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With the hectic modern lifestyle, stress is taking a toll on human health more than ever. Physical and mental illnesses are affecting more and more people. Can ecotherapy be the answer?
The statistics are mind-boggling. Around fifty percent of all Americans will be affected by a mental illness or disorder during their life. This is a true mental health emergency.
Unfortunately, with mental health, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The road to feeling good in your own skin and your mind is one of trial and error.
Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the ones that work best. Do you find that a walk helps you release tension? Does looking at greenery or passing water bring you a sense of calm? Does a breath of fresh air instantly make you feel more grounded?
Perhaps it’s time to look into ecotherapy and all the related grounding techniques. These draw from the natural world around you to support your mental and physical health.
Nature therapy, or ecotherapy was born from the branch of psychology called ecopsychology. This field is a cross between ecology and psychology. It explores the emotional bond between people and the natural environment.
Also known as green therapy, this kind of therapy seeks to heal physical and mental illness. It does it by bringing people closer to nature. Proponents and practitioners believe that the repression of the human bond with the natural environment is at the core of mental health issues.
Studies have shown that ecotherapy works. They show that and even such small things as having a green space near your home or office can make a huge difference to your health.
Sometimes ecotherapy just means that a therapist will incorporate nature into your traditional talk therapy for more intense mental health benefits. But it can also refer to different techniques that fall under the umbrella term of nature therapy.
Even though nature therapy might sound like nothing more than wishful thinking, ecotherapy research evidence is actually very solid.
One recent study explored the connection between nature exposure and health. Researchers measured the health benefits of being able to directly access nature with active engagement. This includes different forms of physical activity in natural settings. Sometimes it’s just passively enjoying natural environments, or virtually watching nature scenes through pictures or videos.
The study showed that spending time in a natural setting aids stress recovery and helps with a number of mental health conditions. This includes depression and anxiety. it also affects your physical well-being. The researchers also found that it:
Meditation goes back thousands of years, and there are thousands of techniques. This means that everyone is able to find something that works for them. Most techniques focus on the breath or repeating a mantra, or involve practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, without passing judgment or reacting to anything.
Meditation and mindfulness are one of the most researched methods of managing mental health disorders. A series of studies conducted at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital have found that meditation changes brain waves. It also changes and the activity patterns of the amygdala. That is an ancient structure in the brain in charge of instinctual responses to danger. It is also the place where anxiety starts.
The most interesting part of their findings is that the change happened permanently. They found that positive emotions of calm and life satisfaction lasted not were permanent. Furthermore, over time, it actually changed the physical structure of the brain, thickening it. This resulted in lasting improved mental health.
The effects of nature-based meditation are amplified and offer even better mental health benefits than meditation practice indoors. Simply put, nature enhances the effects of meditation and mindfulness for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a number of other conditions.
Modern life moves quickly and often leaves people out of sync with how their bodies are wired to work. In evolutionary terms, the human body just cannot catch up fast enough to the constant lifestyle changes. People now live with what author Richard Louv calls nature deficit disorder. This is an existence that is more removed and separate from nature than ever before.
One of the biggest disruptions the body has to deal with on a daily basis is the disruption to the circadian rhythm. This is the natural sleep-wake cycle governed by the hormone melatonin. In turn, it is governed by the sun and the wavelengths of its light at different times of the day.
At dawn and dusk, the sun emits light from the red and near-infrared spectrum. These are is particularly important for regulating sleeping patterns. However, because nowadays most people are still asleep at dawn, and they get too much blue light exposure. It comes from different screens long after sunset. This results in insomnia and various other sleeping disorders, and also a number of mental health and mood disorders.
Red light therapy is an example of nature based therapy where the treatment actually translates into detectable medical phenomena. Red light therapy helps with sleeping and mood, and also boosts the immune system, promotes healing, alleviates chronic pain and lowers the risk of cardio-vascular diseases.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku is a form of ecotherapy most popular in Japan. This form of nature assisted therapy simply means spending time in the forest and taking in the atmosphere.
The term was popularized in the 1980s, with a nation-wide effort to enhance both human and environmental health. The reasoning behind this national health problem was simple: use the forests to improve public health, and also popularize spending time outdoors so that people would appreciate natural environments more and make an effort to nourish and protect natural ecosystems.
Fast forward forty years, and today there are around seventy forests nation-wide that are officially designated as healing green spaces. Forest bathing is one of the official treatment programs that mental health professionals and doctors prescribe to their patients not only as a mental health treatment, but also for many physical ailments as well.
This is not surprising. After all, there are four decades’ worth of studies proving that this form of ecotherapy has a measurable positive effect on cortisol levels, blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate variability, parasympathetic and sympathetic nerve activity.
Anyone who’s ever had a pet knows of their unusual magic: no matter how stressful life is, no matter how tense or drained you feel, you can be quiet with your animal friend and pet them, and just their presence will comfort you at least a little. The loving bond between human beings and their companions has been honed for millennia, after all.
It turns out, the benefits extend much further than just a temporary mood boost. As a rule, pet owners experience less loneliness and anxiety, and the presence of a pet during a traumatic event can decrease the stress levels of the event itself.
Researchers in the field of both medicine and environmental psychology have been trying to make increasingly precise and accurate studies about such programs as animal assisted interventions.
One extensive study in Sweden researched survival rates of dog owners after major cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction or ischemic stroke. Both groups had a significantly lower death rate than non-pet owners, and they even had a lower incidence of event recurrence.
When it comes to children, it’s been proven that dogs improve the well being, social skills and behavior of kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
If there is one health axiom that needs no further discussion, it’s that exercise is good both for your body and for your mind. Green exercise is even better.
The synergy between exercise and the great outdoors improves markers of mental as well as physical health significantly more than just exercising inside. It’s a great way to fight the prevalent sedentary way of life, and is one of the best preventative activities available today.
If you enjoy working with your hands, you might want to look into horticultural therapy. Gardening can be particularly grounding because it does not entail solely observing nature, it relies on close contact with the natural elements – soil, sunshine and water.
When gardening was introduced to a psychiatric inpatient unit, it strengthened the sense of community, improved the mood of the patients and promoted social behavior among them.
This form of ecotherapy is not as strenuous as hiking or as challenging as wilderness therapy and adventure therapy, but you still stay active while enjoying a green environment.
Social and therapeutic horticulture can be gardening, farming or just spending time among plants and flowers.
Whether your therapist makes nature based interventions for you, or whether you want to do something good for your own mental health, exploring potential benefits of ecotherapy is definitely an option that has enormous potential. After all, what makes ecotherapy for mental health successful is the fact that every human being is, ultimately, an integral part of nature.