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The Gap Year Blog

Eco Therapy: A Growing Science

29 Nov 2016 12:20 PM

With 1 in 4 British people experiencing anxiety or depression at least once every year and 77% of people in developed countries living in cities, scientists are not only looking for links between the two, but for possible new and inventive techniques to reduce the number of people going through mental health issues.

The often overlooked reason for nature conservation, Eco therapy is a treatment that has been proven, in many cases, to reduce depression and anxiety, amongst other ailments. So what is Eco therapy and how does it work?

Psychotherapy is the concept of understanding an individual and creating meaning from their psychological and emotional difficulties or experiences. Eco therapy utilises this through forming relationships with the natural world in order to help understand ones inner emotions and experiences.

Mind; the mental health charity, define Eco therapy as “the name given to a wide range of treatment programmes which aim to improve your mental and physical wellbeing through doing outdoor activities in nature”. It is a loose term as it can involve working in nature, experiencing nature or even just having more plants in a room.

flickr | dreamingofari

Hospital beds are always short, so decreasing the time it takes a patient to leave after treatment is of upmost importance. A study into after patient care in hospitals discovered a simple yet effective way to reduce a patient’s stress. Patients recovering from the same treatment were randomly assigned into rooms with or without different types of plants and flowers. The patients within planted rooms evidenced lower blood pressure, lower rates of pain, anxiety and fatigue compared to patients in rooms without plants. Even having a picture of nature in a hospital room or office can have similar benefits including productivity!

Just being closer to green areas can improve mental health, a relationship discovered by Dr Mathew White from the University of Exeter Medical School. The state of an individual’s mental wellbeing was drawn through the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ), used by doctors. The data was then cross referenced with the British Household Panel Survey, running for over 15 years. Households that moved towards cities generally had increased stress and anxiety levels.

See Dr Mathew White explain in detail in the video below.


So why does it seem that being near green spaces reduces stress and anxiety? Scientists believe the reason the urban environment can cause so much stress is due to our evolutionary history. Human genes are not adapted with stress responses to airplane noise, bunching onto trains or even concrete environments. Research reveals in the mammalian brain, if an individual cannot deal with a danger or stress, this often develops into anxiety disorders. The disorder is escalated through concealment, which is common in modern society due to the stigma associated with mental health issues.

Living outdoors in nature is another way of therapy work outdoors. Group trips, usually camping or learning survival skills outdoors, are created to not only focus the mind on survival, but stimulate the cooperation with others in order to do so. Modern society is often set up for isolation, through the easy access to the internet and substances that can lead to substance abuse. A weekend outdoors can detoxify addicts physically and mentally through giving them a sense of scale. The realisation that there is a wider world out there where problems of modern society are minute issues, especially in survival terms, can free the mind of worrying over things that previously consumed.



Eco therapy can even extend to improving the mental health of young children and improving education. Science has discovered numerous advantages of having more classes outdoors and allowing children more time to play outdoors, instead of on video games for instance. A young, developing brain requires play and social interaction in order to build neurones that allow communication in numerous situations as an adult, for example, being able to know the difference between someone being angry or sarcastic. ADHD symptoms, stress and self-discipline have all been shown to decrease with increased play outdoors, as well as academic performance improving.

The largest advantage of using nature for therapy work is the economic cost of the practice. Most therapy treatments or psychiatrists require a fee and a building to practice in. Harnessing the positive energies from nature does not need to cost a thing if you use a public park or forest and so far it seems, the treatment time is reduced in nature, saving more money.

Of course treatment of psychological conditions and mental health will be different with every person, and simply just being outdoors cannot cure a person, but the interesting development of Eco therapy allows a fresh insight into the human mind and evolution, on top of how it may be healed with fewer economic and environmental costs.

Be part of community mental health and healthcare projects abroad with Frontier.


By Meike Simms - Online Media Intern