 
  • Reduce Risk of Depression. Increased exposure to sunlight and Vitamin D levels can improve your immune system and mood. Low levels of Vitamin D have been linked with depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder. 
  • Improve Focus – Taking field trips or encouraging time spent outdoors during the day are two ways teachers can improve children’s attention span in the classroom. 
  • Increase Motivation to Exercise – Exercise can occur in many forms, from gardening in your backyard, walking with a friend outdoors, or going for a bike ride. Enjoying time outdoors can often serve as a distraction, so people spend more time being active without even realizing it.
  • Improved Relaxation – Many hospitals encourage a walk through their gardens for patients. Hiking through a forest or meditating in nature are excellent ways to leave the modern world’s stressors behind. 

By increasing your time spent in nature, we can reduce the likelihood or frequency of many mental disorders in today’s society. The afflictions caused by life in a disconnected world include 

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder)
  • PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
  • Aggression
  • Anxiety
  • Mental fatigue
  • Stress

These afflictions proved to be much more prevalent in urban environments and less in rural ones. Research shows that, in general, people who live in cities without daily contact with nature are much more likely to suffer from one or several of these disorders. 

Types of Ecotherapy Programs And Activities

There are a multitude of beneficial ecotherapy programs and activities. Any activities that create oneness with nature can be used in the practice of ecotherapy. 

three examples of ecotherapy - a mediation garden, outdoor yoga and older couple walking in nature

Some examples of ecotherapy activities include: 

  • Horticultural or gardening therapies
  • Physical exercise in nature
  • Environmental conservation activities
  • Meditating in nature
  • Animal-assisted therapies

There are many more therapies, all falling under the umbrella of ecotherapy. When choosing the type of ecotherapy to use in practice, the key is to first determine the issue. 

More minor issues like a stressful day at work may be treated by growing a garden, interacting with plants, or getting your hands in the soil. 

Individuals can treat issues such as mild anxiety or needing a bit of stress relief independently. If a problem has a significant negative impact on your life, seek out an individual or group who uses ecotherapy to heal. 

Whether the issue is physical or psychological, there are many different forms of treatment. You might wish to try several different types of ecotherapy.  

All these activities use nature to bring about emotional change, whether it is simply improving your mood or treating an illness. Finding the one that is right for you is the key. 

Research and Evidence That Back Up the Benefits of Ecotherapy

There has been extensive research done proving the benefits of ecotherapy for a multitude of modern social afflictions.

The Journal of Environment psychology determined spending as little time as 20 minutes in nature every day improves your energy and reduces stress. 

three friends walking outdoors in the park enjoying the benefits of being outdoors in the sun

Professor of psychology Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester said that vitality created by a connection with the environment provides people with more energy and a better immune system.

Simply put, he stated, “Being outside in nature makes people feel more alive.”

Professor Richard Ryan, University of Rochester

Stanford researchers have come up with quantifiable evidence that a simple walk in nature can help reduce the symptoms of depression. The study compared people who spent 90 minutes a day in nature with people who spent the same time walking in a busy city. The nature group setting showed much lower activity in the part of the brain, which causes depression.

These results are in line with the statistics. Mental disorders are on the rise, as are the population of people who live in cities instead of rural environments. 

In fact, the Standford research papers went on to state that people who live in the city are 40% more likely to be diagnosed with a mood disorder. These statistics make it all the more important for city dwellers to try and spend at least some time in nature to decompress. 

What Is The Difference Between Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy?

Ecotherapy is simply the practical application of ecopsychology. It is putting into action the concepts outlined in the study of ecopsychology.

Ecopsychology combines the fields of ecology and psychology. Where ecology is the relationship between all living things and their environment, and psychology is how the human mind influences our behavior. 

So, ecopsychology is the study between humans and their relationship with the Earth and the natural world. The field explores the effect nature has on our physical and emotional states. 

It includes conservation from the perspective that we are all a part of nature. And as we work to protect and improve the environment, this same environment works to protect and heal ourselves. 

volunteers cleaning up the environment

In his book, Healing ourselves, healing the Earth. Howard Clinebell outlined three levels to the practice of ecopsychology.

  • First, we open ourselves to be healed and nurtured by nature
  • Second, we become enlightened spiritually and realize the importance of our connection with nature
  • The last step is to reach out to others and work together to protect the environment

The result is a harmonious relationship between humans and their environment.

