For most of its existence homo sapiens has lived in harmony with nature as hunter/gatherers. Such a lifestyle requires a vast knowledge of the seasons, and of the patterns and habits of wildlife, and of plants and herbs and their healing powers. Industrialization and urbanization are fairly recent phenomena on an evolutionary scale. We still carry the genetic memory of our ancestors who lived in untamed nature. Our brains are wired for the outdoors and nature. A growing body of research demonstrates that not only do we feel better when we make time for nature, it is actually a requirement for good physical and mental health!
The field of ecopsychology studies how humans interact with nature. Ecopsychology is a philosophy combining elements of psychology and ecology. It is the philosophy that mental health is contingent upon the health of the environment. Humankind and the environment are part of an interrelated system. We are not separate from nature. We are a part of nature.
At its core, ecopsychology suggests that there is a synergistic relation between planetary and personal well-being; that the needs of the one are relevant to the needs of the other. In short, what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. Ecotherapy is the practical application of this knowledge. In ecotherapy nature is the “therapist.” In practicing the techniques of ecotherapy, we allow the healing power of nature to work its magic on us. Hölzel et al (2011) demonstrated that meditative states of mindfulness stimulate neural growth in the cerebral cortex in the areas of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, good judgment, insight, and impulse control. Nature experiences have been demonstrated in several studies to produce meditative states (fascination, relaxation, and mindfulness).
Experiences in and with nature, or natural experiences, are ways in which we consciously choose to allow nature to work its healing magic on us. Some types of natural experiences include:
Facilitated Wilderness Experiences
In these types of experiences, a trained facilitator takes you into the woods for an adventure. These events can be anything from a wilderness experience in ecotherapy led by a therapist or counselor, to a hunting trip led by a wilderness guide. Kuo & Taylor (2004) demonstrated that therapy and other activities conducted in outdoor settings reduced symptoms of Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Whittington (2006) found that wilderness skills training gave adolescent girls increased self-esteem and self-confidence and helped to shatter gender stereotypes.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal therapy in the form of contact with pets and/or wild or domesticated animals enhances self-actualization and can lessen symptoms of depression. Antonioli & Reveley (2005) found that simply swimming with dolphins can greatly reduce symptoms of depression. Other studies have shown that owning pets, or even just watching fish in an aquarium, can greatly reduce stress. Equine Therapy uses horses to facilitate mental and physical wellbeing. There are many other ways that animals can help us lead happier lives, as any pet owner can tell you!
Sempik & Spurgeon (2006) demonstrated that therapeutic gardening reduces stress and lessens symptoms of depression. Blair (2009) discovered that gardening can be used as a means of helping school children to enhance self-sufficiency, social identity, meaning, and self-integration. There’s just something very healing about planting something and nurturing it as you watch it grow.
Sponselee, et al (2004) discovered that outdoor activities reduce stress and restore energy. If you’ve ever had to miss a vacation, you’re probably painfully aware of the regenerative power of taking a week or so off to spend time in nature. Roggenbuck & Driver (2000) found that you don’t need a facilitator or guide to enjoy health and well-being benefits from the use of wilderness areas. There’s a reason we’re attracted to beaches and national parks!
Architecture Incorporating Natural Spaces
Nature can be incorporated into the home environment through the use of plants, an aquarium, or even recorded nature sounds. Alvarsson et al (2010) studied the positive mental health effects of listening to nature sounds.
Purcell, et all in 2007 revealed that outdoor classrooms enhanced many critical factors of the educational experience, including: Enhanced retention, better focus, more attention to detail, less hyperactivity, more relaxation, increased confidence and self-esteem, and better cognitive functioning