Personal-mental eco-healing focuses on nature’s ability to assist, heal, and/or restore people’s mental health.
In 1992, psychologist Theodore Roszak called for a new field of study in psychology that focused on the relationship between people and the environment. Rozak had grown concerned about the impact of the environment’s degradation on his clients’ mental health, and his call gave birth to a vast field of study that includes eco-psychology and eco-therapy (or, more broadly, nature-based therapeutics).
Researchers and psychologists began to study nature’s impact on anxiety, depression, and stress by exposing people to natural settings or encouraging them to engage in green (outdoor) exercise (MIND Report, 2007; Bowler, et al, 2010).
Today, therapeutic horticulture, animal-assisted therapy, and wilderness expeditions all work with the human-nature healing relationship.
Interestingly, research reveals that nature’s healing power can even occur when people look at nature photos or visualize nature scenes (Berman, et al, 2008). Being in nature itself, however, has the greatest healing impact on mental health and wellbeing.
Personal transformation is best cultivated by partnering with the supreme agent of change, the Earth.
Seeing Depression in a New Light
Terry was suffering from one of the most powerful bouts of depression in his life. His therapist chose an unconventional treatment and sent Terry to his farm, located several miles outside city limits.
It was winter, and Terry noticed the way the wind slapped him in the face when he got out of his truck. Snow covered the flat land as far as the horizon line. Terry’s boots sank into the snow as he walked. He settled beside a frozen pond and noticed that the sensory input from his surroundings—the frigid wind, the blinding snow—had distracted him from his own depressed mental chatter.
Sitting next to the pond, he began to think about what lay underneath the ice. The fish and frogs and larvae that normally thrived under the water were all sleeping, he realized. As the snow began to fall on his own body, Terry had a revelation. He was not unlike the sleeping animals and organisms below the surface of the pond. “I realized that my depression is like the snow,” he said. “It covers everything in me, and it’s like my heart has gone to sleep…but I’m not dead inside. I’m resting.”(Adapted from The Healing Earth)
Pets and Plants
When you are overwhelmed by a personal problem, try spending time with a pet or working in a garden. If you work with a pet, try breathing in rhythm with your animal. If you choose to garden, focus on the soil and the beauty of the flowers, fruit, or vegetation.
For a half hour, do nothing but be with your animal or garden. If your mind starts worrying about your difficulties, gently return to your observations. After 30 minutes, note your mental state.
You can experiment with pets, gardens, and wild nature to discover if one has a more positive impact on your wellbeing. Recognize that you are constantly changing, so your responses to different types of eco-healing experiences may vary.
Nature Reduces Anxiety, Depression, and Stress. MIND, a British non-profit dedicated to mental health, ran a series of eco-therapy experiments comparing green exercise (a walk in the park) to indoor exercise (a walk in a shopping mall.) The results linked green exercise to the reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as an unexpected result—enhanced self-esteem. The researchers recommended that eco-therapy be recognized as a clinically valid treatment for mental stress (MIND report, 2007).
Nature’s Impact on Children with ADHD. Researchers Kuo and Taylor conducted studies of inner-city children diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.) The researchers first compared the diagnosed children who lived near nature (a small park, tree, or even a few bushes) to those who did not have nature near their home. Those with nature had less ADHD symptoms than those who were without nature exposure. The researchers also found that children diagnosed with ADHD were able to concentrate better after a walk in the park (Kuo & Taylor, 2004; Taylor & Kuo, 2009).
Therapeutic Gardening. According to extensive research, gardening is good physical exercise and relieves mental anxiety and stress. After WWII, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder were advised to start a garden. This launched the field of therapeutic horticulture. In 1995, researcher Colette Fabrigoule and others took gardening’s impact a step further and began exploring its impact on cognition. In one study, gardening was associated with a 50% reduction of dementia (Fabrigoule, et al, 1995). Another study ten years later showed that students participating in school gardens had an overall improvement in science scores compared to those students not participating (Klemmer, et al, 2005).
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.
Bowler, D. E., Buyung-Ali, L. M., Knight, T. M., & Pullin, A. S. (2010). A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health, 10, 456.
Chard, P.S. (1999). The Healing Earth. Chanhassen, MN: Northword Press.
Cooper, C., Barnes, M., Eds. (1999). Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing.
Fabrigoule, C., Letenneur, L., Dartigues, J.F., Zarrouk, M., et al. (1995). Social and leisure activities and risk of dementia: a prospective longitudinal study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society; 43(5), 485-490.
Fine, A.H., Ed. (2006). Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines for Practice, 2nd Edition. San Diego: Elsvier.
Klemmer, C. D., Waliczek, T.M., Zajicek, J.M. (2005). Growing minds: the effect of a school gardening program on the science achievement of elementary students. HortTechnology; 15(3),448–553.
Kuo, F., Taylor, A. F. (2004). A potential natural treatment for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). American Journal of Public Health; 94(9), 1580.
MIND Report (2007). Ecotherapy: the green agenda for mental health. Retrieved May 20, 2014 from http://www.mind.org.uk/media/273470/ecotherapy.pdf.
Roszak, T. (2009). A psyche as big as the earth.From Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. Buzzel,L., Chalquist, C., Eds. San Francisco: Sierra Club Book.
Theodore Roszak (November 13, 1933-July 5, 2011) is credited with creating the term ecopsychology in his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth. Roszak remained an Earth champion up until the time of his death in 2011. He is best known for his 1969 text, The Making of a Counterculture, where he created and explored the term counterculture to describe the 1960s.
Taylor, A. F. and Kuo, F. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders; 12(5), 402-409.