There's so much research on the benefits of nature for mental health that it's difficult to summarize. This is a selective overview of the research on ecotherapy, but I'd be glad to send you a more detailed review if you're interested. I'll look at three areas of research:
- How spending time in nature benefits mental health and wellbeing;
- Counselling and psychotherapy outdoors;
- How ecotherapy can help with specific mental health issues.
Benefits to mental health and wellbeing
Extensive research has shown that spending time in nature reduces negative behaviors and mood states (e.g., aggression, anxiety, depression, mental fatigue) and increases positive ones (e.g., improved attention, heightened cognitive capacity, grater sense of wellbeing). Some studies suggest that nature can even improve your emotional self-regulation.
It's now well established that nature can decrease stress levels and promote stress recovery. Nature can also buffer us against the negative impact of stress: Several decades of evidence suggests that spending time in nature can lower pulse rates, reduce cortisol levels, and improve immune functioning.
Vitality - the feeling of being fully alive and energized - appears to be enhanced by being in nature. A study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that spending just 20 minutes outside every day could boost energy. Richard Ryan, professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, commented that "people with a greater sense of vitality don't just have more energy for things they want to do, they are also more resilient to physical illnesses".
There's good evidence that spending time in nature can improve your self-esteem and enhance your sense of personal autonomy - your ability to freely choose your actions and express your authentic self. These are key factors in our overall mental health. Nature connection can also catalyse feelings of awe, inspiration and a sense of connection to a greater whole.
Counselling and psychotherapy outdoors
There's not much research that looks specifically at counselling and psychotherapy outdoors. However, what we know so far suggests that therapy in nature will be beneficial in most cases.
- Several studies have shown that being in nature boosts positive emotions and the ability to reflect on life problems.
- Research suggests that it's easier to be with difficult emotions like loneliness, isolation, and anxiety when we're in a natural environment.
- Neuroscience research seems to support the value of doing therapy
in nature (The
Neuroscience of Walk and Talk Therapy).
A review of the current research concluded that a "small but reliable evidence base supports the effectiveness and appropriateness of nature-assisted therapy" and found there there were "significant improvements ... in diverse diagnoses" (Annerstedt & Wahrborg, 2011).
Help with specific mental health issues
Spending time in nature counters the tendency to withdraw, reduces rumination - the habit of endlessly going over worries - and improves your overall mood. A recent study published by the mental health charity MIND found that a walk in nature reduced depression in over 70% of participants. Researchers compared the effect with a group who took walk in a shopping centre. Only 45% of those on the shopping center walk had reduced depression scores, while 22% of them actually felt worse (Berman et al).
Numerous studies have found that spending time in nature reduces the symptoms of ADHD in children. Scientists at at the University of Illinois found that a twenty minute walk in the woods improves ADHD in children better than any of the available drugs. "Overall, our findings indicate that exposure to ordinary natural settings in the course of common after-school and weekend activities may be widely effective in reducing attention deficit symptoms in children" (Kuo and Faber, 2004) Sadly children tend to spend much less time in nature today and Richard Louv concludes that ADHD is a symptom of what he calls 'nature deficit disorder' (2008).
I've published several peer reviewed journal articles on ecotherapy;
- What impact – if any – does working outdoors have on the therapeutic relationship? European Journal of Ecopsychology 6: 23–46 (2018)
- ‘What impact does working outdoors have on the therapeutic relationship? An interview with ecotherapist David Key‘, in Self & Society: An International Journal for Humanistic Psychology. Volume 43, 2015 – Issue 2.
- ‘Gendlin and Ecopsychology: Focusing in Nature’, in Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12 (4): 330-343
More detailed reports
The Faculty of Public Health (in association with Natural England) published a report called Great Outdoors: How Our Natural Health Service Uses Green Space To Improve Wellbeing.
MIND, the UK mental health charity, produced a comprehensive report on ecotherapy in 2013.
A report from Exeter University details the value of 'Green Prescriptions' - "doses of nature tailored to patients' needs".
If you'd like to go deeper into the subject, the UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) website lists over 60 research reports on ecotherapy. In the USA, the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory provides an extensive bibliography of research papers on the Human Health Benefits Of Natural Landscapes.
Annerstedt. M. & Wahrborg, P. (2011). Implications
for policy or practice Nature-assisted therapy: systematic review of controlled
and observational studies. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health,
39(4), June 2011, pp. 371-388.
Berman. M. et al. (2012). Interacting with Nature Improves Cognition and Affect for Individuals with Depression. Journal of Affect Disorder. 2012 Nov;140(3):300.
Kuo, F. and Faber, A. (2004). A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study. American Journal of Public Health. 2004 Sep; 94 (9): 1580-6. University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign.
Louv, R (2008). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. New York: Algonquin Books.
Ryan, R. M.et al. Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Volume 30, Issue 2, June 2010, pp. 159-168.