What Is Nature and Ecotherapy & How Does It Work?

Nature TherapyThere is much wisdom and healing to be found in nature if we’re willing to connect with it.

Caring for animals, taking a stroll in a park, watching a sunset, or simply noticing the feeling of grass beneath your feet are all simple ways we can honor our connection with the natural world.

A fundamental premise of nature and ecotherapy is that the wellbeing of humans is intimately bound to the wellbeing of the planet and that nurturing our relationship with nature is key for maintaining our mental wellbeing.

In this article, we’ll explore the hills and valleys of ecotherapy to discover what it is and how it works in practice, and provide a selection of courses and training options in nature therapy to consider.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life, but also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.

What Are Nature Therapy and Ecotherapy?

Nature and ecotherapy, also called “green therapy” or “earth-centered therapy,” concern interactions with nature that contribute to healing and personal growth. The field of ecopsychology refers to the study of psychological processes that connect or disconnect us from nature, providing the theoretical foundation for ecotherapeutic practice (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009).

At the root of ecopsychology and ecotherapy is the idea that humans and nature are intrinsically linked. We impact our environment, and our environment impacts us (GoodTherapy, 2018). This human–planet connection is thought to be vital both for our psychological wellbeing and for protecting and sustaining the natural world, including landscapes, living things, and cultures (Berger & McLeod, 2006).

Ecotherapy covers a broad range of therapies and healing practices that use nature-based methods to nurture a relationship with the Earth (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009). Many ecotherapists hold the view that if we can find balance with the natural systems on Earth, we will see the benefits in our own mental health (GoodTherapy, 2018).

Although recognition of the importance of nature to mental wellbeing is a relatively new concept in mainstream Western psychotherapy, ancient peoples and indigenous cultures, such as Native Americans, have long viewed the wellbeing of humans to be intimately linked with their environment and the natural world (Lassman, 2016).

 

7 Benefits According to Research Findings

Benefits ecotherapyScientific studies of ecotherapy have revealed profound benefits for wellbeing across the board.

Below, we’ve highlighted some fascinating findings that show how our connection with nature and living creatures can be a truly transformative and restorative experience.

 

1. Nature can be good for our brains

The human-made world of technology and busy urban environments can be an incredibly stimulating and attention-demanding place.

Interacting with nature, by walking in nature or even viewing pictures, can enhance our cognitive functioning, specifically, our directed attention abilities (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008).

 

2. A greater connection with nature is linked to enhanced wellbeing

Many of us have an intuitive sense that being in nature can be very grounding and restorative at difficult times in our life.

Indeed, measures of nature connectedness show positive relationships with psychological wellbeing, social wellbeing, and mindfulness (Howell, Dopko, Passmore, & Buro, 2011).

 

3. Being outside can help us destress

For those of us who spend our days working indoors, moving our bodies and getting some fresh air can offer some welcome respite at the end of the day.

A study in Finland found that among 527 employees, exercise and spending time outside were rated the most effective ways to recover from work stress, with interacting with nature coming in second (Korpela & Kinnunen, 2011).

 

4. Animals can be calming

Animal-assisted therapy is gaining attention in recent years as a therapeutic intervention for a range of adult and children populations.

For example, the presence of animals has been shown to have a calming effect on children with aggression problems and can reduce physiological stress in Alzheimer’s patients (see Chalquist, 2009 for a review).

 

5. Animals offer companionship

Animals make great companions, and animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce loneliness for long-term care residents (Banks & Banks, 2002).

 

6. Working in nature can boost coping skills

Working outdoors or with animals allows us to get “up close” with nature and even learn new skills. One study found that patients with enduring psychiatric symptoms showed improvements in coping ability and self-efficacy after working with farm animals twice a week for 12 weeks (Berget, Ekeberg, & Braastad, 2008).

 

7. Being in the wild can enhance self-esteem and interpersonal skills

Fending for ourselves in the wilderness offers unique opportunities for transformation, as it can take us out of our comfort zone and bring us closer to others.

One meta-analysis involving 23 wilderness therapy programs concluded that wilderness therapy was effective at boosting self-esteem, people skills, and behavior change among justice-involved youths (Bedard, Rosen, & Vacha-Haase, 2003).

 

How Does It Work in Practice? 8 Treatment Examples

In general, ecotherapy refers to any therapeutic treatment led by trained professionals that involves structured activities that connect us with nature. Ecotherapy is not limited to idyllic rural locations and can be practiced in both countryside and urban environments, such as local parks, gardens, or woodlands (Mind, 2018).

