As more people begin to engage with the wider ecological crisis and turn to activities in nature to support mental and physical wellbeing, ecotherapy is gaining increasing popularity. In the first part of our series on ecotherapy, we explore what the term means and what ecotherapy is.
What Is Ecotherapy?
Simply put, ecotherapy is the name given to a range of treatments and approaches, which aim to improve physical and mental health through interaction with and activities in nature.
Ecotherapy is sometimes also referred to as ‘nature therapy’ or ‘green therapy’. The term ecotherapy was first coined by Clinebell in 1996, who stressed the reciprocal nature of ecotherapy. Whilst humans are able to use nature to nurture us and our wellbeing, we also have the possibility to ‘reciprocate this healing connection through our ability to nurture nature’ (Hinds and Jordan, 2016:1).
Indeed, one of the core concepts at the heart of ecotherapy is the notion of reciprocal healing. Whilst it is widely accepted that nature offers a range of benefits to humans, ecotherapy emphasises the interconnected relationship between humanity and the wider health of our planet. In this way, ecotherapy does not view personal and planetary wellbeing as separate, but instead as intrinsically connected. Human life, wellbeing and action is viewed as part of a greater system of interaction and therefore, our interaction with nature has the potential to benefit and heal both our selves and the natural world.
What Are the Benefits of Ecotherapy?
Although ecotherapy is still a relatively new and emerging field, elements of it have been widely practices for centuries, particularly in more eastern practices, such as yoga, martial arts and meditation. Indeed, many licensed and trained psychologists and therapists incorporate aspects of ecotherapy into their existing practices. However, with its increased popularity and range of benefits, dedicated ecotherapists and specialists in the field are becoming more prevalent.
There is a growing body of research to support the value of ecotherapy, although much of this is based upon qualitative data. Nevertheless, the value and benefit of spending time in nature are becoming more widely recognised and accepted, especially following the tumultuous and challenging time faced by many during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The evidence so far suggests that ecotherapy provides individuals with improved self-esteem, improved physical and mental health and improved mood. In particular, ecotherapy has been found to be highly beneficial in supporting individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression. Additionally, it has been found to help prevent deteriorating mental health conditions and to reduce physiological stress.
Importantly, as ecotherapy is usually undertaken outdoors in natural spaces (as opposed to more traditional therapies which often take place in an office), it also offers individuals the opportunity to get some fresh air, engage in a physical activity, which improves their physical health, promotes exercise and encourages healthy eating habits to form. Many of the activities undertaken during ecotherapy sessions also involve interaction, which helps individuals to fight against feelings of isolation and to become engaged in activities or projects which are part of a wider community, thereby promoting social inclusion.
The Two Levels of Ecotherapy
In her essay ‘The Many Ecotherapies’ Linda Buzzell states that two levels of ecotherapy are currently practiced.
Level 1, Buzzell claims, is a more human-focused, results-orientated and nature-based therapy which places the improved mental and physical health of humans at its centre. Level 1 ecotherapies focus on using nature primarily for the benefit of humans.
On the other hand, Level 2 ecotherapies instead focus on the understanding that ‘we are all a part of nature and embedded in the whole’ (Buzzell, 2016:71). Level 2 approaches focus instead on healing the relationship between the human psyche and nature, and in so doing, cultivating the sense of interconnectedness between humans and nature. Activities functioning at level 2 aim to not only provide benefit to the individual or group undertaking it, but to also support and benefit the non-human world. Ecotherapy activities functioning at Level 2 work by considering the wider ecological crisis and developing a deeper understanding and awareness that the wellbeing of humans in inherently connected to wider planetary wellbeing.
However, Buzzell stresses that there isn’t one size - or activity - to suit everyone. Different groups and individuals will respond better to different approaches and types of activity. For many people, it may be essential to begin with Level 1 activities. However, ultimately, the aim of ecotherapy is to promote and foster the reciprocal nature of healing, thereby developing a deeper understanding and relationship to nature, which ultimately benefits individuals and the wider environment.
In the next instalment of our ecotherapy series, we will examine some of the activities and techniques used in level 1 and level 2 ecotherapy sessions.
Ecotherapy stresses the relationship between humans and the natural world. This week, we invite you to visit a natural environment you feel deeply connected to.
Take the opportunity to truly slow down and simply listen. Open your auditory awareness to all the sounds around you. As you listen, allow your focus to settle on your breath. Slowly, try to find balance between the rhythm of your breath and the natural environment around you.
Take a moment to express your gratitude to the natural world around you. This may be silent and a moment of personal reflection, an audible verbal expression (in words, poetry, through song, or simply guttural sounds, for example), or a physical act of expression. Find a form of expression which feels true to your self and the natural space you are in.
Taking the time to simply listen to the natural world around us is a first, baby step in helping us to cultivate a deeper relationship with the natural world, as well as allowing us to begin to become more aware of the value of the natural spaces all around us.
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Jordan, Martin and Hinds, Joe (ed.) (2016), Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, London: Palgrave.
Buzzell, Linda (2016) ‘The Many Ecotherapies’ in Jordan, Martin and Hinds, Joe (ed.) Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, London: Palgrave, pp. 70-80.