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

What Actually Is Nature Therapy?

5 min.

Nature therapy, which helps people connect with their natural environment, has been practiced for centuries in indigenous cultures but more recently gained recognition among Western practitioners.

By: Kera Passante, MS, LPC

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Updated: January 29, 2024


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Table of Contents

Nature therapy utilizes the natural environment as a tool for healing. It has been practiced for centuries in many indigenous cultures but has more recently gained recognition among Western practitioners (like other holistic therapies). Also called ecotherapy or green therapy, nature therapy helps people reconnect with their evolutionary roots and revive their instinct to engage with and cherish the natural world. 

The therapeutic modality has been consistently found to have a wide range of positive mental and physical health effects. Doing an outdoor activity like hiking, gardening, or mindful walking has been shown to lower stress and enhance both physical and mental health. Also, nature therapy is seen by some as preventative medicine to address mental health issues prevalent in an increasingly urbanized and artificial world. 

Below, we delve further into what nature therapy actually entails, including how it works, what conditions it can be used to treat, and why it’s effective. 

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How does nature therapy actually work? 

Nature therapy is based on the idea that being in the natural environment can provide a calming, positive effect, especially for those struggling with mental health issues—a belief substantiated by research. As mentioned, studies have found that spending time outdoors relieves stress, specifically by releasing hormones like serotonin and dopamine, which boost mood. 

Also, many kinds of nature therapy incorporate an outdoor activity, like gentle exercise or mindfulness, which are practices known to boost well-being. Lastly, being present in nature offers a chance to disconnect from the world, specifically screens and social media. Taking a break from these distractions can greatly improve mental health. 

Types of nature therapy

Nature therapy encompasses various approaches that leverage the natural environment for health and well-being. Some nature-based therapeutic practices can be practiced in a group, while others are designed to connect individuals with nature. Also, nature therapy can be integrated into a traditional talk therapy session with a therapist. Below are some common examples of nature therapy. 

Forest bathing (shinrin-yoku)

Originating in Japan, shinrin-yoku (which translates to “forest bathing”) is the therapeutic practice of immersing oneself in a forest environment to promote health and well-being. It involves deliberately and mindfully experiencing the natural environment of forests through sights, sounds, smells, and textures. It’s not about hiking or exercising but rather about slowing down and connecting deeply with nature. Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the health benefits of forest bathing, including reduced blood pressure, improved immune function and mood, and increased feelings of well-being. 

Nature walks 

As its name suggests, nature walks encompass simply walking in nature. Whether in parks, forests, coastal areas, or other natural environments, these walks provide opportunities for individuals to immerse themselves in the beauty and tranquility of nature. Nature walks combine physical activity, mindfulness, and self-reflection. Due to all of these factors, nature walks have been shown in research to have significant mental health benefits, including decreasing anxiety and depression symptoms.

Horticulture therapy 

This nature therapy modality harnesses gardening activities to promote healing and improve mental and physical well-being. In horticulture therapy, people engage in various gardening activities tailored to their specific needs and abilities. These activities may include planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and tending to plants and gardens. The act of working with soil, plants, and the natural environment provides numerous therapeutic benefits. Notably, horticultural therapy has been found to increase engagement, promote a sense of accomplishment, and decrease stress and anxiety.

Horticultural therapy not only improves mental health but also enhances physical well-being by providing gentle exercise through gardening, promoting mobility, strength, and flexibility. This can be especially helpful for people recovering from illness, injury, or surgery, which is part of why horticultural therapy is used widely in rehabilitation settings like hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation centers.

Nature meditation

Nature meditation involves intentionally practicing meditation techniques in natural settings, combining the principles of mindfulness with the therapeutic benefits of being in nature. During nature meditation, people are encouraged to tune into their senses, fully experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations of the natural environment around them. An analysis of 25 studies found that nature meditation has a positive effect on health, especially when practiced in a forest or other wild environment. 

Blue mind therapy

An emergent form of nature therapy, blue mind therapy harnesses the therapeutic effects of water environments, including oceans, lakes, and rivers, on human health and well-being. It is rooted in the understanding that being near or immersed in water can have a calming and rejuvenating effect on the mind, body, and spirit—findings popularized in marine biologist Wallace Nichols’ book, “Blue Mind.” According to research outlined in the book, activities like swimming, surfing, kayaking, listening to water, or simply walking along the shore can amplify the therapeutic benefits of water environments. 

What can nature therapy help treat?

Nature therapy is becoming more popular as a holistic way to improve mental health, supported by research showing it can help with many mental health conditions and physical health issues, including:

  • Depression 
  • Stress and anxiety 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder 
  • Physical health problems 
  • Isolation 

What is virtual nature therapy? 

Although it may sound counterintuitive, 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 nature therapy uses technology like virtual reality or videos of natural settings to mimic the benefits of being in nature, typically as part of online therapy. For instance, someone might listen to a nature-themed meditation with natural sounds or watch a video of a forest or mountains to improve their mood or relax before talking with a therapist. 

Virtual nature therapy offers flexibility and customization, allowing you to access nature experiences as part of online therapy. Also, you can tailor your virtual experience to match your preferences, from the sights and sounds of nature to specific landscapes like mountains or beaches, making it a convenient and personalized way to enjoy the benefits of nature when you need it most.

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Nature therapy at Charlie Health

If you or a loved one is struggling with a mental health condition, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health offers a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) with more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with complex mental health conditions. Our expert clinicians incorporate a range of evidence-based therapies — including virtual nature therapy — into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing mental health issues is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to schedule a therapy session and start healing today.

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