It’s not a regulated or licensed form of mental health therapy, but the field of “ecotherapy” is gaining ground not only across the country but also here in Maine.
Its practitioners advise clients to get outside and connect with nature as part of an overall treatment plan.
“It’s really not all that outside the box,” said Carol Chapman, licensed therapist in Bangor. “Many [therapists] believe in bringing nature into people’s lives and into [therapy] sessions.”
Based on the idea that people are connected to, and impacted by the natural world, ecotherapy — also called “green” or “nature” therapy — centers on the positive connections between humans and the natural world.
This can mean regular outdoor sessions with a licensed therapist or simple exercises practiced by individuals on their own.
It’s being used to treat issues including anxiety, depression, stress and attention deficit disorder.
“Getting outside and into nature makes people feel more connected to something greater than themselves,” Chapman said. “By just walking in the woods it takes you outside of yourself and puts you in the bigger environment [and] you feel connected to the earth and animals and plants.”
For people who feel overwhelmed in their lives, that connectivity can be very calming and allow them to recognize they are not responsible for taking on every problem they perceive, Chapman said.
Backed by research
“Getting outside is something we encourage wholeheartedly,” said Carolann Ouellette, executive director of Maine Huts and Trails. “There have been so many studies showing how nature boosts mental and physical wellbeing and how getting outside reduces stress.”
In 2014, Swedish psychologist Terry Hartig conducted a study in which participants completed a 40-minute cognitive task designed to induce mental fatigue.
After the task was completed, the participants were randomly assigned a 40-minute block of time walking in a nature preserve, walking in an urban area or quietly reading a magazine while listening to music.
According to Hartig’s results, the group who walked in the nature preserve reported less anger and more positive emotions than those who walked in the urban area or read magazines.
A similar study conducted by the mental health charity organization Mind, showed a nature walk reduced symptoms of depression in 71 percent of participants compared to 45 percent of those who took a walk through a shopping center.
“Getting outside really clears your mind,” Ouellette said. “It awakens your senses when you take time to see, hear and smell everything around you.”
Though she has not practiced ecotherapy for a number of years, Elin MacKinnon, licensed social worker and adjunct instructor with the school of social work at the University of Maine, is an advocate.
“There is a lot that supports this,” according to MacKinnon. “I point people to that research in my teachings [and] there is plenty of research out there that supports the benefits of being in nature and with gardening.”
“Our minds can get so tired and nature can really provide that relief we need,” said Kathryn Perry, licensed therapist in Wells and secretary of the New England chapter of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. “Tuning yourself into nature turns everything else off in your mind so you can focus on specific elements that create relaxation.”
In her practice Perry works with children and employs “horticultural therapy,” in which clients engage in plant-based activities like gardening or seed gathering with a trained therapist as they work toward specific treatment goals.
“It’s all about fostering the people-plant relationships to improve well-being and address specific goals,” Perry said. “It has been shown to work with people addressing mental issues and physical disabilities.”
Human beings, Perry said, have an innate need to foster life, and plants can fulfill that need.
“We have that need to nurture and plants offer an opportunity to nurture something living that does not judge,” she said. “It’s an easy way to nurture another living thing.”
In her work with children Perry said she looks at “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” in which he describes how humans, especially children, were spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.
“Children need to get outside and move,” Perry said. “It’s the whole idea that we need nature in our lives.”
Putting nature-based ecotherapy in practice can be as simple as just moving a therapy session out of the office, according to Chapman.
“If it’s summer and I have a client feeling a bit antsy, we will go out and sit on a park bench,” she said. “Other times we go on walks and it makes [clients] feel better being outside.”
For Perry and her clients, being outside is a year-round pursuit.
“Gardening in the spring and summer we are thinking about winter,” she said. “During the winter we can still nurture the gardens with mulching and working on our compost.”
Other plant-based activities include growing cold-tolerant plants, starting plants in greenhouses or on window sills and planning out the coming season’s gardens which gives participants something to look forward to.
“Winter is really my favorite time to walk in the woods,” Perry said. “There are no bugs and we can gather items like boughs to create winter bouquets.”
Winter, Ouellette said, is no reason to curtail outdoor activities.
“As Mainers we embrace winter,” she said. “Dress warmly and be smart and go use the trail systems for skiing, snowshoeing or even bicycling.”
Engaging in outdoor activities this time of year can be even more important to mental wellbeing as the holidays draw near, Ouellette said.
“Stress can be heightened during the holidays as we are all rushing around shopping or online doing more shopping,” she said. “Take a moment to get outside, take a deep breath and be active in a different, more physical way.”
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