How Nature Therapy Helps Your Mental Health

types of nature therapy

Verywell / Laura Porter

It’s time to bring nature into our everyday life. While we know intuitively that seeing the birds and squirrels in the local park seems to have a calming effect on us and makes us feel good, empirical evidence is mounting about the benefits of nature therapy.

This article explains what nature therapy involves, how nature therapy can benefit your mental health, and how you can bring nature to your if you happen to be stuck inside.

What Is Nature Therapy?

Nature therapy, which is also called ecotherapy, is based on the concept of using nature to help us heal, especially psychologically. Instead of spending time enjoying and benefiting from the natural environment, we are spending more and more time on screens and online.

We do not spend time outside as much as we did before to decompress, let off steam, or recharge. We may no longer bike through a meadow or play games at the lake, for example, as we did when we were children.

We’ve replaced those leisurely activities with more time spent on social media and video games. The ramifications are we are a stressed-out society with a variety of mental health maladies.

Green and Blue Therapy

You might hear nature therapy called "green care," "green exercise," or "green therapy." That is because its powerful benefit lies in spending time in green spaces.

But nature therapy also includes time spent near soothing blue oceans, blue rivers, and blue lakes. Being near aquatic environments has a psychologically restorative effect. It puts us in good moods. The color blue also represents calm and tranquility.

The Blue Health project is an organization that has conducted studies about the relationship between blue spaces and health in 18 countries across Europe. After surveying 18,000 people, researchers discovered that people feel better being near waterways.

In fact, evidence showed a positive association between more exposure to outdoor blue spaces and health, particularly in terms of benefits to mental health and well-being. So, researchers have expanded their notion of ecotherapy to include blue spaces as well.

Nature Therapy’s Various Approaches

A host of nature-based therapeutic programs are available to you. There are relaxed approaches like gardening in the backyard, walking in a field of flowers, or floating on a tube in the river.

Nature therapy or ecotherapy can also encompass activities or therapies in which you are formally guided by therapists and trained leaders, too.

Here are some more formalized types of nature therapies:

  • Farming-related therapy, which could involve working with crops, often in a community
  • Animal-assisted therapy, which might consist of playing with or training horses or dogs
  • Adventure therapy, which may feature white water rafting or rock climbing
  • Wilderness therapy, which often helps groups of teens and young adults with behavioral issues
  • Forest therapy, also called forest bathing, is a mindful practice in which you use your five senses as you walk through a forest

The Benefits of Being in Nature

What science is showing is that we can reap the healing powers of Mother Nature and gain a host of mental health benefits. The question is are we partaking in what might be an easy, cost-effective solution to our problems?

The latest research in psychology is furthering our knowledge about how spending time in nature is a low-cost and highly effective way to improve various aspects of our psychological wellness.

Increased Happiness

Many books and articles have been published about how to boost happiness. One proven way is by spending more time in nature.

In a review of extensive previous research, Gregory Bratman, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, helped to chart a course for policymakers. He and his team wanted to create a framework measuring mental health benefits so city planners could incorporate natural settings into their future plans.

In his study, published in Science Advances, Bratman and his colleagues found evidence that contact with nature is associated with many benefits including increases in happiness, a sense of well-being, positive social interactions, and a feeling of meaningfulness in life.

Decreased Anxiety, Stress and Depression

Because anxiety, stress, and depression affect U.S. college students now at alarming rates, another study examined 14 already-published studies involving college-aged adults. Nature-rich environments unequivocally helped reduce mental distress.  

The study compared those in urban areas with those in natural environments. What it also revealed was how little time it took to impact these students.

It showed that by spending a minimum of 10 minutes, either sitting or walking in a wide range of natural settings, there was a significant and beneficial impact on the participants’ mental health. Scientists used key psychological and physiological markers to measure this.

Uptick in Cognitive Benefits

Our mind likes it when we spend time in nature. We have better focus, which is also described as sharpened cognition. Another recent study showed that our exposure to natural environments is good for our brain. It improves performance on our working memory, cognitive flexibility, and attentional-control tasks. 

How to Bring Nature Indoors

Due to socio-economic reasons, not every group has easy access to green or blue spaces. Furthermore, during inclement weather and cold winter months, even those with the means might not choose to luxuriate in nature. The appeal of a stroll by a river or hike through a nature reserve may not be there.

If you have limited time or access, perhaps an intense work schedule, or are just not comfortable spending prolonged periods of time in the cold, you can still access nature conveniently.  

How do we bring nature’s benefits inside when we are confined to our homes and workplaces? Here are some easy ways:

  • Add plants. They not only remove toxins from the air, but research shows that people who spend time around plants have more concern, empathy, and compassion toward others as well as improved relationships.
  • Decorate with paintings or photographs of nature. Choose pretty landscapes, lush gardens, or natural scenes. In yet another study about the health benefits of nature, researchers found that viewing lovely green scenes resulted in the participants having lower stress levels.
  • Use soundscapes and download apps of soothing nature sounds. Don’t underestimate the power of listening to a waterfall or the sound of rain. The result isn’t just enhanced relaxation and a sense of chilling out. Results also include attention restoration and better cognitive performance. In one particular study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review participants who listened to nature’s sounds, specifically that of the ocean’s waves and chirping crickets, performed better on tests than their counterparts who listened to urban sounds like traffic and car horns.
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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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