Updated: Jul 26
Hi there, Gina here. I’d like to help you understand what ecotherapy is and how it can be a helpful form of therapy.
The exercise in the next paragraph is a brief and teeny, tiny example of a mindfulness exercise used in ecotherapy that helps relax our brains by bringing us into the now. If you don’t appreciate mindfulness in general, that’s totally okay, and you’re allowed to ignore the next paragraph entirely!
I invite you to take a few minutes to arrive here. Perhaps you feel your bottom resting gently in the chair or your back leaning against a couch. Or maybe you are standing and note the weight of your feet pressing into the Earth. Maybe you acknowledge any sounds or smells in the environment you are a part of. Maybe you are in the presence of a form of nature, like witnessing tree branches swaying in the breeze outside, a house plant on your desk, or a beloved pet curled up beside you. Take a moment to observe this part of nature. What color(s) is it? Does it have a smell? What kind of texture does it have? Does it make a sound when you touch it? I’ll invite you to come back to feeling the weight of your body grounding into wherever you are standing, sitting, or lying down. Do you feel any differently now than you did a few minutes ago, before doing this exercise?
So, what exactly is ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy, sometimes referred to as nature therapy, is a branch of ecopsychology, and these two terms don’t mean the same thing. Ecopsychology is built on the theory that our relationship with nature (or lack thereof) is connected to our well-being. As we evolved with and in the natural world it nurtured us physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Ecotherapy builds upon this theory by bringing nature into the scope of treatment so a client’s relationship with the living world can be strengthened, thus improving the client’s mental health and overall quality of life.
There are several branches of ecotherapy, including horticultural (gardening) therapy, animal-assisted therapy (this includes equine therapy), forest bathing and nature walks, wilderness therapy, and nature-oriented meditations and visualizations. Ecotherapy can be done indoors, outdoors, and even remotely, and it can be molded to fit a client’s individual needs. For example, if a client really resonates with an ocean landscape but we’re working together remotely, we may incorporate aspects of the ocean into our session. This may look like doing a marine-themed guided visualization for grounding the mind and nervous system when discussing and processing hard topics, practice embodying a particular characteristic of the ocean to assist with getting through a difficult task, or exploring external metaphors found in oceanic sceneries that mirror internal experiences. My disclaimer here is that like any other form of therapy, ecotherapy is not a “magic fix” and may not be a good fit for every person.
What does the science say?
Scientific studies have increasingly more to say about ecotherapy and the results look promising. According to Kahn and Hasbach (2012), stress reduction has been shown to be a key-perceived benefit of ecotherapy in over 100 studies. In addition, a study published by Ibes et al. (2018), found that brief exposures to green spaces which included mind-body skills relieved stress in 82% of the participants. Ecotherapy has also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, and trauma-related diagnoses (Williams et al., 2020), as well as symptoms of attention difficulties and ADHD (Summers & Vivian, 2018, and Kamitsis & Simmonds, 2017). In addition to reducing symptoms of mental health diagnoses, ecotherapy has also been shown to increase self-esteem, creativity, and problem solving (Pedretti-Burls, 2007, and Chalquist, 2009).
Why not just go outside by myself? Why do I need a therapist?
You absolutely can incorporate the natural world into your life and I encourage it in a way that feels good to you! Ecotherapy can be helpful for people who are looking to improve their quality of life by getting curious about their connection with the natural world in a therapeutic setting. It is typically blended with other forms of therapy to help the client achieve their goal(s). Therapists who include ecotherapy in their work are trained professionals who have the skillsets to bring nature into session in a way that safely meets the client where they are.
Ecotherapy may be for you if you:
want to alleviate symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and/or PTSD
want to reduce stress and restore balance in your life and body
want to process grief and loss
experience emotional pain and worry related to the climate crisis
enjoy incorporating spirituality into your healing
notice you feel better after time spent in nature
Chalquist, C. (2009). A look at the ecotherapy research evidence. Ecopsychology, 1(2), 64–74. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2009.0003
Ibes, D., Hirama, I., & Schuyler, C. (2018). Greenspace Ecotherapy interventions: The stress-reduction potential of green micro-breaks integrating nature connection and mind-body skills. Ecopsychology, 10(3), 137–150. https://doi.org/10.1089/eco.2018.0024
Kamitsis, I., Simmonds, J.G. Using Resources of Nature in the Counselling Room: Qualitative Research into Ecotherapy Practice. Int J Adv Counselling 39, 229–248 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10447-017-9294-y
Pedretti-Burls, Ambra. Ecotherapy: A Therapeutic and Educative Model. Journal of Mediterranean Ecology. 8, 2007: 19-25. http://www.jmecology.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/19-25-Pedretti-Burls.pdf
Summers JK, Vivian DN. Ecotherapy - A Forgotten Ecosystem Service: A Review. Front Psychol. 2018 Aug 3;9:1389. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01389. PMID: 30123175; PMCID: PMC6085576
Williams, T., Barnwell, G. C., & Stein, D. J. (2020). A Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials on the Effectiveness of Ecotherapy Interventions for Treating Mental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.25.20201525
Wilson, N., Fleming, S., Jones, R., Lafferty, K., Cathrine, K., Seaman, P. and Knifton, L. (2010), "Green shoots of recovery: the impact of a mental health ecotherapy programme", Mental Health Review Journal, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 4-14. https://doi.org/10.5042/mhrj.2010.0366
Wilson, N., Ross, M., Lafferty, K. and Jones, R. (2008), "A review of ecotherapy as an adjunct form of treatment for those who use mental health services", Journal of Public Mental Health, Vol. 7 No. 3, pp. 23-35. https://doi.org/10.1108/17465729200800020