Learn / Ecopsychology: Healing Your Mind With Nature
“Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning1.” Spending time outdoors is vital for personal well-being. Ecopsychology seeks to not only reap these benefits but expand them to use the natural world for mental health recovery.
Ecopsychology explores humans’ relationship with the natural world. It examines how nature and the human psyche are interconnected and how this relationship can impact physical, mental, and emotional health.
Humans are fundamentally connected to nature. We evolved in and adapted to natural environments. When we spend time in nature, we can experience a number of positive benefits, such as reduced stress, improved mood, increased creativity, and enhanced problem-solving skills. When we are disconnected from nature, we can experience stress, depression, and loneliness.
Ecopsychologists, such as Renee Baribeau3, seek to understand and use this connection to reconnect with nature that is meaningful and beneficial to our lives. They put these ideas into action, specifically in mental health and addiction recovery, to nourish the mind, body, and spirit.
Theodore Roszak created 8 guiding principles that ecopsychologists follow4:
Using these principles, ecopsychology heals the person and the planet. In a recovery setting, ecopsychology encourages patients to focus on their interconnectedness with the natural world to help them rediscover their true selves.
Nature therapy is a core element of ecopsychology. It’s a therapeutic approach involving time in nature to promote healing and personal growth. This can look like outdoor individual counseling, group therapy, or workshops. Sometimes, therapists incorporate elements like animal therapy or horticulture therapy.
Some providers prioritize natural healing by incorporating wilderness immersion. During these programs, you spend an extended period of time in natural, often remote, settings. These immersive experiences provide an opportunity to disconnect from the modern world, reflect on life, and deeply reconnect with nature. You may participate in adventure therapies such as rock climbing or hiking.
Both approaches utilize experiential learning. The therapist or group leader will use natural elements to emphasize specific lessons within therapy, such as self-reflection, resilience, and mindfulness. They may introduce therapeutic interventions complimenting the outdoors, such as nature meditation and art therapy. Nature therapy leverages the calming and restorative qualities of natural environments to address issues like stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Incorporating ecopsychology into your treatment plan provides an opportunity to heal in ways that traditional therapy may not offer. Studies show that nature therapy can improve attention, lower stress, and enhance mood5, which can relieve symptoms of certain mental health conditions. For example, spending time outdoors can decrease anxiety and depression symptoms6.
Nature can also improve immune system functioning7 and enhance sleep due to natural light, vitamin D exposure8, and physical activity. Good health is vital for a successful recovery.
Eco-connection refers to the deep and inherent relationship between human beings and the natural world9 and is a fundamental concept in ecopsychology. This concept highlights that humans are not separate from nature; instead, they are intrinsically connected to and dependent on the natural world.
Ecopsychology practices eco-connection by using the human:nature relationship to not only help people but also to benefit the environment. In recovery, you may participate in horticulture therapy, which has psychological benefits and replenishes and maintains the earth.
Strengthening your bond with the planet can improve your well-being, and it’s easier to do than you may think. Simply taking a mindful nature walk, nature journaling plants and animals you see, outdoor yoga, and nature photography can all help you feel closer to the earth. As you bolster this relationship, you may find it easier to benefit from ecopsychology in your recovery.
Ecopsychology provides a therapeutic framework to help patients cope with anxiety about environmental challenges, sometimes called eco-grief. With the scale of ecological and climate crises, it’s normal to feel uneasy about the path our planet is on; however, ecopsychology can help you address these emotions and find ways to manage them.
Ecopsychology validates eco-grief and encourages being mindful in your relationship with the natural world (how do you treat Earth?). Moreso, it emphasizes power in numbers. Ecopsychology believes that relying on social systems to process these feelings and enact change10 is one of the best ways to ease anxiety. You may be more likely to problem-solve ways you can make a difference when you have the support of others.
For example, you could educate yourself on climate change and raise awareness for various issues, such as deforestation. Doing so can help you feel more in control of your future and aligned with the planet.
As society begins to see the importance of human connection to nature, and the climate crisis, ecopsychology will continue to make a lasting impact. Moving forward, there may be more specific ecopsychology practices and nature wellness programs put into place—for mental health recovery and general health and well-being.
More research is needed to incorporate these principles into mainstream healthcare; however, programs and people are seeing the benefits. If you’re curious about your eco-connection and programs that focus on ecopsychology, talk to your doctor or a nature therapist. You may find that this approach can have a lasting impact on your recovery and life.
If you’re interested in adding nature therapy or wilderness immersion into your recovery, reach out to your primary care physician. You can talk to them about what you’re hoping to gain from these therapies, and they can help you find an appropriate nature therapy provider that fits your needs. Once you meet with the provider, consider asking these questions to see if this approach is a fit for your recovery:
Ecopsychology: How immersion in nature benefits your health. (n.d.). Yale E360. Retrieved November 2, 2023, from https://e360.yale.edu/features/ecopsychology-how-immersion-in-nature-benefits-your-health
Barrable, A., & Booth, D. (2022). Disconnected: What can we learn from individuals with very low nature connection? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(13), 8021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9266168/
One recovery many paths. (2020, April 10). Renee Baribeau The Practical Shaman. https://thepracticalshaman.com/one-recovery-many-paths/
Ecopsychology: Eight principles. (n.d.). Retrieved November 2, 2023, from https://ecotherapyoxford.co.uk/what-is-ecotherapy/ecopsychology-eight-principles/
Nurtured by nature. (n.d.). Https://Www.Apa.Org. Retrieved November 2, 2023, from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
Lackey, N. Q., Tysor, D. A., McNay, G. D., Joyner, L., Baker, K. H., & Hodge, C. (2021). Mental health benefits of nature-based recreation: A systematic review. Annals of Leisure Research, 24(3), 379–393. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/11745398.2019.1655459
Chae, Y., Lee, S., Jo, Y., Kang, S., Park, S., & Kang, H. (2021). The effects of forest therapy on immune function. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(16), 8440. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8394293/
Wood, L. A., Tomlinson, M. M., Pfeiffer, J. A., Walker, K. L., Keith, R. J., Smith, T., Yeager, R. A., Bhatnagar, A., Kerstiens, S., Gilkey, D., Gao, H., Srivastava, S., & Hart, J. L. (2021). Time spent outdoors and sleep normality: A preliminary investigation. Population Medicine, 3, 7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8411876/
Lomas, T. (2019). The elements of eco-connection: A cross-cultural lexical enquiry. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 5120. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6950391/
Ágoston, C., Csaba, B., Nagy, B., Kőváry, Z., Dúll, A., Rácz, J., & Demetrovics, Z. (2022). Identifying types of eco-anxiety, eco-guilt, eco-grief, and eco-coping in a climate-sensitive population: A qualitative study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(4), 2461. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8875433/
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