Ecopsychology and the Nature Cure
by Ronica A. O’Hara
For clients of family therapist Christian Dymond, the path to wellness begins on his 10 acres of woods and meadows in Milton, Vermont, walking alongside him, sitting by a babbling brook, watching squirrels gather nuts or the sun slowly set, breathing in the piney air. “There is a sense of safety that comes from being in the forest,” Dymond says. “Safety is necessary in order for the client to open up and share themselves with another human being.” Children, too, readily respond: “Getting a child outside into nature can bring life back into their eyes. Every day I see this happen.”
The sweeping Santa Barbara beach is the office of clinical psychologist Maria Nazarian, Ph.D., as she accompanies clients on hour-long barefoot walks that might include a mindfulness exercise, goal-setting and meditation—all while watching waves foam, pelicans glide and sun-sparkles on the water. “When we feel connected to the world around us, we experience more joy and belonging, less depression and less anxiety, all of which increase our thinking, creativity, well-being and generosity,” she says.
Their practices, known as ecotherapy, green therapy or nature-based therapy, are an outgrowth of a ballooning branch of psychology known as ecopsychology, which investigates the critical links between nature experiences and human well-being. In examining such matters as our neurological responses to nature, how climate change and weather disasters lead to anxiety and depression, how nature deprivation affects children, and why nature can produce transcendent awe, the field is reshaping the way that therapists and doctors help both adults and children heal.
Ecopsychology is a relatively new discipline. Little more than two decades ago, historian Theodore Roszak pointed out in Psychology Today that in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, one of the most-diagnosed categories involved sex: “In mapping sexual dysfunction, therapists have been absolutely inspired… [but] the volume contains only one listing remotely connected to nature: seasonal affective disorder.”
Now, as the planet’s dire plight becomes a source of mounting concern, that professional neglect is rapidly changing. The field of ecopsychology has produced more than 100 authoritative studies linking nature to not only physical, but mental health. Researchers have found that spending time in nature settings helps lower stress, anxiety and depression, boosts positive mood, improves resilience and immune response, increases life expectancy, decreases anger, reduces blood pressure, eases computer fatigue and enhances energy, concentration and cognitive functioning.
Recently, Danish researchers found that children raised in the least-green neighborhoods were 55 percent more likely to develop a serious mental illness than children that grew up in the greenest neighborhoods, regardless of social standing, affluence or parental mental illness. A British study of nearly 20,000 people published in Scientific Reports concluded that spending at least two hours a week in nature, whether in brief breaks or long stretches, is an optimal amount of time to feel a sense of better health and well-being.
Putting these findings in motion, doctors, therapists,
naturopaths, nurse practitioners and other health providers
are increasingly suggesting and prescribing time in nature, especially for children. As of July 2018, there were 71 provider-based nature-prescription programs in 32 states, potentially involving hundreds of thousands of patients, according to a survey by the Institute at the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.
Ecopsychology research programs are opening at medical centers and universities, and ecotherapy classes are being added to academic degree programs for therapists. Major health insurers are financing pilot programs to measure time-in-nature outcomes, and electronic health records are starting to include nature prescriptions, as well as pharmaceuticals.
Happily, it’s a therapy that can be self-prescribed. After Laura Durenberger, who blogs at ReduceReuseRenewBlog.com, gave birth to her son, she found symptoms of her generalized anxiety disorder at an all-time high, and ultimately linked it to rarely
leaving her house. When she goes too long without being outside, she says, “My anxiety spikes. I am irritable. My energy is low.
I don’t feel motivated or creative.”
Now, even during the fierce Minneapolis winters, she is dedicated to spending half an hour a day in nature: “After my time outdoors, I feel grounded, renewed, energized and much more clearheaded than before I started.”
As ecotherapist Dymond puts it: “Nature is always there for people to heal themselves in.”
Ronica A. O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Contact her at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.