The Healing Power of Nature
Have you ever headed out for a brisk walk when confronted with a difficult decision? Before long, you start noticing the birds calling or your neighbor’s flowers and you return home with clarity about your situation. Or have you calmed yourself by heading to the ocean or river? The sound of water rushing over rocks or washing on the shore brings a sense of exhilaration and joy that puts your problem in perspective.
What is ecotherapy?
All of this is captured in the emerging field of ecotherapy, which promotes mutually beneficial relationships between people and nature. Ecotherapy encourages us to use our senses and heart to experience and interact with the rest of the world. Howard Clinebell, the first to use the term, defined ecotherapy as “healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth.”
Ecotherapy involves getting out in the woods or parks, sitting by flowing water, or watching the scenery out the train or car window. It includes interaction with domestic animals such as horses, dogs, or cats. It embraces gardening with either houseplants or outdoor gardens, just watching or tending them. In essence, it is anything that gets us involved with living species other than our own.
What are the benefits?
Some of us have intuitively known the healing power of nature—and research is proving us right. Investigations during the past thirty years provide insight into types of advantages that nature provides. Highlights of these studies include:
Medical benefits: research studies corroborate that medical patients heal faster, experienced less pain, and are more pleasant when their hospital experience includes views or sounds from nature (both natural and artificially induced). Patients with rooms that faced trees benefited, as did those who looked at murals of natural scenes or listened to recordings of nature sounds. Nature can also keep us healthy, if we can generalize from the fact that Michigan prisoners whose cells faced courtyard had 24% more illness than those who faced farmland.
Emotional benefits: several studies have demonstrated that time in nature contributes to emotional well-being. For example, people report they feel more relaxed and their blood pressure levels drop after being outdoors. Adults and teens both report increased self-esteem and are more cooperative and kind, with a positive outlook and view of other people, more self-confidence and patience. These changes occur when people partake in a wide range of activities such as jogging outside, living in apartments near green spaces, and participating in outdoor camps or wilderness experiences.
Therapeutic benefits: spending time in nature has positive impacts on those dealing with more serious issues such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD. For example, in Holland, people who live within one kilometer (just more than a half mile) of a park or wooded area experience less anxiety and depression than those living farther away. Participants in a study in England reported declines in their levels of depression when they spent time walking outside. Interestingly, they reported little benefit and occasional worsening of their symptoms when they did the same amount of walking in shopping malls.
Research also shows that being in nature can help those with concentration problems such as ADHD. Office workers pay more attention to detail if they have a window. Backpackers improve their proofreading ability. Time in nature enhances our ability to focus and perform better academically, as several studies of school children have shown. In some towns, teachers are taking hyperactive children outside for a quick walk before class to help them concentrate during the school day.
Why does it work?
Numerous reports suggest the healing power of nature. But why does it work? That is more difficult to tease apart, but some options have been suggested.
Restorative. Some propose that continued focus on tasks leads to “direct attention fatigue” which can drain and debilitate us, leading to impulsivity, distractibility and irritability. This can be combated by the restorative environment found in nature. Small details, broad landscapes, miniature creatures, large plants – all provide a safe place filled with high fascination. This intriguing atmosphere allows our minds to relax and restore.
Spiritual. Eckhart Tolle suggests we “move beyond the ‘interesting’ aspects of nature to see its magic, mystery, and majesty.” We don’t look at a sunset and say, “Oh, how interesting.” Instead, we comment on its beauty and vibrant colors, and experience a welling of amazement and ecstasy as we watch it change and develop. Have you ever looked out at a dark sky filled with stars and thought both how small we each are and how we belong to a part of a huge universe?
Natural. Humans have been part of the natural world for millennium, more time than not. Some of those involved with ecotherapy have even proposed that our high rates of depression and ADHD might have developed from our disconnect with nature, but, of course, this hasn’t been rigorously documented as yet.
What is our role?
Nothing is a one-way street. When we get so much from being in nature and interacting with other living beings, it’s important for us to reciprocate and return something to them. Awareness of the contribution from our air, water, land, plants, and animals motivates us to give back. When we realize the value of pure flowing water or crisp, fresh air, we will feel the strong urge to keep them both clean.
Give it a try!
If you’d like to try a brief exercise, head outside to a relatively level place where you can walk in comfort and peace. If appropriate, do this exercise barefoot. Visualize our beautiful planet earth, its majestic mountains and flowing streams, the myriad of creatures and plants that inhabit this space with us. Imagine all the connections, strung like spider webs, between each of us, and how our actions trickle out to the rest of the earth.
Now, for ten minutes, take mindful steps in silence, concentrating on each step. Use the following words of Thich Nhat Hanh to focus on your task: “Be aware of the contact between your feet and the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet. We have caused a lot of damage to the Earth. Now it is time for us to take good care of her.”
To complete the process, it’s important to give something back to the earth. When you have finished with your walking meditation, make a commitment to take a small step to improve the health of the ground that supports us. Adding less garbage, destroying less topsoil, using fewer pesticides—each of these will reduce the earth’s toxicity.
In review, the natural world around us has the capacity to help us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We, on the other hand, have a chance to give back to nature in ways that will benefit us all, now and for future generations.(Reference citations available upon request.)
Ecotherapist Beth Lapin brings 20 years experience as a field biologist and an equal amount as a social worker – and master’s degrees in both – along with decades of experience leading outdoor excursions and therapeutic groups. She conducts ecotherapy workshops and sessions in southern New England and is co-developing an ecotherapy referral process. Learn more at: www.HealingNatureCT.com or email at