When was the last time you stopped and listened to the wind blowing through the trees? Or notice how the lake in the park at the end of the street glistens? If it’s been a minute, you might want to consider going outdoors. Studies show that eco- or nature therapy (also known as spending time outside) can have a positive impact on our mental and physical health. And we could all use some help with that these days.
Nature’s relationship to our psyche has garnered a fair amount of attention over the last decade or so. Science has shown it is an effective and often free way to reduce anxiety, improve focus and memory, enhance a general feeling of wellbeing, and even boost immune function. With anxiety and depression numbers on the rise, more and more psychologists and therapists are prescribing time outdoors to their patients to help them improve their condition.
If you’re ready to try it out for yourself, put on some sunblock and give trees a chance. In the worst-case scenario, you end up enjoying a nice walk.
What is ecotherapy?
Like any other kind of therapy, the purpose of ecotherapy is to benefit mental health by helping patients tune in with the natural world. But it’s about more than using nature as a backdrop for other therapeutic practices—it’s about building a relationship, a connection, between you and the world you live in, says Craig Chalquist, professor of east-west psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies, and co-editor of Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. And as it turns out, it’s a very beneficial relationship to invest in.
[Related: There isn’t much science supporting wilderness therapy for teens]
Shinrin-yoku or forest bathing may be the most well-known method in nature therapy. Contrary to what you might think, this Japanese practice doesn’t require actual bathing, and it involves consciously and contemplatively immersing yourself in the sensory experience of the forest. The point is to spend time “taking in the forest atmosphere” and soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of your natural surroundings. Research has shown patients experience a handful of benefits after this experience—from lower concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, to lower blood pressure.
But there are plenty of activities that qualify as ecotherapy. As long as the goal is to be mindful, observant, and surrounded by nature, anything, from taking a walk in the park to snuggling with a therapy animal, or even filling indoor spaces with more plants, qualifies.
How ecotherapy works
Going for a walk and taking a deep breath of fresh air will help you improve your mood. But science shows that location makes a difference, and the maxim is clear—the more nature, the better. Various studies have noted participants have significantly reduced pulse rates, decreased depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion post-forest bathing than after strolling in urban areas. Some studies even suggest certain beneficial bacteria in soil can give serotonin levels a bump, meaning dirt could alleviate feelings of depression.
Still, every bit counts. Other data shows that something as simple as a fish tank can help increase appetite in Alzheimer’s patients, and studies show post-op patients recover faster when they have a window to green space in their room.
“Because we evolved in the natural world we are nature, but we’re the part of nature that forgets what it is,” says Chalquist.
For him, we don’t spend enough time outdoors, and he takes it one step further, suggesting that our mental health is intertwined with the health of the planet—so if its health declines, our health declines.
Take a hike
Taking full advantage of the mental health benefits of nature doesn’t require you to spend hours in a forest communing with the trees—unless that’s your jam. If you’re ready to give nature therapy a try, Chalquist suggests starting small.
“Even simple introductions to nature make a huge impact,” he says.
First, evaluate your schedule. Go through it hour by hour and take note of how much time you spend outside. Chalquist says that many people are often surprised by how little nature appears in their day-to-day experiences.
Then, make time to insert nature into your routine. Go outside to participate in activities like gardening or painting; exercise outdoors instead of in; go on walks or sit on a bench in the park. Just don’t scroll mindlessly through your phone as you do it. We’re used to being constantly stimulated and at first, it may be difficult to set distractions aside—but it pays off. Be intentional about what you’re doing and what’s going on around you.
“Just watch what nature does,” Chalquist recommends.
A good trick is to do what children do—imitate their sense of wonder and curiosity by studying the veins of a leaf or feeling the petals of a flower. It may sound strange, but wander around with a handful of fresh soil for 20 minutes and see if it affects your mood. Going to an animal sanctuary and interacting with a wider variety of animals than you’re used to is also a good idea. Research suggests that the more diverse the nature you’re in contact with is, the more health benefits you reap.
And if you can’t go outside, bring more plants indoors to surround yourself with nature wherever you are.
[Related: Four plants that are scientifically proven to be therapeutic]
However you approach ecotherapy, the key to getting the most out of it is to be intentional. If you’re feeling tense, anxious, or stressed, check in with yourself before heading outdoors by rating your mood on a scale of one to ten. Then, after spending 20 minutes or so being present and observant of the sights, smells, and sounds around you, rate it again. Chalquist is willing to bet it will almost always be higher, which will serve as motivation to spend more time outside.
If you want to go the extra mile, keep track of your mood in a journal and ask yourself if spending time outside is actually making you feel better. If the answer is “yes,” keep it up.