So…is this ecotherapy thing for real or is it some hippie dippie nonsense invented so those of us that like to be outdoors can do so and get paid?
Totally fair question. A few decades ago, I’m not sure I could have answered it in a way that could convince the skeptics. But recent advances in science and neurobiology show that, beyond a doubt, nature influences our emotions and our mind in positive directions. This does make logical sense. Humans are part of nature. Although recent generations of humans have evolved farther and farther from living in and with nature, this trend is actually very recent compared to the history of human life. We evolved for thousands of years as natural beings in a natural system. It’s only been a couple hundred years that we’ve lived primarily indoors. Of course our brains are healthier when we are in touch with our evolutionary context! (And our planet is healthier when we are in relationship with and aware of our impact on this giant ecosystem we are part of.)
But that isn’t science, and I know a sceptic could easily argue around that. Here’s some science: spending time in the forest vs. urban environments leads to a 12% decrease in cortisol (stress hormone) levels, a 6% decrease in heart rate, and a 7% decrease in sympathetic nerve (often called the fight/flight response) activity. It’s not just physiological responses that shift. A Dutch study found that people who lived near more vegetation (other variables were controlled) experienced less loneliness. A Finnish study found that after 15 minutes in a wooded setting, people reported feeling restored. After 45 minutes, they felt revitalized. (A control group in an urban setting felt no such difference.) I could list hundreds of studies. But you’d be better off reading The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams. These studies, along with dozens more, come from her book. There are several other books and resources that use evidence based research to illuminate the power of humans re-connecting with the more than human world. Some are listed here.
I will leave it to those resources to expound on the science and return to my own logic and experience. If we are more relaxed, less reactive, and more connected, we are in a better place to do challenging emotional work. The more support we have in doing that work, the more effective it can be, and nature is full of supportive beings. I’ve seen growth and healing occur in natural settings (or indoors in relationship with nature) that I truly believe would not have happened (or may have happened but much more slowly) in a traditional therapeutic environment.
In general, I lean towards skepticism. But most of us know, deeply and innately, the power of hearing ocean waves and seeing an infinite horizon. We feel the impact when we step out into perfect sunny days that warm our face and soothe our minds. The power of healing with nature is a demonstrated beautifully by our lived experience and by science. What a gift that we don’t have to land on one side or the other–science and woo-woo align!