A teen girl in a red bandana waters a plant with a large green watering can during a nature therapy session

What is Nature Therapy?

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Nature therapy has long been recognized as an effective way to manage mental health conditions. Studies have shown that spending time in nature can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Clinically Reviewed By:
Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

Nature therapy is a holistic approach to mental and physical health that uses the natural environment as an important tool for healing. It has been practiced for centuries in many cultures, but it is just now beginning to gain recognition in the western world. Nature therapy can be done individually or in a group setting either in-person or virtually. It may include activities such as hiking, gardening, and spending time in natural surroundings, among others. This type of therapy is based on the belief that humans are naturally connected to nature and spending time in it can reduce stress and help improve physical and mental wellbeing. 

This blog will cover the different types of nature therapy, how it works, the mental health conditions nature therapy can help with, and why nature therapy is effective. We’ll also discuss virtual nature therapy, a modality we’re proud to offer at Charlie Health, and offer some tips on how to engage with nature therapy at home. 

What is nature therapy? 

As introduced above, nature therapy (which is sometimes referred to as ecotherapy or green therapy) is the practice of using nature as a means to improve mental, physical, and emotional health. It is a form of therapy that can be done individually or in a group setting, and it involves activities such as hiking, gardening, and spending time in natural surroundings.

Nature therapy as a concept has ancient roots and is thought to be rooted in basic evolutionary psychology. In fact, according to this study, “humans have spent 99.9% of their time [on Earth] living in a natural environment.” Nature therapy aims to reconnect modern humans with their evolutionary past by reigniting biophilia, the tendency to interact closely with and care deeply for the natural world, and thus healing mental health concerns related to human disconnect with the natural world. While more research needs to be done on nature therapy as a therapeutic modality, nature therapy has been consistently found to have a wide range of positive benefits for both physical and mental health. On the flip side, too much exposure to non-natural environments is believed to cause “excessive nervous tension, over-anxiety, hateful disposition, impatience, and irritability.” In this way, researchers view nature therapy as “preventative medicine,” in addition to a direct way to address ongoing mental health issues. 

Types of nature therapy

There are various types of nature therapy, each with its own unique approach to addressing emotional and physical issues. Ecotherapy, or nature-based psychotherapy, focuses on developing a meaningful connection with nature while exploring one’s emotions and difficulties. This type of therapy may include activities such as going for walks or hikes in natural settings, gardening, or simply spending time observing wildlife. Experts believe that connecting with the outdoors can help people develop a more positive attitude towards life and their individual path. 

Bioenergetic analysis also relies on nature as part of its healing process. This type of therapy uses body-oriented practices such as yoga, tai chi, and qigong to bring about physical and emotional balance by focusing on alignment with the surrounding environment. Bioenergetic practitioners believe that when we create harmony between our bodies and the environment around us, we can open ourselves up to greater well-being. 

Nature-assisted therapy combines traditional methods of psychotherapy with activities in nature. These activities can include walking or running in natural environments, gardening, or even kayaking or rock climbing. Nature-assisted therapists use these activities to create opportunities for clients to explore feelings related to their difficulties while engaging in healthy pursuits in the outdoors or by bringing the outdoors inside to explore nature in a more familiar environment like a participant's room or a therapist's office.. 

Finally, forest therapy is an emerging field that uses trees and forests as a source of healing energy known as “shinrin yoku” (or “forest bathing”). Forest therapists often lead guided walks through forests or even set up temporary campgrounds so participants can spend extended periods surrounded by nature's beauty and tranquility. During these walks participants engage in mindfulness practices such as noticing smells, sounds, colors, textures, and shapes – all designed to bring about relaxation and rejuvenation. 

By immersing oneself in the beauty of the natural world one can experience profound relaxation and peacefulness, allowing them access to powerful inner resources for self-healing on multiple levels.

How does nature therapy work? 

The concept behind nature therapy is that being in the natural environment can provide a calming effect for those struggling with mental health issues. Studies have found that spending time outdoors relieves stress by releasing hormones like serotonin and dopamine which boost our moods. 

Furthermore, being outside in nature can provide us with distraction from our regular lives, allowing us to feel relaxed while being immersed in an environment free from any external stimuli or noise. Additionally, there are various activities that can be incorporated into nature therapy such as hiking or gardening which not only give you something else to focus on but also provide an opportunity to build strength both physically and mentally. 

Finally, research has shown that there are many benefits associated with just looking at nature scenes including decreased levels of stress hormones, improved concentration levels, increased self-esteem, better memory recall and improved problem-solving skills.  

What cab nature therapy help treat?

As nature therapy continues to grow in popularity among people seeking both an evidence-based and holistic approach to their mental health, research has shown that connecting with nature in various ways can reduce: 

For depression specifically, studies have found that outdoor activities such as walking or biking can help improve symptoms of depression by providing distraction from intrusive thoughts, as well as providing an opportunity for exercise which is known to be helpful for reducing depressive symptoms. Similarly for anxiety, one study showed that taking part in outdoor activities provided a significant reduction in feelings of anxiousness. Furthermore, research suggests that exercising outdoors has been linked with increased resilience over time, meaning it may help people to cope better when faced with stressful situations moving forward. Finally, for those suffering from PTSD evidence suggests that spending time outdoors reduces symptoms of hyper-arousal (heightened alertness) while aiding relaxation through the distracting effects of being immersed in the natural environment.  

