Nature’s calling: harness the wellbeing benefits of the outdoors through nature therapy

Being at one with the world around us, and harnessing the power of the outdoors, has countless wellbeing benefits. So, why not make the most of this natural resource when supporting your mental health? Here, we’re exploring nature therapy, and exactly what you can expect from it

When you imagine a therapy session, what do you see? A calm office interior, or a quiet consulting room? While this may indeed be the typical set up for counselling, many therapists are now offering alternative environments to support their clients. And stepping outside of these traditional expectations, enables professionals to bring the human/nature connection into the present.

Nature therapy – also known as walking therapy, wilderness therapy, and eco-therapy – is the practice of being outside surrounded by nature. This can be in any open space, whether that be in a garden, a park, or the countryside, and is usually facilitated by a therapist who will be there to support and help the growth of the client.

Of course, this concept is nothing new, although it is now gaining more popularity. Nature and the natural world is a wonderful resource, which has always been available to us, and it offers us the opportunity for a connection to enable us to gain clarity, create perspective, feel inner calm, and to aid growth and healing.

Trees, plants, animals, birds, the elements, and not forgetting the cycle of the seasons – all of these can be our teachers. They can mirror our feelings, and offer us the opportunity to increase our self-awareness.

Try nature therapy for yourself

Take a moment today to step outside – if you have a garden, you could head there, or to a local park if there’s one nearby. Even if this isn’t possible, simply being outside in the fresh air can be a good starting point. Once outside, close your eyes and take several deep breaths.

Focus on listening to the sounds around you, and feel your body relaxing and responding to your breath.

By removing ourselves from the confines and brick boundaries of a building, and instead transporting ourselves outside into an open space and filling our lungs with fresh air, we can immediately feel the benefit and a sense of wellbeing.

With various activities available such as walking, observing, and meditating, we are able to involve all of our senses, which then helps us to develop our connection to the natural world that surrounds us – of which we are an intricate part of. Often this is something we forget, or indeed we believe our busy lifestyles do not allow for.

The next time you are out, perhaps for a walk or just sitting on a bench, you can make a conscious effort to notice the beauty of nature by listening to a bird sing, or maybe touch the trunk of an ancient tree; both these experiences connect our emotional attachment to that which surrounds us in nature.

This experience of connection may be further explained by studies that have been done using fMRI scans to measure the brain’s activity. When participants viewed various nature scenes, the parts of the brain that are associated with empathy and love were shown to light up, however when the participants then went on to view urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with anxiety and fear were activated. This suggests that nature really does inspire feelings that connect us not only to one another, but also to our environment.

It is in this environment that we are able to work through our issues, and find our own unique potential and sense of wellbeing; the outdoors offers us a safe and inspiring space in which to do just this.

How does nature therapy differ from traditional, indoor therapy?

There are numerous scientific studies that have delved into the benefits of nature, with the payoffs including improved mood, motivation, concentration and creativity, as well as our ability to problem-solve. There is even evidence from a 2016 study in Environmental Health Perspectives which suggests that exposure to green spaces can help you live longer!

Furthermore our physical health also benefits as, amongst other things, our heart rate and blood pressure are reduced, with research published in the Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation finding that spending time in a horticulture therapy programme following a cardiac event even supported patients’ recovery.

Just by being outside, and perhaps walking at a gentle pace, this informal and less intense approach can feel less intimidating to the client, and they can often find it easier to begin talking about their feelings and experiences.

In fact, the act of walking itself can be meditative – and for some people, the talking element and opening up can be much easier when done side by side, rather than when facing one another. If speaking face-to-face is something that might concern or intimidate you, nature therapy could be a good avenue to explore to help you feel more comfortable.

Therapy outdoors also encourages natural and social interactions, and a feeling of ‘connection’ with the wider world. This reconnection reminds us humans that we really are all part of the ecosystems around us, rather than separate from them.

Plus, in a very literal sense, the act of standing upright, and putting one foot in front of the other, is the most positive and primal way of stepping out on the path towards self-discovery and fulfilment.

Both the body and mind are inextricably linked, so to move forward physically can also metaphorically help one mentally. To be able to combine these two processes can help further the progress. This is particularly the case when we feel ‘stuck’, or that we have little control over our personal situation. In these instances, this form of therapy can often bring an added sense of freedom over conventional therapy in an indoor space.

How can nature therapy surprise you?

Many surprising experiences may well come up from being out in nature with the therapist.

When we find ourselves surrounded by, or viewing, something amazing, beautiful, wonderful, and/or profound, we may discover that this experience becomes ‘awe-inspiring’. Additionally, the natural world has the ability to help us connect more deeply to our true selves, and can become an important third partner in the therapeutic relationship shared.

These surprising benefits were seen in research from Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner, who found that when people experienced ‘awe’ they had increased feelings of connection, and felt more willing to help others. They wrote: “Awe-inducing events may be one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.”

I hope that having read this, you can begin to envisage a different kind of therapy session – one which combines the mind, body, soul, and nature, to soothe, heal, and grow.

Visit counselling directory to find out about other types of therapies.