How nature therapy benefits mental health
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 04/21/2023
There’s something extraordinary about nature’s calming effect on the mind. It’s so effective, in fact, that more mental health professionals have begun prescribing it to clients as part of a treatment plan. They call it “nature therapy.”
What is nature therapy?
The idea behind nature therapy is simple: Spend time in nature or use natural elements to help boost your mental health. Examples include going outside for walks, looking at pictures or videos of nature, or listening to nature sounds.
As well as being a great way to reduce stress, nature therapy can also help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even trauma. It isn’t a complete form of therapy for every mental health condition, but it can help:
- Calm your senses
- Distract you from negative thinking
- Restore your attention and focus
- Encourage positive social interactions
- Help you become more physically active
- Introduce you to new experiences
- Make it easier to breathe deeply and relax
Nature also makes it easy to practice mindfulness—often without even knowing it. Mindfulness centers on being fully present in the moment. It’s a way of noticing what’s happening right now without judgment or getting wrapped up in thoughts about the past or the future.
The science behind nature therapy
Research has consistently shown that nature has positive effects on the mind. Here’s what we know:
- Stress levels tend to be lower in people who spend time in nature compared to people who spend time in more urban outdoor settings or indoors.1
- Anxiety may be eased by relating to nature or feeling more connected to it.2
- Depression can be helped by interacting with nature, which has been shown to improve memory, mood, and cognition.3
- Mood fluctuations tend to balance out more in people who spend time in nature.4
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in kids may be helped by spending time outside.5
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms may show improvement through nature therapy, along with quality of life, hope, and basic functioning.6
- Autism symptoms can be improved through nature-based activities that promote social interaction and boost positive feelings.7
- People with eating disorders may be able to connect better with their own bodies through nature therapy activities.8
- People with dementia may experience positive effects on mood through outdoor activities.9
- Some physical health problems can be minimized because getting outside encourages movement and exercise, lowers blood pressure, and helps you sleep better.10
Types of nature therapy
You can enjoy nature in so many different ways that it’s hard to go wrong. That said, here are some of the most common types:
Forest therapy involves walking, cycling, hiking, or just sitting in a forest taking in the sights and sounds. It’s comparable to forest bathing, also known as shinrin-yoku, a Japanese practice that means “taking in the forest atmosphere.”
Adventure therapy typically involves sports or outdoor activities that are physically or emotionally challenging. Camping, kayaking, hiking, and backpacking are all examples.
Wilderness therapy takes people who are struggling with addiction or other mental health concerns and puts them in a wilderness setting, such as a backcountry hike. The goal is to get them away from their everyday lives and help them learn to cope with hard situations.
Animal therapy involves interacting with animals for emotional support and social interaction. Examples include visiting petting zoos, working with horses or dogs, or volunteering at animal shelters.
Environmental education helps spread the word about environmental issues and encourages people to enjoy time outdoors. Opportunities might include volunteering at a national park, going on an educational school field trip, or becoming an environmental activist and advocate.
Gardening can be done as a hobby, to grow fresh produce, or to contribute to the landscape of a community garden. But if you don’t have outdoor space for a garden, you can still benefit from caring for indoor potted plants.
Birding is the simple practice of watching and identifying birds. It can be done anywhere birds are found, from your backyard to a nature reserve.
Yoga, Tai Chi, and meditation are calming practices that can be done in a natural setting. Try practicing them in a park, backyard, courtyard, or other outdoor area to enhance mindfulness.
Where to find nature therapy programs
Nature therapy programs are a great way to get involved in outdoor activities, education, or environmental service projects. Here are some popular programs to check out:
- The Sierra Club offers treks, trips, and outings for city dwellers who want to explore the natural world.
- Outward Bound offers wilderness trips and courses for all ages.
- The Audubon Society hosts nature walks, birding trips, and classes on ecology and conservation.
- The American Camp Association has a directory of accredited nature camps across the United States.
- The Green Schools Initiative offers environmental education and service-learning projects to schools across the country.
- The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of student internship opportunities that help the environment.
- The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics provides training and education on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly.
- The National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick Jr. magazine and website offers activities, games, and articles that teach kids about nature.
You could also talk to a therapist who incorporates nature therapy into their treatment plans. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional who can help.
Nature therapy is for everybody
Nature therapy can benefit everyone, regardless of age, ability, or experience. So step outside and enjoy the fresh air! There’s no better way to appreciate the world than by 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.