This was further confirmed by a 2022 study conducted at the University of Essex which found that regular exposure to green spaces improved mental health and reduced symptoms associated with depression. The University of Essex has also found that nature therapy may be a helpful tool for survivors of abuse. A separate study conducted in Japan (mentioned above) also found evidence linking spending time in nature to feelings of relaxation. This was attributed to a decrease in cortisol levels when walking through forests or gardens compared to urban environments. 

In addition to helping alleviate mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, there is also evidence that nature therapy can help improve physical health by reducing blood pressure and improving cardiovascular endurance. A study conducted at Stanford University found that walking outside on greener trails had a positive effect on cardiovascular function compared to walking indoors on treadmills for the same amount of time. 

Finally, another important finding from research into nature therapy is its potential to increase social connectedness by bringing people together in outdoor activities like gardening, bird-watching or even volunteering at local parks or gardens. Research suggests that participating in these activities helps create a sense of community while providing an opportunity for meaningful engagement with others while being surrounded by nature’s beauty. Reducing feelings of isolation is critical to addressing some of the most serious mental health conditions associated with the ongoing youth mental health and suicide epidemic.

Overall, scientific evidence continues to support the numerous benefits associated with connecting with nature that are both accessible and sustainable.

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Why Does Nature Therapy Work? 

In addition to providing relief from symptoms associated with different mental health conditions mentioned above there are several other reasons why this type of therapy works so effectively: 

Connecting with nature

There is something therapeutic about simply connecting with nature - whether it's listening to birds chirping or admiring the beauty around you - this connection provides us with calming satisfaction which has been proven effective at improving overall well-being; 

Exercise 

Exercise itself has been linked to numerous benefits when it comes to psychological well-being so incorporating this into your session helps increase the effectiveness; 

Mindfulness 

Although we don’t necessarily need a therapist present during our sessions this type of therapy encourages mindful practices which means we become more aware of our thoughts while developing healthier ways to cope;  

Disconnect from everyday life

Finally, by disconnecting ourselves from everyday life we give ourselves an opportunity to take a break from demands placed upon us thus promoting relaxation. Reducing screen time can be hugely beneficial for improving overall mental well-being.  

A group of teens sit together outside for a nature therapy session

Benefits Of nature therapy 

There are various benefits associated with participating in this form of therapy including but not limited too: 

  • Reduced stress levels which leads to greater emotional regulation
  • Improved concentration levels;
  • Increased self-esteem due to feeling inspired by the environment around you
  • Better memory recall due to heightened focus achieved through immersing yourself within your surroundings
  • Strengthened physical abilities depending upon what type activity undertaken
  • Enhanced creativity as natural environments often stimulate creative thought patterns
  • Developed problem solving skills due increasing awareness developed through mindfulness practices encouraged during these sessions
  • Improved relationships due to engaging conversations had between participants during group sessions

Overall participating in nature therapy has potential for delivering significant improvements across multiple aspects of our lives thereby helping us achieve healthier mindsets positively impacting our overall well-being both mentally and physically.

It's important to remember that nature therapy is not a replacement for traditional forms of therapy or medical treatment. However, it can be a powerful complement to these approaches and can help to improve overall well-being. So next time you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed, consider taking a walk in the park or spending some time in nature. Your mind and body will thank you.

What is virtual nature therapy? 

Virtual nature therapy is a way for people to experience the therapeutic benefits of nature without physically being in a natural setting. This can be especially helpful for people who live in urban areas or who may have mobility issues that prevent them from easily accessing natural environments. Virtual therapy programs may incorporate virtual nature therapy as a way to build holistic treatment plans. 

Virtual nature therapy aims to replicate these benefits through the use of technology, such as virtual reality or video footage of natural environments. For example, a person might spend intentional time looking out of their window and observing how even the sight of nature alters their mood and mindset. Alternatively, they might watch a video of a peaceful forest or a mountain range, using it as a form of meditation or relaxation.

One of the main benefits of virtual nature therapy is that it can be done anytime, anywhere. Whether you are at home, at work, or on the go, you can access virtual nature experiences. This makes it a convenient way to get a quick nature fix when you need it most.

Another benefit of virtual nature therapy is that it can be customized to your individual needs and preferences. If you prefer the sound of a bubbling stream to the sound of waves crashing on the shore, you can find a virtual nature experience that suits your preferences. Similarly, if you prefer the look of a mountain landscape to a beach scene, you can choose the virtual environment that best suits your needs.

Overall, virtual nature therapy can be a valuable tool for anyone looking to experience the therapeutic benefits of nature without physically being in a natural setting. Whether you are seeking relief from stress, looking to improve your mental health, or just want to connect with something larger than yourself, virtual nature therapy can help you find the peace and tranquility you need.

Nature therapy at Charlie Health

At Charlie Health, our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program combines both traditional psychotherapy practices and holistic treatment modalities. This personalized approach to care brings together supported groups, individual therapy, and family therapy for young people (12-28) struggling with serious mental health issues. 

If you or someone you love is in need of a higher level of care, reach out today.

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