Ecotherapy: How Nature Can Improve Your Mental Health

Right now, you are staring at a glowing rectangle, bombarded by modulated light waves forming signs and patterns conveyed across great distance by electricity, fiber optic cables, and scientific magic. In terms of the human species, you are part of the first generations in our thousands of years of history to do anything like this. Likewise for driving a car, flying in an airplane, and most significantly perhaps, living almost the entirety of your life in an artificial environment.

Without a doubt, you recognize that life is better now than when we lived under the constant threat of being trampled by rampaging herds of mastodons. But have you ever stopped to consider what kind of side-effects might come with liberal doses of cubicles, artificial light sources, 12-hour work days, three hour commutes, and a nearly complete disappearance of unmitigated natural sound?

Contrast your life with the lives of our ancestors, who spent up to 99% of their days completely within natural environments. In this sense, the human species has become a figurative fish out of water; we have almost entirely divorced ourselves from the world that we are so integrally a part of.  Although the epidemiology of our most common disorders (anxiety, depression, autism, ADHD, conduct disorders) suggests a vast array of influences. Would it really surprise you to learn that our species, which learned anxiety in response to stampeding mastodons, has now, to our profound detriment, turned our stress responses toward more existential threats like rent payments, mass shootings, television news cycles, and which brand of toothpaste to use?

The emerging discipline of Ecotherapy posits that exposure to and interaction with the natural world in a balanced way can mitigate and alleviate some of the symptoms associated with the modern experience. The implication that we can improve our health simply by spending more time in a natural environment has powerful treatment implications that complement the traditional combination of psychopharmacology and talk-therapy.

Japanese scientists have lead the way in researching the effects of nature of the human body. The most famous study, conducted by Yoshifumi Miyazaki, described the contrast in results of two groups of students exposed to two separate environments. One group was asked to walk a few miles in the city. The other group was asked to walk in the forest. The result was that the city group saw an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels, while the forest group saw the reverse effect. Further studies indicated an improvement in immune function following a stay of three days/two nights in a forest, with the improved effects lasting for more than seven days following exposure.

Further research revealed that phytoncides, an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal chemical produced by plants, may be responsible for these effects. Phytoncides are present in the essential oils contained within many types of plant species. When humans are exposed for a prolonged period of time, phytoncides may increase the activity of NK (natural killer) cells, which attack infections and cancerous tissues. These essential oils are most commonly found in certain aromatic plants, the most common of which include conifers, herbs and shrubs, birches, oaks, hardwoods and citrus species. The preliminary conclusion is that standing in a forest surrounded by these species bombards you with mind- and body-altering chemicals that produce a reduction in stress and an increase in immune functioning that lasts for up to twice as long as the actual exposure.

Beyond the olfactory senses, additional research suggests that simply viewing natural features produces a benefit. In a review of the records of patients at a Pennsylvania hospital from 1972 to 1981, researchers observed a distinct difference in specific healing rates between patients who could see trees from their window versus clients who looked at a brick wall. Patients who could see trees had shorter hospital stays, fewer negative comments about their nurses, required fewer doses of pain medication, and had fewer postsurgical complications. The opposite results occurred for patients looking at the wall. Today, hospitals account for this research in their construction and now make efforts to provide views of some semblance of a natural environment for patients.
The research indicating physical and mental health benefits extends toward children, as well. Research conducted by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan led to Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which describes the effect of nature in increasing capacity for attention in children. According to ART, there are two types of attention: directed attention and soft fascination. Directed attention is what you’re using to comprehend this article. Soft fascination is what happens when you look out your window and hear a bird singing. ART contends that a child’s interaction with natural features inspires the deepest sense of soft fascination, which, in turn, increased a child’s capacity for focusing. As an alternative to amphetamine treatment, ART suggests that more unstructured play time in natural environments (and perhaps more reasonable demands for focused attention) may mitigate or even eliminate some, if not most, cases of ADHD.

Ecotherapy has also touched on the roots of autoimmune disorders in which a person’s immune system responds abnormally and often harmfully. Autoimmune disorders include various allergies, type I diabetes, Crohn’s disease, and many more.  The “Old Friends” theory contends that our bodies co-evolved with a number of benign microorganisms, viruses, and bacteria throughout most of our species’ existence. Our immune systems evolved to calibrate their functioning by managing these common microbes, which led to appropriate functioning in response to more malignant microbes. As our society became more advanced and much more sanitary, these benign microbes became less common. The Old Friends theory suggests that without these microbes, our bodies have struggled to calibrate appropriately, which has led to an increased tendency for our immune systems to attack our own bodies.

It is true that these experiments must be replicated and explored further in order to withstand the full weight of scientific scrutiny. Not enough research has been conducted to meet the scientific standards, and it’s curious that such intriguing initial results have not been replicated. After all, what agency or treatment provider genuinely interested in improving a client’s well-being would not want an effective, inexpensive, self-sustaining treatment modality largely independent of classical interventions like medications and extensive talk-therapy?

The number of ways you can incorporate nature back into your life are limited to your surrounding environment, your imagination, and a willingness to assume a touch of adventure. When one sits atop an old stump in the midst of a coniferous forest imbibing phytoncides, listening to a symphony of birdsong contrasted, and watches shafts of evening light filtering through pine needles, the feeling of “washing off” the stresses of modern life is tangible. The forest has no bureaucracy, no insect-buzz of electronics, and no scandalous, salacious anecdotes about humans at their worst. For ourselves, for our clients, and for future generations, the path leading around a bend into a dense grove of cedar trees may also be the same path leading to renewed wellness.

Scott Turner

Scott Turner is an avid hiker and photographer moonlighting as a Marriage and Family Therapy Intern. When not hiking, taking pictures of hiking, and planning to go hiking, Scott continues to work on the 5th edition of Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, writes and records music, and hangs out with the best wife on the planet and two cats who could use some aggressive behavior modification.