According to research (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009; Mind, 2018), some activities that fall under the ecotherapy umbrella include:

  1. Nature meditation
    Meditation practice in a natural environment, like by the sea or in a park, can also be an intervention in group therapy, where members focus and reflect on something in nature that they’re drawn to (GoodTherapy, 2018).

  2. Therapeutic horticulture
    Gardening activities can include tending to gardens and growing food.

  3. Green exercise therapy
    Exercise like walking or cycling can also take place in green spaces.

  4. Wilderness therapy
    This intervention involves being out in wilderness and getting involved in group activities like shelter making.

  5. Adventure therapy
    Adventurous activities in a group can include rock climbing or rafting.

  6. Conservation
    A mixture of physical exercise and carrying out tasks helps care for and protect natural environments.

  7. Animal-assisted therapy
    This intervention consists of bonding and building relationships with animals, like dogs and horses.

  8. Arts and crafts in nature
    Making art can include materials from nature like leaves, wood, or soil, or be done in nature and inspired by natural environments.

Talking therapies can also take place in nature as the therapist and client are walking or sitting together in nature (Mind, 2018). An ecotherapist may ask the client about their relationship with nature in the past and present, such as their significant memories of nature or the quality of contact with nature they have day-to-day (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009).

Compared to conventional forms of therapy, where the therapy room and setting are largely under the control of the therapist, when in nature, the setting is alive, constantly changing, and can shape the therapeutic interaction (Berger & McLeod, 2006).

Of course, it’s important to appreciate that getting outside into nature is not an option for everyone, and it is possible to carry out ecotherapy interventions indoors. The Earth Body Institute is one training provider offering a course on this.

 

5 Activities and Exercises for Your Therapy Sessions

Gardening nature therapyIf you’re looking for some simple exercises to help your client gain a deeper connection with nature, consider this mixture of outdoor activities you could introduce them to.

You may wish to experience these exercises yourself, complete them alongside your client, or recommend them as between-session activities.

 

1. Gardening

Horticultural therapy can be relatively easy for your clients to practice in their garden, a friend’s garden, or a community garden nearby. Ask your client to explore what specific activities they find relaxing or enjoyable, such as flower arranging, pruning, watering the garden, or planting seeds to grow food (GoodTherapy, 2018).

 

2. A gratitude walk

Another wonderful way to capitalize on the beauty of nature while on a nature walk is to practice gratitude. The idea is to grow a feeling of gratitude by taking notice of things you’re thankful for – maybe something you like to look at or smell, or something you find that you can give a loved one to make them smile (Healing Forest, 2017).

 

3. Nature therapist

When in a place in nature, notice what you’re drawn to. Perhaps it’s a pond, tree, or rock. Sit peacefully with this element and ask it questions you’re looking for guidance on, either in your mind or out loud.

Simply be open and relax your mind. You may feel a sense of intuition or insight from this process while you’re sitting there or sometime later on (Healing Forest, 2017).

 

4. Nature journaling

To help your client nourish their sense of curiosity in nature, ask them to take a piece of paper and a pen to a place in nature, and note down all the things they perceive around them.

No detail is too small or insignificant; the idea is to go with what you connect with the most (Healing Forest, 2017).

 

5. Notice nature in urban spaces

If you live in a city or town, spend some time walking around urban areas that are abundant in concrete pavements and walls.

Try to notice places where nature tries to shine through, such as wildflowers growing in the cracks of the pavement, songbirds sitting on walls, or vines sprawling down the sides of buildings. Reflect on how this makes you feel (McCabe, n.d.).

 

How to Become a Nature Therapist

Ecotherapy does not currently have an established or official certified training route.

However, it’s important to know that ecotherapy is distinct from psychotherapy. To practice psychotherapy in nature (e.g., as a counselor or psychotherapist), you will need to have the appropriate training and licensure (Tariki Trust, n.d.).

You could then complete a training course in ecotherapy, where you will learn how to integrate ecopsychological principles and methods into your therapeutic practice (GoodTherapy, 2018).

Ecotherapy has a broad range of applications not limited to psychotherapy (Tariki Trust, n.d.). People from a range of professional backgrounds who already work with people in nature or would like to begin doing this may wish to train in ecotherapy or nature-based practices. This may include:

  • Social workers
  • Teachers
  • Counselors/Psychotherapists
  • Psychologists
  • Ministers
  • Conservationists
  • Environmentalists
  • Artists
  • Growers
  • Outdoor activity leaders
  • Wellness practitioners
  • Coaches

 

5 Certifications, Degrees, Courses, and Online Programs

Although there is no formalized training route to become an ecotherapist, there’s no shortage of programs and courses in this field.

