Ecotherapy: What is it and Does it Work?

There is something innate within us that craves natural spaces. We’ve all felt the positive benefits of stepping outside in the middle of a stressful day and taking a moment to breathe in some fresh air. When you take time to feel the sunshine or the brisk chill on your skin, your whole body relaxes, your mood improves, and your stress levels go down. Being outside in natural settings—even if that’s just a park in the middle of a city—has huge benefits for our mental health.

Ecotherapy is a relatively new branch of psychology that takes this idea to the next level. The term “ecotherapy” comes from a book published in 1996 by Howard Clinebell, and refers to “healing and growth nurtured by healthy interaction with the earth.”

Clinebell identified three mutually interacting sectors of ecotherapy: inreach, upreach, and outreach. Inreach refers to the restorative effects that being in nature can have on one’s wellbeing. Upreach refers to the “actual experience of this more-than-human vitality as we relocate our place within the natural world.” And, finally, outreach refers to engaging in activities that nurture the planet with other people.

Ecotherapists work with patients who are suffering from any number of mental health issues: depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc. Instead of prescribing pharmaceuticals, ecotherapists “prescribe” certain outdoor activities—such as starting a garden, spending time in a park, or going for walks outside—to encourage their patients to engage with nature. The purpose of these activities is to recognize that “people are part of the web of life and that our psyches are not isolated or separate from the environment.”

Ecotherapists teach their patients to align themselves with the harmony of the universe, so as to alleviate and ultimately eradicate the symptoms of whatever mental health issue they’re dealing with.

Take, for example, the advice of Craig Chalquist, the chair of the East-West Psychology Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

“If you hold moist soil for 20 minutes,” Chalquist says, “the soil bacteria begin elevating your mood. You have all the antidepressant you need in the ground.”

There is some science to back up this claim. A study published in the widely respected medical journal Neuroscience found that soil contains bacteria that raises serotonin levels in the brains of mice. Raising serotonin levels in the brain would improve one’s mood and alleviate depression, however it’s a pretty far leap to make the connection between the brains of mice and humans. It’s an ever further leap to argue that holding moist soil can completely replicate the benefits of antidepressant medications.

Of course, that’s not to negate the very real benefits that we have all experienced from being outside. Certain studies suggest that being out in nature might be capable of even more than just a midday pick-me-up. For example, researchers have been able to decrease relapse rates in substance addicts using outdoor camping programs. Another study found that children with ADHD who are allowed to play outside regularly exhibit milder symptoms.

Ecotherapists might point to these studies as proof that their claims of connectivity between humans and the environment are true. Skeptics, however, would argue that studies such as these “generally have more to do with mood and behavior than basic biology—but mood and behavior are intimately tied to physical well-being.” (Atlantic)

Ultimately, ecotherapy can’t be proven scientifically incorrect, and yet it can’t be proven scientifically correct, either. The recommendations that ecotherapists provide would very likely work well for patients with mild cases of depression or anxiety. However, for any patients who rely on psychoactive medications to help balance their brain chemistry, they should probably stick to their doctor’s prescription medication instead of turning to a handful of dirt.

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