The History of Ecotherapy

It’s hard to say for sure how long ecotherapy has been around. It’s safe to say its original form has been around since the beginning of man.

There are dozens of references in the Bible referring to ecotherapy. 

We know that even 40,000 years ago, ancient cultures were using a shaman. Shaman used natural plants like herbs for healing and to ward off demons. We call these demons anxiety nowadays. 

The term ecotherapy has only been around since the ’90s. This was the first big realization that we were losing our connection with nature. We now understand the detrimental effect it is having on us. 

Western cultures relied on gardens full of medicinal plants for healing. Hospitals in the 1800s had gardens of medicinal herbs used to treat and heal the sick.

Our great grandparents were very familiar with the uses of plants for everyday medicines. 

The industrial revolution put an end to this with a desire to automate and improve efficiency. Many of the hospital gardens turned into parking lots. The traditional practice of herbal medicine turned over to scientists and formulas. The desire for easy solutions replaced the tradition of passing down knowledge.

However, things have started to turn around with an increased awareness of the importance of bringing nature into our daily lives. And we have seen a renewed focus on natural ways to healing both the mind and body. 

Examples of Indigenous Healing

Indigenous people have always embraced the correlation between our healing and nature. This means that there is always an answer for what ails us be it physical or mental in nature.

the healing tools of ancient medicine setup on a table in the forest - copper bowls, insense burning and drums

The Ayahuasca ceremony is common in South and Central America. The Sweat-lodge healing ceremony more common to northern indigenous cultures. Both purge all the negative elements in your body. This purge of the body begins the process of healing the mind. 

These two indigenous ceremonies are now helping to heal all kinds of people with their modern ailments. 

Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic drug made from leaves. Ayahuasca is an out-of-body spiritual form of treatment and is used only in a controlled environment under the recommendation and guidance of an experienced therapist only.

The Ayahuasca is currently quite a controversial treatment when practiced in an unregulated setting. However, there is vast evidence of it helping a great number of people, including people suffering from deep psychological issues.

However, it is interesting to note that doctors now are prescribing much more dangerous manufactured drugs than Ayahuasca on a daily basis. 

Who Practices Ecotherapy?

Several schools are offer ecotherapy certificates and training. These courses range in depth from a post-graduate degree in ecopsychology to online learning webinars. 

a caregiver helping an older woman in a wheelchair outside with pink trees blooming in the background

Caregivers

But the practice of ecotherapy is used widely. A schoolteacher may take a class on a field trip where the students develop a deeper understanding of the outdoor world. Hospital workers take their patients outside for a walk to improve physical mobility and brighten their spirits. 

Individuals 

Parents use ecotherapy with their children when they go camping, teaching them to respect the environment. Employers sponsor their workers to adventure therapy programs to encourage creative thinking and teamwork. 

Suppose you are a farmer using permaculture or organic principles. You are practicing ecotherapy—people who are foragers for wild edible food in nature. Herbalists are also practicing ecotherapy.

If you have a garden, you will understand the benefits of getting your hands dirty and growing plants. The feeling of accomplishment in providing for yourself is medicine.

Licensed Practitioners

There are now established individuals and organizations that use the healing power in nature in their practice. They are successful in using ecotherapy as a form of treatment. 

In a more formal setting, ecotherapy techniques are taught to practicing psychotherapists. By using a combination of clinical techniques with natural ones, the therapy is much more comprehensive.

Social Groups

Social organizations use ecotherapy techniques to benefit the community and the individuals. The development of care farms serve the larger community as they share the produce and agricultural products and the students who participate in running the farms. 

As you can see, the practice of ecotherapy is widely used. It is up to us how we choose to practice and enjoy the benefits from a formal therapy session to making a concentrated effort to spend more time outdoors.  

Summary

There have been enough people paying attention to the demise of our connection to nature due to our modern ways and the causes of industrial disease. This attention has led to the resurgence of natural healing methods.

Observing that modern medicines in many ways have benefits, but in many ways, they are not working. 

Ecotherapy is providing the answer. We can now practice medicine that uses nature to cure. The mental benefits are the most obvious. When we have a closer relationship with nature, we become calmer.