Eco-therapy: what is it and how can it make you happier?

By planetm | September 27, 2021

Many of us find being amidst nature immensely relaxing, and now there’s plenty of evidence explaining why. Ruby Deevoy digs into the roots of eco-therapy.

If you’ve ever felt the desire to get away from it all, to take a trip out into the wilds to clear your mind and re-set your perspective, you were really onto something.

Historically, a prescription to take some time off from the hustle and bustle of urban life was fairly common and today (with an impressive amount of studies to back up the benefits) this is enjoying a resurgence in the form of eco-therapy – a complementary therapy, which taps into the beneficial impact nature has on our emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing.

The symbiosis between human beings and nature is evident in a staggering number of studies and because of this, many psychology professionals and NHS GPs now believe that the outside world makes the ideal setting for working therapeutically.

Happier, healthier, kinder

Eco-therapist and accredited mindfulness teacher Karen Liebenguth specialises in working with clients in natural settings to tap into the beneficial impact nature has on our physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing. She frequently prescribes a daily dose of what she has dubbed ‘Vitamin N’ and believes that spending time in nature is all many people need to reduce stress, stimulate new ways of thinking and creativity, gain fresh insights and even find a connection to something bigger than ourselves.

“Where regular psychotherapy is about understanding our conditioning and psychological history so that we can free ourselves of the past and live our life fully in the here and now, eco-therapy is about improving physical and mental health through nature-based activities,” Karen explains.

“Exercising outdoors, getting involved in community garden projects or taking on coaching while walking in green space are all forms of eco-therapy I’ve seen work wonders for many people from all walks of life. It’s an enjoyable, practical way to clear the mind and ground us in the moment and doesn’t necessarily mean exploring a person’s family conditioning. However, when psychotherapy takes place in nature, this can happen at the same time.”

Just being in nature, without any assisted therapy involved, has been shown time and again to positively impact mental health in many ways. This lays the groundwork for an open and positive mind-set that can encourage some really fantastic breakthroughs.

One of the largest studies of its kind, published in the Lancet Planetary Health journal in April 2018, revealed that of the 95,000 participants across ten different UK cities, those living in leafier communities were four per cent less likely to suffer from a major depressive disorder. A further review of nature-based interventions for mental healthcare, reported by Natural England and mental health charity Mind, showed that focusing on three ‘green care initiatives’ (care farming, environmental conservation and therapeutic horticulture) helped to greatly lessen symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.  is in turns leads to a boosted immune system, increased generosity and connection towards others and higher levels of focus and energy.

Prescribing nature

Cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer PhD recently hypothesised that being in nature (particularly for an extended period of time) gives the prefrontal cortex the chance to dial down, rest and de-stress in such a way that can dramatically improve cognitive function, productivity and creativity when you get back to ‘reality’.  The sharp drop in stress hormone cortisol when spending time immersed in nature has also been noted by many researchers. Perhaps most famously was the Japanese study focusing on ‘forest bathing’, conducted on 260 people at 24 sites, which found that the average concentration of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone, in people who gazed on forest scenery for 20 minutes was 13.4 per cent lower than that of people in urban settings. Woodland walks, compared with urban walks, showed a 12.4 per cent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven per cent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 per cent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 per cent decrease in heart rate.

But it’s not just the serenity of getting away from the city or daily noise that makes nature the perfect setting for healing. It’s also that the natural world itself puts out a wide array of compounds seemingly designed to help the human body heal and become uplifted. Phytoncide, released by trees, increases our Natural Killer cells, which play a huge part in accelerated healing, the host rejection of tumours and virally infected cells. Common soil microbes, namely mycobacterium vaccae, have been found to cause cytokine levels to rise, resulting in higher levels of serotonin while also improving cognitive function, bettering concentration and strengthening the immune system.

So, how can you bring the tonic of nature into your life? Karen Liebenguth suggests trying a variety of different ecotherapies to find which ones suit your needs best.

“There are many different ways to practice eco-therapy. Lots of people find gardening therapy to be a great way to clear the mind, find a sense of grounding and a connection to the mind, heart and body. Spending time with animals is also an integral part of reconnecting with nature. But many of my clients enjoy just going for a walk in nature to talk through some of their issues. I often say they walk their way out of an issue and into a solution.”

As we stroll side-by-side with another person, immersed in nature, the difficulty of articulating challenging thoughts melts away among the soothing repetition of putting one foot in front of the other.

A taste of the wild

Eco-therapy is available to everyone, at any time, just by going for regular walks in your local park, beach or woodland with an intent to re-centre your mind, body and soul. But there are other forms of eco-therapy which can help take your wellness to the next level.

Wilderness therapy – really getting back to basics can be an amazing experience for those wanting to reconnect with nature, themselves and others. Wilderness therapy is just this, perhaps during an ‘off the grid’ style camping break or a pre-planned wilderness trail. You can go it alone (or with friends) by heading out into the wilds with the bare necessities and trying your hand at primitive skills such as fire starting, fishing and cooking over the campfire; sign up for a group wilderness experience or bush craft program; or head out with an eco-therapist who will help you rediscover your truest self, away from everyday life.

Gardening therapy – nurturing plants is often a great stepping stone to nurturing yourself, as well as an easy way to increase serotonin and dopamine levels. Studies have shown that just 30 minutes a week spent looking after an allotment can boost feelings of both self-esteem and mood by dissolving tension, depression, anger, and confusion. So much so that some NHS GPs prescribe community gardening projects to combat anxiety and depression.

Adventure therapy – this form of experiential education can inspire emotional healing, help you learn more about yourself and overcome obstacles in life through direct experience with fun physical and mental challenges. Most adventure therapy will encourage you to venture outside of your comfort zone and incorporate positive behavioural goals and objectives into programmes of activity that are designed to build trust and give a real sense of achievement, while immersed in nature. Working with others to problem-solve beyond office walls is an important element of adventure therapy, so this is one to do in a group and under the watchful eye of a professional.

Reconnecting via eco-therapy

Next time you’re out on a nature walk or indulging in a little nature therapy, eco-therapist Karen Liebenguth recommends trying the ‘4-3-2-1’ exercise that she often shares with clients.

  • First, notice four things that you see and rest your eyes on these four things, taking them in one at a time.
  • Then, listen out for three sounds that you hear. Really tune into each sound.
  • Next, focus on two things that you can feel the wind on your skin, the material of your clothes on your body or your feet on the earth.
  • Lastly, notice one thing you can smell or touch. The earthy smell in the air, the touch of a tree trunk, a stone, a leaf or the grass. Take time to experience it fully.

This article first appeared in issue 12 of Planet Mindful magazine.

Join the Planet Mindful community and make a pact to prioritise your self care – try an issue here for just 99p!