You’ll find many nature therapy courses are delivered online, while some are offered in specific locations where you get the opportunity to learn about and experience ecotherapy in natural environments.

 

1. Master of Arts in Social Science with emphasis in Ecological Psychology & Environmental Humanities, Viridis Graduate Institute — Distance learning, United States

This two-year transdisciplinary program takes a wide-angle perspective on how ecopsychology can be used to understand and address global challenges.

It aims to provide students with knowledge in ecopsychology and communication skills to effect positive change in this field. With this qualification, you’ll be able to practice as a non-licensed ecopsychology professional.

Some fascinating topics covered in the syllabus include:

  • Narrative foundations of ecopsychology
  • Humans and landscapes
  • Ecotoxicology
  • Ecological ethics

Find out more on their website.

 

2. Professional Online Ecotherapy Certificate Program, Level 1, The Earthbody Institute — Online

The Earthbody InstituteThis is a comprehensive online ecotherapy course, involving two months of online training (roughly five to six hours of weekly commitment) and 14 webinars, 6 online classes, and 2 individual 30-minute consultations.

Some of the webinar topics include ‘Cultivating Respectful, Reciprocal Relationships with the Natural World,’ ‘How to Practice Urban Ecotherapy,’ ‘Horticulture Therapy,’ and ‘Animal-Assisted Therapy.’

Find out more on their website.

 

3. Professional Ecotherapy Certificate Immersion Program, The Earthbody Institute — California, United States

Ecotherapy CertificateIn this six-day program, you’ll stay in a nature retreat, spending much of the time outdoors experiencing and learning about ecotherapy practices. You’ll discover healing practices for indoors and outdoors that you can use with groups or individuals.

To complete this course, you’ll need to have completed the Online Introduction course or Ecotherapy Certificate. This program is aimed at licensed clinicians, interns and counseling students, coaches, ministers, teachers, healers, and wellness practitioners.

Find out more on their website.

 

4. Connecting With Nature Indoors and on Zoom: Essential Tips and Tools, The Earthbody Institute — Online

Indoor nature therapyIt’s not always possible for people to get outside, but that doesn’t mean they can’t connect with nature in other ways.

In this short online course, ​​led by ecotherapists Kai Siedenburg and Ariana Candell, you’ll learn 35 practices that use techniques like visualization and storytelling to help people connect with nature wherever they are.

Find out more on their website.

 

5. Tariki Trust, Ten Directions Course — Online

TarikiThis one-year course is delivered entirely online; however, there are ecotherapy exercises for you to complete regularly that require going outdoors.

If you’re not interested in attending the whole course, you can sign up for individual online units/workshops.

There are five units in the course, which cover key areas like the therapeutic container, theory and principles of ecotherapy, the personal relationship to the environment, and physical engagement with the world. You’ll also attend a one-day online workshop and can choose to attend a range of live ecotherapy workshops depending on your areas of interest.

Find out more on their website.

 

3 Best Nature Therapy and Ecotherapy Books

The fields of ecopsychology and ecotherapy are fascinating landscapes to explore, both theoretically and experientially. Below we’ve listed a few well-known and well-loved books to accompany you on your exploration of nature-based therapies.

 

1. Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology – Theodore Roszak

Voice of the Earth

Written by the founder of ecopsychology Theodore Roszak, this book explores how nature and the human psyche are eternally intertwined and how our mental wellbeing is fundamentally linked to the wellbeing of the planet.

Roszak, a prolific author and cultural historian, aims to bridge the divide between ecology and psychology and illuminate the interconnectedness of life on earth.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind – Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist

Ecotherapy

This comprehensive and insightful book was written with practitioners in mind. It offers guidance and advice about how to deliver alternative evidence-based approaches that can foster the connection between people and the planet.

The 29 contributors cover a range of compelling topics including ecotherapy in practice, the healing methods of wilderness therapy, and helping couples bond in nature.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

3. Grounded: How Connection With Nature Can Improve Our Mental and Physical Wellbeing – Ruth Allen

Grounded

Ruth Allen is a counselor and ecopsychotherapist based in the United Kingdom.

