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How nature therapy benefits mental health

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD

Young child on father's shoulders in a park

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:

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:

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 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.