“Look at the monkey!” I scream as I look intently at the green on my left.
“Look this way,” said my husband. “There’s an ant trail cutting leaves!”
We are in Mexico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park in Costa Rica, a wildlife sanctuary teeming with wildlife, lush vegetation, and bridges suspended hundreds of feet above the ground.
Before I arrived, I felt the usual attacks of anxiety – shallow breathing, tight chest, tight shoulders. I started my freelance career a few weeks ago, and I was worried about building my client.
After a two-hour trek through the jungle, my fears vanished. I held my breath again and my shoulders relaxed. The client problem was no longer a big one in my mind.
Over the years, I have come to realize that walking in nature helps me to control my worries. What I do not know is that there was a word that used external use to calm the human mind: ecotherapy.
Ecotherapy is a broad term that can apply to many different professions, says Joe Hinds, a UK-based psychiatrist and co-author of the book Ecotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. Ecotherapy can mean spending time on the environment while doing a treatment session with a qualified doctor, he says. Including many outdoor activities – gardening, whitewashing, rock climbing, nature walks, horseback riding, farm care and animal husbandry are all forms of ecotherapy.
Although ecotherapy has been something people have been using naturally for years, some doctors have begun to write “park instructions” in which they directly advise their patients with anxiety or depression to walk naturally.
“In my mind, it’s normal for us as human beings to want to connect with nature in some way,” Hinds said. “It’s a universal thing. That can be as simple as having a goldfish in your front garden until you reach the desert experience. ”
Adequate studies have been done to better understand what is playing at the body level when performing ecotherapy. One study found that those who walk in the environment compared to an extra 90-minute exercise program suffer from low blood pressure, low levels of the stress hormone cortisol, heart failure and low levels of gossip, or excessive anxiety. Hinds says further research has also shown that the dense urban environment, has a devastating effect on a person with mental health problems.
Some studies have found that time outside can significantly reduce the symptoms of ADHD in children. Also, walking in nature can boost self-esteem in people with depression, according to a 2007 study by the University of Essex.
One major theory of why ecotherapy works, Hinds says, is the biophilia hypothesis, “which says that because of our long-term and long-term relationship with nature, we behave well in natural environments,” he said. “Recently there, in terms of evolution, we have entered the built-up areas.”
There is also something called attention restoration theory (ART), says Hinds, which suggests that we are less interested in natural beauty and that is what draws us. This idea struck a chord with me – when I hike in the mountains, I often take the time to marvel at wildflowers, rock formations, and landscapes, and this fascination is what softens my senses.
“That belief also says that our modern life is in turmoil – we are constantly being attacked by many things – and once we enter nature, all those things are shut down and we begin to regenerate with understanding,” Hinds says.
A Long, Long History
Although the term ecotherapy is relatively new to many, it has been around for centuries. Think of such philosophers as Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, who wandered into nature in search of ideas. Or Sigmund Freud, who used to take patients to beaches and forests, says Hans Watson, a psychiatrist based in Great Falls, Montana, who uses ecotherapy in his practice.
Anyone and anyone can benefit from ecotherapy, although there are certain mental health conditions that are commonly used for treatment.
“Studies show that natural phenomena – such as hiking – can have a profound effect on people suffering from depression, anxiety and depression, as well as other emotional disorders,” said Jennifer Owens, a psychiatrist based in Louisville, Kentucky, who specializes in ecotherapy.
One example of effective ecotherapy would be a person with a debilitating problem that goes with nature to create thinking and relaxation, Watson said.
Another example is equine-assisted treatment, which includes massage, riding and engaging in horses. This type of ecotherapy has been used with war veterans who have recently returned to the U.S. They also suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“A veteran who is battling PTSD is always afraid that he will be attacked by an invisible enemy,” Watson said. Horse riding is a time when veterans can remember this fear while also realizing that the horse is not afraid. This lowers their amygdala, the brain’s central nervous system, he says. “They can use that knowledge to start looking at whether they are in real danger or just out of fear of being in danger.”
You Are Using Ecotherapy In Your Life
Another form of ecotherapy involves participating in a therapeutic regimen directed by a natural physician. If you are inclined to try this type of ecotherapy, Hinds says it is important to make sure you work with a trained professional. People are often exposed and at risk during the treatment period, which is only developed in the open.
If you are interested in engaging in ecotherapy alone, it is important to remember that there is no one size fits all approach. One person may feel better after three hours in the garden, while another may benefit greatly from a white water walk. “You have to find your way,” Hinds said.
Interested in using ecotherapy in your life? Owens offers the following tips to get you started:
Take a memory trip outside. Walk slowly and focus on your breathing. Be careful your feet are in contact with the ground.
Keep moving with the senses as you focus on just one idea. For example, focus on your sense of hearing – be aware of all the sound patterns and types of communication around you. On your next visit, focus on the physical gestures and geography.
Go barefoot. Or, sit or stand barefoot outside for at least 10 minutes.
If you can’t get out, consider the following suggestions from Owen:
Buy a few plants. Observing yourself can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Surprise nature. When you get stuck in traffic or at a car stop, take the time to look at the trees around you instead of at your phone.
Call the sun. Enhance your solar diet by sitting near windows where light is shining. Or, sit outside on your balcony or porch.
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