The benefits of nature therapy
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It’s pretty widely understood that getting out into nature for a walk by the sea or in the woodlands does wonders for the mood. There’s also something to be said for honouring the seasons, whatever the weather; gathering gilded fallen leaves in autumn, making snowmen during winter, ‘blowing out the cobwebs’ and making daisy chains in spring, and sun-bathing or picnicking throughout summer. Even splashing about in muddy puddles has a playful charm to it, particularly if you’re walking with children.
Despite that these behaviours are seemingly second nature to us in the everyday. The concept of nature-based therapy is one that is not often discussed or thought of, particularly within a clinical context as a treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. According to the NHS, one quarter of the adult population and one in ten children experience mental illness and the studies show that the proportion of people with severe mental illness has been increasing significantly since 1993.
Arguably, for many people with high-functioning anxiety and other mental health conditions, it could be said that by experiencing nature in an informal and holistic way within their lives – alongside medical interventions that they may be engaging with, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or taking prescription anti-depressants – they may be much more positively impacted by that communion with nature and wildlife than could ever be quantified or understood.
A study published in 2010 by Jo Barton and Jules Pretty for the University of Essex confirmed that "the environment provides an important health service". The results showed that the greatest benefits on mental health for improved self-esteem and mood came from frequent, short engagements with nature and green exercise (an activity in nature), with increased positive effects in the presence of water.
One of the greatest self-esteem improvements was seen in those suffering from mental health illnesses. An example of a formal nature-based therapeutic treatment is ecotherapy, which according to the charity Mind is organised and led by trained professionals who help to facilitate activities in nature and to support patients to explore and nurture the environment – all the while stimulating the brain, moving the body, connecting with the natural world and taking the focus away from worries, anxiety or symptoms of mental health illnesses. These activities are known to improve mental and physical health, which along with the healing aspect of the formal ecotherapy itself, also supports the function of the body and mind to engage with any other additional cognitive therapies or treatment for continued improvement.
Types of ecotherapy may include hiking, rock climbing, gardening, volunteering to pick up litter or walking. The physical nature of these activities also enables the body to release endorphins, which increase feelings of happiness and reduce levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, which is linked to many mental health conditions.
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, says that bringing aspects of nature into the everyday life can elevate the mood and improve confidence, whilst also reducing feelings of sadness or anger.
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‘If we struggle with mental health problems we might face barriers that stop us connecting with nature such as getting tired easily or feeling unmotivated. But if we start with something small we find comfortable, find an activity we enjoy and ask for help we can all find something to give ourselves a boost,’ Stephen explains. ‘Some people like to take part in group outdoor activities, which is a great way to combat loneliness and improve self esteem,’ he adds.
Stefan Batorijs, founder of Nature and Therapy UK, is a qualified integrative psychotherapist and mountain leader who champions the Japanese practise of Shinrin-Yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, which has shown to reduce levels of cortisol, as well as lower the heart rate and blood pressure amongst participants. One particular study showed that the higher the stress level, the greater the effect of the therapy.
Stefan says: "My practice is borne out of a lifetime spent out in nature, observing the processes and the language of nature, which is a language of symbols and metaphors. I am influenced by Taoist thought and philosophy. Now more than ever people are seeking to find their way back to connection with nature, and science is catching up.
"The essence of Shinrin-Yoku is guiding people to find their connection to the woods, and being totally immersed in the life and song of the forest; engaging all the senses."
Dr. George C. McGavin, an entomologist who frequently appears on BBC’s The One Show, opened up about his experiences with depression and explained how being in close contact with the natural world has been of great value to him.
"A walk through a woodland, along a beach or a wind-swept moorland is one of the most pleasure-inducing things I can think of doing", he says.
"Whenever I feel a bit down or troubled by something, what I need to do is get my boots on and go somewhere wild. Sometimes, I feel I don’t want to. I tell my wife that I’ve got too much to do or make up other excuses.
"But Lois knows me better than I know myself. 'Come on', she says, 'you know you’ll feel better' – and I always do.
"Don’t hurry, take your time – look around you. Sit on a log and just be still. In no time you will begin to notice things moving about; the sounds and smells. There is more joy to be had in a mature oak tree, a flower-rich meadow or a woodland clearing than you can possibly imagine."
Stefan Batorijs offers a variation of training and therapy courses at natureandtherapy.co.uk