Nature therapy and how it benefits mental health
Reviewed by Cathy Leeson
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 09/30/2022
My daily walks are inarguably therapeutic. As soon as I tie up my shoelaces and close the door behind me, I’m ready to leave my worries behind. A few minutes into my walk, I’m already feeling better.
There’s something about being surrounded by nature that has a calming effect on the mind. When it’s combined with low-intensity cardio like leisurely walking (which really helps release all that “stuck” energy that’s built up over the day), I’m typically left feeling incredibly refreshed and relaxed.
Here’s what I tend to notice most from my daily walks after work:
- Nature distracts me from obsessive rumination over the day’s events (or what’s to come tomorrow).
- The sounds of birds singing and rustling leaves inspires a sense of peacefulness.
- Walking in a natural environment (as opposed to a city street or sidewalk) allows for more opportunity to take deep breaths and appreciate my surroundings.
It turns out that scientists have a name for this: they call it “nature therapy” or “ecotherapy.” And truthfully, I’m delighted by the thought of it. I couldn’t think of anything better than the healing power of nature to help me get back to a much purer state of calm.
What is Nature Therapy?
Nature therapy is just what it sounds like—the use of nature or natural elements to help ease mental health issues. It can involve going outside for walks, looking at pictures or videos of nature, or listening to nature sounds.
Ecotherapy is a related term that many use interchangeably with nature therapy. It generally involves taking advantage of nature in a more active way, such as through gardening, hiking, or camping.
The Benefits of Nature Therapy
Both nature therapy and ecotherapy have been shown to be helpful in reducing symptoms of a range of issues, including anxiety, depression, stress, and even trauma. This may be due to the following effects that nature tends to create for us:
- Calming and soothing sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations
- Distraction from negative thoughts
- Restoration of attention and focus
- Opportunities for positive social interactions
- Opportunities for physical activity
- Opportunities for novel experiences
- Promotion of deeper breathing and relaxation
To sum it up, nature makes it easy to practice mindfulness—often without even knowing we’re practicing it. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, without judgment. It’s a way of noticing what’s happening in the present moment, without getting wrapped up in thoughts about the past or future.
A number of studies have found that nature therapy is effective for a variety of mental health issues, including:
Psychological stress: Spending time in nature is linked to lower stress levels compared to people who spend time in more urban outdoor spaces or indoor settings.
Anxiety: Research has shown that relating to nature, or feeling more connected to it, helps ease feelings of anxiety.
Depression: People with major depression who spent time interacting with nature showed improvements in memory, mood, and cognition.
Mood problems: Studies have shown that those who spend time in nature tend to experience an improvement in their mood and mental health compared with those who spent time in simulated natural environments.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): One study found that kids with ADHD showed reduced symptoms when they spent time in green environments.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): In a study on people with chronic combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder (CR-PTSD), nature adventure rehabilitation helped improve posttraumatic symptoms, emotional and social quality of life, hope, and functioning.
Autism: One study found that children with autism spectrum disorder who participated in nature-based activities showed improvements in social interaction and emotional health.
Eating disorders: Research has shown that people who struggle with eating disorders may be able to connect better with their own bodies by engaging in nature therapy activities.
Cognitive decline: People with dementia who spend more time in nature may experience mood improvements and slower disease progression.
Physical health problems: Getting outside encourages movement and exercise, lowers blood pressure, and helps you sleep better at night.
Types of Nature Therapy
There are many different ways to enjoy the benefits of nature, depending on what works for you. Here are a few popular types of nature therapy:
Forest therapy: Forest therapy usually involves spending time in a forest environment, such as by walking, cycling, hiking, or even just sitting in a forest taking in the sights and sounds. It’s comparable to forest bathing, also known as “Shinrin-yoku,” which is a practice that comes from Japan. It means “taking in the forest atmosphere.”
Adventure therapy: Adventure therapy typically involves sports or outdoor activities that are physically and/or emotionally challenging. They often require specific gear and incorporate elements of travel and problem-solving. Camping, kayaking, hiking, and backpacking are all examples of outdoor adventure.
Wilderness therapy: Wilderness therapy takes people who are struggling with mental health issues or addiction and puts them in a wilderness setting, such as a backcountry hike or camping trip. Similar to adventure therapy, this is done in an effort to get them away from their everyday lives and help them learn how to cope with difficult situations. In wilderness therapy, however, the experiences are less adventurous and less risky.
Animal therapy: Animal therapy involves interacting with animals, such as through petting zoos, working with horses or dogs, or visiting an animal shelter. This type of therapy can provide emotional support and social interaction.
Environmental education: This helps spread the word about environmental issues while encouraging people to engage in outdoor activities. It can take many forms, such as volunteering at a national park or other natural area to help the environment, taking an educational school field trip, or becoming an environmental activist to raise awareness.
Gardening: Gardening can be done as a hobby, to provide fresh produce and flowers, or to contribute to the landscape of a community garden. If you don’t have outdoor space for a garden, you can still benefit by working with indoor potted plants.
Birding: Birding is simply watching and identifying birds. It can be done anywhere there are birds, from your backyard to a nature reserve.
Outdoor yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation: These calming practices can be done in a natural setting such as in a park, backyard, courtyard, or other outdoor area to enhance mindfulness.
Where to Find Nature Therapy and Ecotherapy Programs
If you’re interested in trying nature therapy, there are many programs available that can help you get started. These programs offer outdoor activities, education on nature, or environmental service projects.
Some popular nature therapy programs include:
- The Sierra Club, which offers treks, trips, and outings for city dwellers who want to explore the natural world.
- Outward Bound, which offers wilderness trips and courses for people of all ages.
- The Audubon Society, which offers a variety of programs including nature walks, birding trips, and classes on ecology and conservation.
- The American Camp Association, which has a directory of accredited nature camps across the United States.
- The Green Schools Initiative, which offers environmental education and service-learning projects to schools across the country.
- The Environmental Protection Agency, which has a list of student internship opportunities that help the environment.
- The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which provides training and education on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
- The National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick Jr. magazine and website, which offers activities, games, and articles that teach kids about nature.
You can also talk to a therapist who specializes in nature therapy to find a program that’s right for you. Browse our directory to find someone who can help.
Nature Therapy is for Everybody
Nature therapy isn’t just for people struggling with mental health conditions. It can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or experience. Getting outside and interacting with nature can help ease stress, improve mood, increase creativity, and improve your overall well-being.
So get outside and enjoy the fresh air! Do what you love, whether it’s something as adventurous as rock climbing, or something as calming as going for a short walk in the park. The world is a beautiful place, and there’s no better way to appreciate it than by getting out there and experiencing it firsthand.
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.