What is nature-based therapy?
This blog post was written by Amy Wagenfeld and Shannon Marder, authors of Nature-Based Allied Health Practice: Creative and Evidence-Based Strategies.
In our fast-paced and technology-driven world, many people find themselves disconnected from the natural environment that surrounds them. The hustle and bustle of daily life, urban living, and the constant demands of modern society can take a toll on our emotional and physical well-being. Nature-based therapy offers a path to healing and self-discovery by harnessing the therapeutic power of the natural world. In this article, we will explore what nature-based therapy is, its principles, and the profound benefits it can bring to individuals seeking holistic healing.
Understanding Nature-Based Therapy
Nature-based therapy, which is a broad term encompassing all therapeutic practices that interact with nature, recognizes the intrinsic connection between human well-being and the natural world. It integrates outdoor experiences, interactions with nature, and environmental awareness into the therapeutic process. The fundamental idea behind nature-based therapy is that spending time in outdoor settings can have a profoundly positive impact on an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical health.
There are many examples of nature-based therapies. There’s ecotherapy, green therapy, therapeutic horticulture, hippotherapy, surf therapy, sand therapy, and many more modalities. We like to organize these therapeutic modalities into 3 categories (Pretty, 2004). The first level is viewing nature, as through a window, in a painting or sculpture, or simulated via virtual reality. The second level is using the outdoors as a background for therapy. And the third level is active participation and conscious involvement with nature, such as gardening or farming, hiking, camping, and outdoor adventure programs.
Key Principles and Theories behind of Nature-Based Therapy
Biophilia: Nature-based therapy is rooted in the concept of biophilia, a term coined by biologist E.O. Wilson. Biophilia suggests that humans have an innate, instinctual affinity for nature and that our well-being is intrinsically linked to our connection with the natural world. We as people have genetically evolved to live in nature, as opposed to living in more modern urban built environments (Leavell et al., 2019). With this proposition in mind, research studies have reported that “simply spending time in nature is beneficial for human health” (Rogers, 2014, para. 7). The bottom line is that people thrive in nature. Spending time in nature and with natural materials may produce health benefits by the inherent characteristics of the environment and materials themselves.
Stress reduction: Ulrich and colleagues’ stress reduction theory (SRT) suggests that experiencing natural environments or viewing nature can reduce a person’s experience of stress and may contribute a therapeutic component to a person’s recovery from a stressful situation (Ulrich, 1984; Ulrich et al., 1991). When people are in or view natural environments, they can more quickly recover from the negative health consequences of a stressful experience (Ulrich, 1984). Examples of recovery secondary to nature experiences include reduction in heart rate and blood pressure, reduced sweating, and relaxed muscles (Leavell et al., 2019; Stigsdotter et al., 2011; Ulrich et al., 1991; Wolf et al., 2014). When applied to providing therapy, spending time experiencing nature may produce positive health benefits by reducing the patient/client’s experience of stress, particularly the stress from the health deficit being addressed.
Improved attention: Kaplan’s attention restoration theory (ART) offers that exposure to nature can reduce a person’s mental fatigue and restore their ability to attend (Kaplan, 1995; Leavell et al., 2019). The ART proposes that nature can softly fascinate people and that viewing or experiencing nature demands less effort and concentration, thus when viewing and experiencing nature a person is able to recover from mental fatigue (Kaplan, 1995; Wolf et al., 2014). When applied to providing therapy, spending time viewing and experiencing nature may help patients/clients focus and become more mindful and thus be better able to engage with therapy and heal. Relatedly, mature-based therapy can incorporate practices such as meditation, breathing exercises, and sensory awareness to enhance the therapeutic experience.
Nature-Based Therapy in Practice
Nature-based therapy sessions can take various forms, depending on the preferences and needs of the patient/client and the provider’s skill set. Some common practices include:
- Therapy activities outdoors: nature-based therapy can reference the location of therapy, meaning that traditional therapy (e.g., strengthening exercises or activities of daily living) happens outside.
- Ecotherapy walks: Guided walks or hikes in natural settings where patients/clients can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, and sensations of nature.
- Outdoor group activities: Group therapy sessions conducted in outdoor environments, fostering a sense of community and connection among participants.
- Wilderness therapy: Longer outdoor expeditions, often involving camping or backpacking, that challenge individuals physically and emotionally, promoting personal growth and resilience.
- Therapeutic horticulture: Engaging in gardening and plant-related activities to support health related goals.
- Animal-assisted therapy: Interacting with animals in natural settings, such as equine therapy, to build trust, empathy, and emotional regulation.
- Nature-based materials: When going outside is not possible, there are benefits to bringing natural materials inside.
- Get close to a window: When going outside is not possible, in addition to using more natural materials, there are benefits to viewing nature.
The Benefits of Nature-Based Therapy
Nature-based therapy offers a wide range of benefits that include:
- Stress reduction: Spending time in nature has been shown to lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and anxiety.
- Improved mental health: Nature-based therapy can alleviate symptoms of depression, boost mood, and enhance overall mental well-being.
- Enhanced physical health: Outdoor activities promote physical fitness, lower blood pressure, and increase cardiovascular health.
- Increased resilience: Facing challenges in natural environments fosters resilience, self-confidence, and problem-solving skills.
- Emotional regulation: Nature provides a calming and grounding environment that supports emotional regulation and self-reflection.
- Greater mindfulness: Nature can encourage mindfulness, helping individuals become more present and attentive to their inner thoughts and feelings.
Is Nature-Based Therapy for You?
Nature-based therapy is a versatile and accessible approach to healing that can benefit individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you are helping patients/clients who are struggling with chronic health conditions, mental health challenges, physical rehabilitation needs, or simply seeking personal growth and self-discovery, a nature-based therapy approach offers a unique and transformative path to holistic well-being.
To explore nature-based therapy, consider reading Nature-Based Allied Health Practice: Creative and Evidence-Based Strategies. You could also seek mentorship from a therapist who is already incorporating nature into their practice or who specializes some sort of nature-based therapy; they can help guide you on your journey. You can also just take a bit of your practice outside and give it a go.
Kaplan, S. (1995) ‘The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology 15, 3, 169–182.
Leavell, M.A., Leiferman, J.A., Gascon, M., Braddick, F., Conzalez, J.C. and Litt, J.S. (2019) ‘Nature-based social prescribing in urban settings to improve social connectedness and mental well-being: A review.’ Current Environmental Health Reports 6, 297–308.
Pretty, J. (2004) ‘How nature contributes to mental and physical health.’ Spirituality and Health International 5, 2, 68–78.
Rogers, C.M., Mallinson, T., and Peppers, D. (2014) ‘High-intensity sports for posttraumatic stress disorder and depression: Feasibility study of ocean therapy with veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.’ American Journal of Occupational Therapy 68, 4, 395–404.
Stigsdotter, U.K., Palsdottir, A.M., Burls, A., Chermaz, A., Ferrini, F., and Grahn, P. (2011) ‘Nature-Based Therapeutic Interventions.’ In K. Nilsson, M. Sangster, C. Gallis, T. Hartig et al. (eds) Forests, Trees and Human Health. Dordrecht: Springer.
Ulrich, R. (1984) ‘View through a window may influence recovery from surgery.’ Science 224, 420–421.
Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., Losito, B.D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M.A., and Zelson, M. (1991) ‘Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology 11, 201–203.
Wilson, E.O. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wolf, I.D. and Wohlfart, T. (2014) ‘Walking, hiking and running in parks: A multidisciplinary assessment of health and well-being benefits.’ Landscape and Urban Planning 130, 89–103.