Ecotherapy: Nature as Medicine
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, life has changed drastically. Gone are the days of forced cooking - our meals are already prepared. Gone too are the days of long travels - cars, buses, and planes move us quickly to wherever we want to go. In these modern times, everything we need to survive (and much we don't) is ready made for us and available in stores for a simple exchange of paper. As a result of the advances we've made, we now have more time, easier access to information, and a world more connected than ever before. Industrialization has freed us and given us more opportunities to imagine and create.
However, it has also put most of us indoors all day.
From home, to car, to office, to store, and back to home again - our lives are often far removed from the natural world we have adapted to since our presence on this planet. Many psychologists believe this new way of living - separately and disconnected from the natural world - is a root cause of many modern ailments. They can clearly see its effects in new problems like SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) caused by sun deprivation, and they see it indirectly with the ever-increasing prevalence of stress-related health issues. For some, our connection with nature has become a key factor in their practice of a new approach to holistic health, called "Ecotherapy".
Once there was a tree..... and she loved a little boy. And every day the boy would come and he would gather her leaves and make them into crowns and play king of the forest. He would climb up her trunk and swing from her branches and eat apples. And they would play hide-and-go-seek. And when he was tired, he would sleep in her shade. And the boy loved the tree.......very much. And the tree was happy." - Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
Linda Buzzell-Saltzman, psychologist and founder of the International Association for Ecotherapy, describes this practice as, "psychotherapy as if nature really mattered. People were embedded in nature once. We've lost that, and we're paying the price." But what does ecotherapy really involve?
Ecotherapists typically start their sessions by asking a patient to start a "nature journal" documenting the amount of time they spend in nature. According to Buzzell-Saltzman, most are shocked to realize just how little that is.
Once this initial assessment is made, an ecotherapist will work with the patient to develop a weekly goal for time spent outdoors and will try to see where that might fit in the patient's schedule. A variety of outdoor activities are suggested, and patients are encouraged to spend that outdoor time to slow down, unwind, and really connect with their natural surroundings. When possible, the ecotherapy sessions themselves will also occur outdoors rather than the typical office environment most psychologists use.
Says Craig Chalquist, college instructor and co-editor or Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, "We can use the natural world to be part of the healing process." In general, the goal of therapy is to increase the patient's sense of well-being, while the goal of ecotherapy in particular, is to give them opportunities to connect with their natural environment and provide them with deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world.
"Come, Boy, come and climb up my trunk and swing from my branches and eat apples and play in my shade and be happy"
"I am too big to climb and play", said the boy. "I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money. Can you give me some money?" - Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
Though it's been suspected that a lack of time spent in nature and natural things can affect our mental well-being, new studies are only beginning to discover why.
Frances Kuo, a professor of Natural Resources, Environmental Science, and Psychology with the University of Illinois, has been studying this very issue. To better understand the impact, she examines the behavior of animals in captivity. Nature, she points out, has been part of a human's habitat for centuries, and because of this we have evolved hard-wired with a need for nature, fresh air, water, sunshine, plants and animals around us. If we told our ancestors that someday people might develop "nature deficit disorder"; that some people might spend less than 15 minutes outside each day for weeks, even months, I'm sure they'd laugh. They wouldn't believe it. Unfortunately, these days this is the case for many of us!
Says Chalquist, "We began to get the impression that we were somehow above and separate from nature," Being the most intelligent life form, we tend to forget our animal nature. Yet, studies show the impact of removing us from nature and our natural habitat is actually quite similar to the impact it has on other captive animals.Captivity increases our stress levels resulting in lowered immunity, aggressive and depressive tendencies, and a negative impact on our relationships with other people. The depth of the problem becomes even clearer when you consider these shocking facts:
- While 40% of adults reported playing in natural places like fields and forests as children, less than 10% of kids do today.
- Housing units without a view of or access to nature had higher rates of violence between partners or children.
- People with limited access to nature had weakened cognitive functioning and increased difficulty managing stress.
- Elderly adults live longer when they live near trees and greenery regardless of whether they are rich or poor.
- Students and workers perform better when they can view natural setting from their desk.
- Students in inner-city school scored higher on tests when they could view greenery from an open window.
- Symptoms of ADHD improve after time is spent in nature.
- Those who regularly work, run, or hike outside have are more satisfied with their lives overall, and also experience less cold flu viruses.
- A daily walk outside can be as effective on mild to moderate depression as antidepressants!
Feeding Our Roots
"But the boy stayed away for a long time. And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak. 'Come, Boy,' she whispered, 'come and play.'"-Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree
In their book Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature with in Mind, Buzzell-Saltzman and Chalquist point out that nature comes in many shapes - places, animals, plants, and even ourselves, and that respect and connection with each form offers benefits. With this goal in mind, they offer readers some simple advice:
Natural Places: If you have a favorite natural spot you could go there. If you don't or you're feeling adventurous, try looking for local parks and trails online. Once you're there, forget about time and chores and focus instead on your senses. What do you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? Meditate on these simple observations and allow the peace and beauty of nature to wash over you.
Animals: The positive effects of animals-assisted therapy have been well documented -lowered blood pressure, reduced stress levels and increased sense of well-being. Time spent with animals can be extremely beneficial. If you have a dog or cat, spend some quality time with them. If you don't - or even if you do - watching birds and squirrels is another great way to connect with nature's creatures. Try setting up a bird feeder outside a window.
Plants: When you're outside, take notice of particular plants that you pass on your way. Take time to contemplate a magnificent tree. A plant in your home or office is a great way to bring nature to you when going outside isn't possible.
Yourself: Our bloodstream, our digestion, our breath, there is nature inside us! Take time to listen to your body. Are you tired, thirsty, sore? As simple as it sounds, sometimes our own needs are forgotten in the bustle of life. Take time to reconnect with yoga. Dance without worrying what you look like. These practices are a safe way and healthy way to release stress and connect with our often forgotten bodies.
Mary Desauliners: What is Ecotherapy?
Huffington Post: Ecotherapy: Slowing Down to Nature's Pace