Maurie Lung, PhD, was in her second year when she realized what she wanted to do growing up.
“When I went to summer camp, my little strawberry cake journal read, ‘When I grow up, I want to help people in the outdoors,’” Lung says. And that is exactly what she is doing today.
Lung oversees the Nature and Adventure Focused Counseling Programs at Prescott College and is also a licensed therapist and counselor who provides nature and adventure oriented counseling for individuals, couples and families.
What is nature therapy?
Nature therapy, also known as ecotherapy, is the practice of being in nature to stimulate growth and healing, especially mental health. You might also hear it called green care, green exercise, green therapy, or horticultural therapy. While people use these terms to describe many outdoor activities, they can also be examples of specific nature therapy programs.
The meaning of nature therapy can vary from person to person, but in general nature therapy involves:
- A trained and supportive professional, like a therapist
- A green environment
- Appreciate and explore nature
Types of nature therapy
Since nature therapy programs can include many activities, there are different types of therapy. Some include:
- Adventure therapy. This uses activities that explore nature and can be done on an individual or group basis. Rafting and rock climbing are good examples.
- Animal assisted interventions or therapy. Both of these options include time spent with animals. Animal-assisted interventions use places like farms where you can pet or feed the animals. On the other hand, animal assisted therapy focuses on building a therapeutic relationship with animals like dogs or houses.
- Handicrafts. As the name suggests, this type combines creative craftsmanship with nature. You can use your creative skills to paint in a green space, such as a park or forest. This type also includes the use of natural materials like clay, grass or wood or the use of green spaces as a source of inspiration for art.
- Preservation. Conservation associates protective spaces in nature with physical exercise.
- Dark nature. The activities in the dark nature take place at night, so you can practice stargazing, for example.
- Green exercise. Here you will do physical activities in the green spaces. This can be running, a walk or a bike ride, for example.
- Therapeutic agriculture. With this type, you will participate in agricultural activities, so you will be able to cultivate or take care of farm animals.
- Therapeutic horticulture. It involves gardening, so you can grow food in community gardens. Sometimes therapeutic horticulture leads to other activities, such as selling locally grown produce at a farmer’s market.
- Wilderness therapy. This type of therapy works well in groups. You will spend time in nature doing activities like hiking or building shelters.
How Does Nature Therapy Help?
A growing body of research suggests spending time in natural environments may be linked to mental health benefits.
For example, being in a green space has been associated with less anxiety, fewer symptoms of depression, and lower stress levels. Spending time in nature helps people with depression and children with attention problems think more clearly.
“One of the main benefits we discuss is for people who are trying to reduce anxiety or depression and increase relationships and bonding,” Lung explains. “I also think it’s super engaging, so for kids and teens … [and] for people who are reluctant to undergo therapy. “
Another expert in ecotherapy is Patricia Hasbach, PhD, licensed professional counselor and clinical psychotherapist. She is also the Co-Director of the Ecopsychology Program at Lewis & Clark College.
Hasbach remembers one such person, a patient in a cardiac rehabilitation center, who was reluctant to therapy.
“He was quite nervous talking with me and I suggested, ‘Do you just want to take a walk outside?’ And I just noticed how his voice changed, ”Hasbach says. “He became more relaxed … and this was my first ‘aha’ moment that there is something here that I have to watch out for.
Researchers have studied nature’s healing effects in a number of areas, including:
“[It’s about] noticing your surroundings and increasing our own awareness of ourselves in relation to our world and our surroundings, ”Lung says. “Just the symbiotic benefits of being outdoors.”
Can Anyone Do Nature Therapy?
Not everyone who practices nature therapy has a mental health problem. Anyone can benefit from the benefits of ecotherapy.
“I really operate in my clinical practice on this idea that because we are nature, everyone can benefit from including ecotherapy in their work,” says Hasbach.
You can do nature therapy anywhere, whether you live in rural, suburban, or urban areas. For example, Lung’s practice is in a very urban area, but often relies on county parks and nearby beaches.
Nature therapy can involve places like gardens, farms, forests, or parks. Usually, nature therapy involves getting to know nature (such as going for a walk in the forest) or working in nature (such as gardening).
The amount of physical activity you will have in nature therapy depends on the person. Lung says she tailors the activities she incorporates into her practice based on the people she works with.
“If I’m working with a teenager and we’re working through times of frustration, then I paddle outside. But I might not be paddling if I’m working with couples because it’s such a super individualistic activity. In that case, I could go sailing because it’s a cooperative activity, ”says Lung. “Nature-based interventions have the flexibility to be truly clinically relevant.”
Nature therapy can be combined with other options, such as:
“Ecotherapy is a tool you should rely on to strengthen and deepen the work you do with your clients or patients,” says Hasbach.