She writes about how each of us can find our balance within nature and access our own “wild voice.” The book is very practical too, providing mindfulness, breathing, and movement exercises, as well as covering work–life rebalancing, nature study, and ecotherapies.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

If all this talk of nature has you inspired, take a look at some of the following further reading and resources.

  • The Positive Effects of Nature On Your Mental Wellbeing
    This article discusses the psychoevolutionary theory underlying the healing power of nature and explores a range of research findings on the links between nature and human health.

  • What Is Environmental Psychology?
    This article explores ecopsychology’s cousin, environmental psychology, outlining the field’s history, theory, and applications in practice.

  • Nature Play
    This simple six-step exercise helps clients practice moving and listening mindfully while in nature or taking a walk.

  • 17 Mindfulness & Meditation Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enjoy the benefits of mindfulness, consider purchasing our 17 validated mindfulness tools for practitioners. Use them to help others reduce stress and create positive shifts in their mental, physical, and emotional health.

 

A Take-Home Message

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”

Albert Einstein

Ecotherapy is built upon the premise that our connection with nature is essential for and inextricably linked to our wellbeing. As such, the principles and practices of this field aim to help people nurture their relationship with the natural world.

Ecotherapy comes in many forms, including animal-assisted therapy, horticulture therapy, wilderness therapy, and nature meditation. There are also many short and simple exercises and activities that can help clients reconnect with nature, which you might like to explore as part of your sessions.

Although there is no official training route to becoming an ecotherapist, if you’re serious about integrating ecopsychology into your practice as a therapist, there are lots of courses and programs out there to choose from, many of which can be accessed from wherever you are in the world.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.

  • Allen, R. (2021). Grounded: How connection with nature can improve our mental and physical wellbeing. Mortimer.
  • Banks, M. R., & Banks, W. A. (2002). The effects of animal-assisted therapy on loneliness in an elderly population in long-term care facilities. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 57(7), M428–M432.
  • Bedard, R. M., Rosen, L. A., & Vacha-Haase, T. (2003). Wilderness therapy programmes for juvenile delinquents: A meta-analysis. Journal of Therapeutic Wilderness Camping, 3(1), 7–13.
  • Berger, R., & McLeod, J. (2006). Incorporating nature into therapy: A framework for practice. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 25(2), 80–94.
  • Berget, B., Ekeberg, Ø., & Braastad, B. O. (2008). Animal-assisted therapy with farm animals for persons with psychiatric disorders: Effects on self-efficacy, coping ability and quality of life, a randomized controlled trial. Clinical Practice and Epidemiology in Mental Health, 4, 9.
  • Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207–1212.
  • BrainyQuote. (n.d.). Albert Einstein quotes. Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/albert_einstein_106912
  • Buzzell, L., & Chalquist, C. (2009). Ecotherapy: Healing with nature in mind. Sierra Club Books.
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  • GoodTherapy. (2018, August 15). Ecotherapy/Nature therapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/econature-therapy
  • Healing Forest. (2017, July 3). 10 Nature connection activities. Retrieved from https://healingforest.org/2017/07/03/10-nature-connection-activities/
  • Howell, A. J., Dopko, R. L., Passmore, H. A., & Buro, K. (2011). Nature connectedness: Associations with well-being and mindfulness. Personality and Individual Differences, 51, 166–171.
  • Korpela, K., & Kinnunen, U. (2011). How is leisure time interacting with nature related to the need for recovery from work demands? Testing multiple mediators. Leisure Sciences, 33, 1–14.
  • Lassman, A. (2016, July 19). Healing ourselves and the Earth with ecopsychology [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://blog.pachamama.org/blog/healing-ourselves-and-the-earth-with-ecopsychology
  • McCabe, S. (n.d.). 3 Nature therapy exercises to help you live in the now [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/3-nature-therapy-exercises-to-help-you-live-in-the-now/
  • Mind. (2018). Nature and mental health. Retrieved from https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/about-ecotherapy-programmes/
  • Roszak, T. (2001). Voice of the Earth: An exploration of ecopsychology. Red Wheel/Weiser.
  • Tariki Trust. (n.d.). Ecotherapy training. Retrieved from https://www.tarikitrust.org/ecotherapy-training

About the Author

Dr. Helen Brown is a freelance writer with a Ph.D. in Psychology and MSc in Organizational Psychology. She has a varied background working in mental health and wellbeing research and is passionate about all things psychological. As well as writing about many psychology and health topics, Helen loves to scribble away at fictional stories and screenplays too. You can usually find her in the countryside just south of Bristol, UK.

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