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Back to Nature: How Ecotherapy can calm the stress of modern life

Ecotherapy, sometimes referred to as green therapy or nature therapy, is an umbrella term to describe immersing oneself in nature to promote growth, healing and positive mental health. Ecotherapy involves exposing oneself to nature as much as possible; whether that’s through a walk in a park or woodland, planting vegetables to looking after a plant on your windowsill. Ecotherapy may not hold the cure to all the problems of industrial modern life, nor can it be judged in the same way as other long-established well well-researched therapy practices. However initial indications and a growing body of evidence show clear signs of promise that ecotherapy can help promote healing, mental health and calm. In this blog, I’d like us to explore the evidence that supports ecotherapy and investigate ways we can all implement ecotherapy into our everyday lives.

Our Modern Urban Lifestyles & Mental Health

Studies suggest that we spend almost 90% of our time indoors, far less than previous generations. Modern industrialised life offers a plethora of advantages and opportunities, but could it be negatively impacting our mental and physical health? Studies that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the negative aspects of time spent indoors including increased chance of irritability, depression and anxiety, reduced libido, and decreased quality of sleep. Time spent indoors can limit your exposure to natural sunlight which can disrupt your circadian rhythm,  your body’s 24-hour cycle or hormones that help regulate sleep, your digestive system and more.

Nature As A Healing Space

Historically we have always had a connection with nature. People have taken walks in nature to calm a stressed mind for thousands of years. However, with the increase in urbanisation, increasingly long workdays and the mass use of technology it has become more important than ever to make time to spend in nature. Ecotherapy is a combination of thousands of years of indigenous wisdom and new scientific research which validates ecotherapy as a viable way to improve mental health and aid recovery. 

The Benefits Of Ecotherapy For Mental Health

Having established that time indoors can be negative to your mental health, let’s look into the potential benefits of spending time outdoors. Studies have found that spending time outdoors can reduce your cortisol levels (your fight or flight hormone) which can reduce stress and settle an disturbed mind. Spending time in sunlight can also increase your vitamin D levels. Deficiency in vitamin D can increase your risk of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. 

Ecotherapy isn’t just about the physiological impact on your mental health. Ecotherapy can be a good opportunity for social interaction, skill building and exercise which in turn can all have benefits for your mental health. Studies have shown that exercising outdoors can be even more beneficial than exercising indoors. A natural environment can offer opportunities for socialising that might not occur in the comfort of your own home. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to health as obesity.  After the pandemic a few years ago, many of us felt the impact on our social lives, time management and waistline. Time spent indoors can be productive, but time outdoors can help promote positive health actions that over time can boost our mental health and sense of wellbeing.

Promoting Calm Through Ecotherapy

Ecotherapy can entail much more than going for a walk. Even maintaining a houseplant can reinforce our connection with nature and remind us of the wider world outside ourselves. Finding time to spend outdoors can be worked into our daily routine. Even finding a route home or to work that traverses some green spaces can be beneficial. You can make a concerted hour of the day to engage in ecotherapy or adapt your daily routine to spend more time in open and green spaces. Here are some common practices of ecotherapy and how you can implement them into your routine.

Gardening

For centuries people have grown plants for nourishment, beauty and enjoyment. Caring for and maintaining plants can offer a sense of long-term gratification that is seldom found in the fast pace of modern life. Gardening is a great excuse to get outside in fresh air and natural sunlight bathing your skin. Gardening may also offer some less obvious benefits. Mycobacterium vaccae, a type of healthy bacteria found in soil, could help trigger the release of serotonin, the hormone linked to positive moods.

Walking And Talking

As simple as it sounds, walking and talking involves getting outside and communicating. Leaving our homes or workplaces can be a good way of putting problems associated with that space into perspective. Changing your environment can lead to feeling more emotionally open to discuss concerns and worries without feeling trapped or under pressure. 

Get Outdoors, At Night

Just as our bodies benefit from direct sunlight, studies have shown that there may be benefits from experiencing natural dark at night time. Studies have shown that time spent in natural darkness can increase serotonin levels. Activities like stargazing have captured the human imagination and calmed stressed minds since the dawn of humanity.

Outdoor Activities As A Group

Being outdoors can be a great way to encourage socialising and shared human interaction. Group litter picking, hiking and gardening groups are a great way of meeting people with a similar interest in spending time outdoors. A recent study found that gardening as a community can lead to a sense of emotional well-being. By sharing your experiences with others, you can gain a greater insight into your own mental well-being and be supported by others when you need it most.

Conclusion

One of the biggest advantages of ecotherapy is that it is widely accessible and can be practised by anyone. Although it’s easier for someone living in the countryside to get out and experience nature, even the most dense of cities will provide some green space. Not only is it simple to implement, it’s also completely natural and can cost nothing. There are many special interest groups that engage in forms of ecotherapy all over the world, so if you don’t want to engage in it alone, look for local gardening or hiking groups that you may share common interests with. Reconnecting with nature is a great way of calming a stressed mind and instilling you with a sense of emotional well-being. So get outside today, you have nothing to lose but stress and your time.

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