Why Ecotherapy?

I’ve already talked a bit about what ecopsychology and ecotherapy are elsewhere on this site. In short, ecopsychology looks at our psychological connection to the rest of nature, while ecotherapy puts that connection to work in improving our mental health and well being.

But why might you look for an ecotherapist for your mental health treatment? After all, there are therapists out there with a wide variety of specialties, from traditional approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy, to more creative practices like art therapy. There are professional counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, and more, each with their own training and experience.

The great thing about ecotherapy is that any one of these practitioners can be ecotherapists. Rather than being a specific modality like cognitive-behavioral therapy or Gestalt therapy, ecotherapy is a green lens through which any modality can be viewed.

Let me explain what I mean by that. Let’s say you’re making an appointment with a counselor to deal with some significant anxiety you’ve been experiencing for the past few months. She will likely ask you about your health history, relationships with your family, friends and coworkers, stress level, and any factors that led to you having more anxiety.

This is all pretty standard. But if she incorporates ecotherapy into her practice, she might also ask you about any favorite places in nature you had as a child, and any you have today. She could ask you how much time you spend outdoors every week, and whether you wish you could be outside more. She might also inquire as to whether you have any pets, and how having them around makes you feel.

Now, let’s say that you’ve connected pretty well with this therapist and you’ve felt comfortable opening up to her more about your anxiety. With your permission she suggests some “homework” to do between now and the next session. This might include keeping a thought journal, in which you write down what you’re feeling and what led up to it whenever your anxiety becomes more noticeable. She could also give you a simple mindfulness exercise to help you calm down whenever you’re feeling anxious.

But as an ecotherapist, she will likely also “prescribe” some nature time, whether in your yard or a local park or even a wilderness setting if you like. It might be a half an hour every day, or a longer session–say, two hours–once a week. If you’re journaling, she may ask that you write down a few notes about how you feel both before and after your nature time. She could also recommend an article or two about the physiological and psychological benefits of being out in a natural setting.

Why is this important? Because whether you realize it or not, your connection to nature is a crucial part of your health. There are many ways in which contact with nature is good for us, even for a few minutes. It lowers our heart rate and blood pressure almost immediately, and more recent research suggests that it may boost our immune system in several ways. It allows us to relax more, and lets our attention focus more organically instead of being yanked to and fro by advertisements, loud noises and other distractions. And it can lessen the symptoms of some mental illnesses, as well as lower stress levels, which is good for everybody!

For a long time, health care practitioners in general have largely ignored the impact that our increasing disconnection from nature has had on us. In fact, our connection to nature has largely been ignored. It’s only been in recent years that it’s become more socially acceptable to mourn the loss of our pets when they pass away (you can even get sympathy cards for the sad occasion). But spaces where we’re allowed to mourn the loss of wild places–your favorite childhood woods that got turned into yet another housing subdivision, for example–are still few and far between. And with many people distressed about climate change and other environmental disasters, we need space to work through those feelings with someone who both acknowledges their importance and offers ways to constructively deal with them.

So going to an ecotherapist is like going to any other mental health care practitioner with the same credentials–it’s just that an ecotherapist will consciously include your connection to nature in both your diagnosis and your treatment. They still use more traditional practices like talk therapy, behavior modification, and in the case of psychiatrists, medications. But they include ecotherapy in their toolkit, too.

You can look at the Find an Ecotherapist section of this site to see if there are any ecotherapists in your area. You may also be able to find a local ecotherapist by searching for “[your city] ecotherapy” online. Since ecotherapy is still a relatively new practice there may not be practitioners in your area right now. But if you’re already seeing a mental health practitioner, you can ask them about incorporating ecotherapy into your treatment, and direct them to Watershed Ecotherapy for more resources.