This piece was originally submitted for Professor Andermatt’s Writing and Reporting on Environmental News class, in 2015.

by Sandra Esparza

Have you ever gone on a walk in the woods and felt like all your problems slipped away? There are studies that prove that this phenomenon can actually help people get over depression without having to rely on medication. One in 10 Americans have been diagnosed with depression and are currently taking antidepressants. Testing new ways of helping patients with mental health concerns can bring on new, healthier ways of coping with the disease. Ecotherapy also helps drug addicts get over their addiction and minimizes relapses. Putting green spaces in cities will make a happier environment full of happier people. Ecotherapy has many benefits for children for ADHD treatment and stress. Veterans and other victims of physiological trauma have positively responded to treatment as well.  Ecotherapy has benefits that stretch across the field from prison safety to cancer coping and recovery help. People are tied to nature; it’s “in our genes.”

Ecotherapy, or earth-centered therapy, is a form of psychotherapy rooted in the idea of biophilia: people’s bond between themselves and other ecosystems. Howard Clinebell, an author on Ecotherapy, explains how the ecotherapeutic work has three mutually interacting operations of an ecological circle: inreach, which is receiving and being in the presence of nature, place upreach, which is the actual experience as we realize our place in the natural world, and outreach, which is interacting with other people that care about the environment. The more we understand these concepts, the more we can analyze the benefits across the board for all humans.

Mind, a UK based company on mental health and wellness, conducted many experiments and surveys to find the true facts on the practice of Ecotherapy and exercise on participants with mental health problems. Mind took participants on two walks, one in a country park and the other in an indoor shopping mall. The results stated that 71 percent of participants reported decreased levels of depression, 90 percent had increased self-esteem, and 71 percent felt less tense after the green walk. In contrast, 22 percent felt an increase in depression levels, a 50 percent increase in tension, and a 44 percent decrease in self-esteem during the shopping center walk. If we can utilize Ecotherapy as a prescribed method of beating depression, we can decrease the need for antidepressants in the less chronic cases.

Studies have shown that environmental conditions can play a part in helping treat drug addiction and prevent relapses. A study done by researchers from Institut de Physiologieet biologie cellulaire had shown that environmental stimulation makes it easier to treat cocaine addiction. Science Daily states, “Three models of animal addiction were used: behavioral sensitization, which measures the progressive increase in the stimulating effects of cocaine after chronic administration; the location preference, which measures the ability of a context (associated with cocaine consumption) to lead to drug-seeking behavior, and the renewal of this drug-induced location preference; measurements of cocaine’s ability to lead to a relapse after a period of withdrawal.” They explain how after exposure to environmental stimulants, the addiction in all three cases disappeared.  This shows that drug addiction centers should look into more environmental aesthetics in and around their centers and incorporating nature into their treatment.

The University of Rochester found that just looking at nature scenery can improve mood and make people feel closer to their community, while making them more willing to donate money. People are also tending to care more about social outcomes in their communities and the world. The U of R administrated experiments including 370 participants. The two groups were shown landscapes. One was a natural landscape and the other was an urban landscape. People exposed to the nature landscapes had higher ratings of close community relationships than before looking at the pictures and were more willing to give higher donations. The urban landscape group had higher rating of values in wealth and fame. The results show how important it is, especially in large cities, to create green spaces for the residents and tourists to enjoy.

Nature can benefit the environment of prisons. Oregon prisons have done a study to see if projecting scenes of nature on the white walls in the recreation halls can decrease the amount of misbehaving in the prisons.  Each prisoner gets one hour of recreation time. A study was done to compare the behavior of the prisoners when they see white walls versus when they see projected images of nature. The results were astonishing. The prisoners were less likely to attack the prison guards or resist when they were able to experience nature.

It has been shown that just a window in a hospital can make the patient heal much faster. Studies done by Roger Ulrich show that patients who have a view of nature outside their window are more likely to heal faster from gallbladder surgery. A Japanese study published in 2006 in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology, stated that forest therapy lowers the stress hormone cortisol along with other health factors as well. “We as humans evolved to be part of nature and the outdoors… we have a deep longing for nature in our genes.”

Ecotherapy can treat trauma as well. Linda Buzzell, co-editor of the book Ecotherapy and a psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, California states, “Nature therapies are being used very successfully to ease both emotional and physical trauma, and stress is one more form of this.”  She found that just five minutes of “green exercise” a day can greatly benefit people with mild to moderate depression of all ages. This treatment is given to veterans suffering from PTSD. Studies have found that this form of therapy helps those suffering from this disorder.

