2020 Mental Health Toolkit, Part 4: Nature As Therapy
We’ve seen an increased amount of society working from home as a result of the pandemic, meaning an increased dependence on technology and more screen time (Zoom fatigue anyone?). On top of economic uncertainty, heightened social anxiety, a surge in social media usage, and feelings of isolation, people are dealing with information overload, which has therapists recommending an age old remedy: nature (Healthline).
The therapeutic benefits of gardening and interacting with nature have been written about for centuries, across cultures, with undoubtable proof of healing benefits. It is now increasingly being prescribed as treatment for covid-related stresses, anxiety, depression, mental illness, PTSD, and addiction.
Whether it’s taking a mindful walk, watering houseplants, meditating near a body of water, creating sand mandalas, turning your yard into raised beds, creating a garden plan, or helping out in a community garden, cultivating a relationship with nature will invite presence, a sense of accomplishment and numerous other benefits to your mental & physical health.
What is Ecotherapy?
One thing to be said about 2020 is that it was a year of gardening and indulging in the outdoors for many. With the onset of the pandemic and new stresses to be dealt with, many turned to caring for plants or spending time in nature as a form of self-therapy. Others have been prescribed ecotherapy to deal with the heightened intensity of the past year.
Ecotherapy as a formal type of therapeutic treatment can be a structured activity related to exploring & appreciating the natural world. It may involve spending time with other people in a natural setting, working in nature, or simply experiencing the great outdoors – such as enjoying a stroll through the woods (Healthline).
Types of Ecotherapy
Ecotherapy is an umbrella term used to describe therapies that involve interacting with nature as a way to reduce stress, depression, anxiety, promote healing, and increase a general sense of well-being; it’s an approach that recognizes the importance of the human-nature connection (Good Therapy).
Additionally, it prioritizes this relationship as a two-way street, meaning it involves giving back and nurturing nature, which may also help with anxiety related to environmental degradation. These therapies range from nature meditations, horticultural therapy, animal-assisted therapy, and conservation activities to help with feelings of worthiness, reduce aggression, and/or create a sense of belonging.
Horticultural therapy is the practice of using plants and gardening to improve mental & physical health, with techniques ranging from mindful garden walks, flower arrangements, weeding, and pruning to planning/planting your own garden (American Horticultural Therapy Association).
Gardening requires learning new skills and gathering knowledge, such as plant identification, plant properties, what conditions they do best in, how to care for them, etc. Additionally, nurturing life can create a sense of accomplishment & responsibility, encourage mindfulness, and reinforce one’s ability to nurture.
Community gardening as ecotherapy gives individuals an opportunity to build relationships and adds the social element of working together, communicating, and fostering a sense of support for one another. It can also decrease one’s sense of loneliness and increase a sense of solidarity within their community.
This approach to mental health treatment involves camping and hiking with peers, learning coping techniques while building survival & teamwork skills. It is often most effective with youth when behavioral, psychological, or developmental issues are present (Psychology Today). This therapy involves a self-discovery process that occurs when skills are acquired and primitive tasks are achieved, ultimately helping to reset and improve physical & emotional wellbeing.
Animal- Assisted Therapy
Alongside a rise in home gardens during COVID, many animal shelters saw an increase in adoptions. Animal therapy can be under the supervision of professionals who may oversee the experience, such as with equine therapy, which involves taking care of and leading a horse; or it can be in the form of a prescribed support animal, such as a cat, dog, horse, pig, bird, or other animal (Very Well Mind).
The concept behind animal-assisted therapy is that animals can provide a sense of comfort and divert attention from stresses (Psychology Today). When a relationship or bond is formed, it can create a sense of self-worth, trust, and partnership. Often this therapy occurs in conjunction with traditional psychotherapy.
What You Can Try on Your Own
As always, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing stress; but so far I can recommend cutting back on technology, getting an animal, or starting a garden. Below are some other ideas on how you can nurture your relationship with nature as a way to cope with the stresses of covid circumstances and life in general.
Forest Bathing, or shinrin-yoku, is a Japanese practice that means bathing in the atmosphere of the forest and operates under the context that spending quality time with the trees will improve one’s mental health (Healthline). Shinrin in Japanese means ‘forest’ and yoku means ‘bath’.
This is different than just hiking, as it requires a silencing of the mind and the opening of all five senses: observing & embracing the sights, sounds, and smells of the jaunt. Set aside time to simply head towards the trees, turn off your cell phone and internal chatter, and let nature do the talking.
Mandala Making in Nature
Mandala making is a Buddhist practice of creating intricate designs using a variety of materials. Creating mandalas is said to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety, while also serving as a focus tool for meditation. Observing natural patterns can be a soothing reminder of the interconnectedness of nature and space.
You can make a mandala by gathering sticks, flowers, plants, shells, seeds, rocks and whatever else you can find in nature. Begin by making a focal point and then laying in patterns of your choice, moving outward in a circle. Here is a link if you’re looking for some guidance and inspiration.
If you’re someone who doesn’t have space for an outdoor garden, get a few house plants and start a small herb garden to tend. By getting into the routine of watering these plants and checking in on them, you may gradually feel a sense of purpose and responsibility. You’ll also get some tasty herbs to cook with!
Healthline: Reducing Stress with ‘Park Prescription’
American Horticultural Therapy Association: What is Horticultural Therapy?
Good Therapy: Types of Ecotherapy
Healthline: Types of Ecotherapy
Psychology Today: Why Wilderness Therapy Works
Psychology Today: Animal-Assisted Therapy
Very Well Mind: Equine Therapy Mental Health Treatment
Healthline: Forest Therapy