Eco-therapy is the practice of using nature-centric activities to cope with mental or physical illness. It is typically combined with other therapies and/or exercises. The concept that spending time in nature can be therapeutic is not new, but is gaining greater traction in contemporary scientific research and medical treatment.
“We work with the doctors, nurses and health care providers around the country and show them why it’s so relevant to prescribe [spending time in] parks and how easy it is to do, so that they can make it a part of their daily routine,” said Dr. Robert Zarr, medical director of the nonprofit Park RX America, which connects health care providers with public land managers in order to make eco-therapy readily available to patients and clients.
Lauren Huddle is a 31-year-old in Washington who suffers from anxiety and depression. Her doctor wrote her a prescription that read, “Five times a week, spend 30 minutes at a park near your home,” according to NBC. After three weeks, she says, "Just going out there, little bit by little bit, I noticed my temperament was better and my anxiety started to greatly decrease.”
Patients who are prescribed eco-therapy are often encouraged to focus on their senses in order to experience the forest around them. The sounds of the birds, wind and water, if present, the visual appearance of the trees and plants, and other sensations such as the sun or shade can all become part of the patients’ experience and treatment.
Dr. Nooshin Razani is a pediatrician and nature researcher with UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland who is another proponent of eco-therapy. "Studies have shown that within 15 minutes of being in nature, your stress level goes down [and] your heart rate [and] blood pressure improve," she says. Reduced stress levels can often help people to go about their daily lives and achieve their goals more successfully.
Research has indeed backed up the positive influence nature can have on mental health and functioning. For example, in 2009, University of Michigan researchers found that a brief walk through an arboretum resulted in a 20 percent performance improvement on memory and attention tests.
In 2011, researchers at the University of Essex monitored individuals with severe mental health difficulties who participated in a six-month walking and outdoor-based therapy program called Discovery Quest. They found that 88 percent of participants saw improved self-esteem and 89 percent experienced “a positive change in their mental well-being.” Paul Lefever, project manager of Discovery Quest, says that while wilderness activities may not suit everyone, they should perhaps be used more widely to support mental wellness.
The great outdoors can boost creativity as well, which can in turn also benefit mental health for some. In 2012, a study by scientists from the Universities of Kansas and Utah focused on 56 hikers taking a four-day hike without any technology. Based on the results of a creativity test and evaluation taken before and after the experience, the researchers found that the nature-immersion boosted the hikers' creativity by 50 percent.
In Japan, Forest Bathing (shinrin-yoku, or "immersing in the forest atmosphere”) is a tradition that encourages people to spend unstructured, unrushed time outdoors. The Japanese government has managed forests specifically to encourage this behavior since the 80s in an attempt to support its citizens’ relaxation and health. This practice has been gaining more popularity worldwide including in North America.
In 2016, a study from the Center for Environment, Health and Field Sciences at Chiba University and the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute in Japan examined the “Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy.” The conclusion states that they found proof of “the physiological relaxation effects of nature therapy on activities of the central nervous system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine system and immune system … “
Julia Plevin founded the Forest Bathing Club in San Francisco in 2014 after suffering from anxiety during grad school in New York. She told CNN that spending time in a forest provides "a remembering for our whole being that we are nature and we're not separate from it.” She also focused a portion of her thesis on the effects of being separated from a natural environment.
Daniel Sherman is a 28-year-old public relations executive who participates in the San Francisco club. "I spend a lot of time at my desk and not a lot of time in nature. We never stop to look at the leaves and feel the trees.” Sherman is not alone – an Environmental Protection Agency survey found that Americans spend an average of 93 percent of their time inside each week.
The researchers from Japan mentioned above point out in their abstract that out of the 6 to 7 million years of human evolution, urbanization has accounted for only about 0.01 percent of our existence. Therefore, “Humans have spent over 99.99 percent of their time living in the natural environment.” With this in mind, perhaps it is no surprise that periods of reintegration into nature might help us feel calmer.
“We’re starting to see nature and parks not just as a place to recreate, but literally as a place to heal yourself," Zarr says.
Atchley, Ruth Ann, et al. “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0051474.
Charles, Shamard. “A Dose of Nature: Doctors Prescribe a Day in the Park for Anxiety.”NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 25 Nov. 2017, www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/dose-nature-doctors-prescribe-day-park-anxiety-n823421.
Chillag, Amy. “Why You Should Be Forest Bathing.” CNN, Cable News Network, 11 Aug. 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/08/10/health/forest-bathing/index.html.
Song, Chorong, et al. “Physiological Effects of Nature Therapy: A Review of the Research in Japan.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 3 Aug. 2016, www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/13/8/781.
“The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants.” The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants | Indoor Environment Group, indoor.lbl.gov/publications/national-human-activity-pattern.
Walk on the Wild Side to Help Mental Health - News - University of Essex, www1.essex.ac.uk/news/event.aspx?e_id=2959.
Julia Travers is a writer with a focus on science, culture and creative responses to adversity. Her work can be found with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. She is also a teacher and an artist. Website: https://jtravers.journoportfolio.com/ Contact info: traversjul at gmail (dot) com