Children nowadays are becoming more and more stressed about schoolwork. Everyone knows that kids love to play outside. Humans all have that natural instinct. When kids have opportunity to grow plants, visit animals, and walk in nature their stress levels decrease. The best way to get a kid to play outside is to enjoy the outdoors with them. Even just a picnic in the park helps kids destress and they are more likely to finish their homework when they get home.  A 2013 study out of Princeton University found physical exercise ignites neuron creation and hippocampus growth. This is what regulates anxiety. A Japanese study also proved that trees let out chemical compounds called phytoncides. These chemicals naturally increase immune health as well as enhance how we overall feel.

Studies have shown that gardening can help cancer patients cope with their diagnosis and can help them recover from treatment faster. This phenomenon is just another form of Ecotherapy that benefits humans. A study was done on seven women diagnosed with breast cancer. These women are survivors and attend support groups regularly. These women were give garden starter packs with bowls, compost, and three starter plants. They wrote their feelings in a daily journal after tending to the garden. The researchers chose to do an indoor garden because many cancer patients are limited on mobility. They cannot spend long periods of time taking a walk outside or kneeling down by a garden due to the effects of chemo leaving them frail and/or weak. Most of the women found that this treatment led to feelings of positivity, meaning, and control. This is important because most cancer patients talk about depression, lack of meaning in their lives, and lack of control leading to feelings of worthlessness. One of the women wrote in her journal, “I think it does not matter whether you have just been diagnosed or whether it has been ten years down the road – it could be beneficial.” People of all forms of cancer can benefit from Ecotherapy.

Over the last century, urbanization has taken its toll on the country’s agricultural practices. This, however, is not the only lasting effect. Nature phobias have become increasingly diagnosed. Statistics show that seventy percent of people will live in cities by 2050. The more people are secluded from the natural world, the more they fear the unknown. Parents are becoming increasingly protective of their children. They don’t allow their kids to go outside and play in fear of kidnappers, shootings, and rapists. While parents have a right to protect their kids however necessary, this is causing kids to lose that natural instinct linking them to nature and actually causing a deep terrified feeling toward nature. If adults with this fear are exposed to nature, they can get extreme panic attacks and anxiety attacks. In these instances, Ecotherapy can actually cause more harm than good. One therapist spoke about how she sees many patients from the city that are teenagers who will not hike in the woods or go camping. It affects their choice in college institutions as well as causes them to drop out early. It is important for us to expose children early to nature. Obviously if the area these children are living in is unsafe, we should not force them to encounter unsafe conditions. However, Primary schools have an opportunity to give students a nature experience, even yearly. They can go camping, visit a farm, go hiking, or attend a nature center seminar. This will eliminate biophobia as we increasingly move toward more urbanization.  

Children diagnosed with ADHD have increased in numbers in the past fifty years. It seems as though every time we get a new mental health problem, physicians want to prescribe, prescribe, prescribe. Studies have shown that instead of drugging your kids with more and more medication, nature can be the solution. Kids with ADHD who play in parks regularly have been found to have milder symptoms than those who stay inside. Anyone with a family member diagnosed with ADHD can see this. Kids on medication who cannot pay attention to anything but the iPad in their hands lose out on social skills needed to survive in the adult world. If we played with our children outside and communicated with our children, like Ecotherapy, we would not have as much of an issue. Ecotherapy has actually been increasingly “prescribed by doctors.”

When people usually think of therapy, they think a large couch, ink blots, and many personal questions from a psychologist that is talking at you, not with you. Ecophysiology is a practice done for centuries. People used to seek physiological treatment in sanctuaries of natural beauty. There are therapists today who abide by these old practices and will take their patients outside on their talks. One therapist named Hausermann, creator of High Peak Therapeutic Mentoring, said, “There is something in walking or hiking forward that makes it easier for a person to see the end goal in therapy.” Hausermann explains that nature has no side effects like pills do but it is proven to make people happier. “It seems like common sense,” she says. “Being outside in general helps people relax. It’s less of a formal environment, people feel more comfortable. They’re not as stigmatized as going into an office to see someone.”

Personally I believe Ecotherapy is the best method of solving non-chronic depression and anxiety as well as treating drug addiction. Creating retreat-like facilities for these people to go and get help can create a better treatment that isn’t dependent on antidepressants. It will also get more drug addicts off the streets. All that needs to be done is build a few rain gardens, vertical landscaping, create a picnic area, and take nature trips every once in awhile. Towns should look into creating green spaces that will benefit the community as a whole and make people more sociable, friendly, charitable, and healthy.

Hi, my name is Sandra Esparza and I am a senior in the Natural Resources Sustainability program. I live off campus with my fiance and my adorable cat. I like to camp, hike, play guitar, and sing, and go on long walks. I love writing for myself so I hope you enjoy what I do.