Studies show that ecotherapy - a holistic, therapeutic practice that calls for outdoor activities - offers great benefits to our mental health. But what is it, exactly, and how does it work?
What is ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy stems from the belief that humans are part of an ecosystem - that our mental and physical health is connected to that of the Earth  and that by taking part in regular, structured activities in a green environment, we deepen our connection to nature and boost our well-being.
A form of therapeutic treatment, either informal or led by trained professionals , ecotherapy encourages us to focus on an organised group activity, experiencing and exploring the natural world and interacting with the local community. Best of all? It’s often free, and can be practised no matter where you live.
So how does it work?
‘During outdoor therapy, both nature and human beings serve as therapists, assisting the client toward healing,’ write James K. Summers and Deborah N. Vivian in their study on the significance of the ecosystem model . This idea of reconnection aims to remind us that we are a part of our environment, as opposed to a separate entity. Think about the way you feel when pottering about in the garden, when birdsong is the backdrop of your countryside hike or when you share a meal alfresco - experts believe that our brains are quite literally hardwired to seek a connection with nature (a phenomenon known as biophilia). It’s believed that our well-being can take a knock if we don’t take the time to foster this connection.
What are the benefits?
Scenes of nature alone have been proven to increase the production of serotonin  - the ‘happy hormone’ - and helps us foster positive thoughts. But according to mental health charity Mind, ‘holistic treatment like ecotherapy delivers not only health benefits, but wider social benefits’. Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of Mind, writes that ‘ecotherapy improves mental well-being, helps people to become more physically active, it gives people the skills to get back into work or training, and it helps people who are lonely or socially isolated to broaden their networks’.
Taking part in ecotherapy, we can expect to feel rejuvenated, relaxed and more confident in ourselves just by spending time outside , but add to that the human contact element and you’ll find yourself less anxious, more mindful and in a better mood - as well as experiencing meditative-state brain waves  and enjoying the satisfaction that comes with giving back to the planet.
Sounds great, how can I get started?
There are plenty of ways you can get involved, both through informal practices and ecotherapy activities guided by professionals.
Animals can offer an extraordinary amount of emotional support, offering a sense of peace and acting as an unbiased presence which can help in opening up. Building a relationship with horses, for instance, has been proven to help with impulse control and building confidence and empathy. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that horse therapy has been lauded for its value by the Father of Medicine himself, the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates .
If you like to get your hands dirty, this one’s for you. Horticulture therapy is all about gardening, and has been shown to reduce stress, boost self-esteem, alleviate feelings of depression and even aid insomnia . Plant your favourite fruit and veg, feature home-grown herbs in your cooking, keep a gardening journal, get creative with pressing flowers or give your houseplants some extra TLC - you can read more about the benefits of gardening here.
Green exercise therapy
Being active in the great outdoors alters physiological functioning, restoring mental fatigue and positively impacting physical health thanks to an increase of endorphins . Consider joining a neighbourhood walking club, arrange a countryside getaway with friends and family or adjust your commute to swing by the park, and keep in mind that the effects of green exercise therapy can be enhanced with both duration and intensity .
Since spending time in nature reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol , it makes sense that protecting our green spaces can boost our mental health. One-off beach cleanups, ongoing tree planting initiatives, helping out with wildlife surveys or starting a community garden are just some of the ways you look after the planet while improving your well-being.
Nature arts and crafts
Creating art in green spaces, using the environment as inspiration or incorporating natural materials into your crafts can bring about a sense of balance and grounding , encouraging a calmer state of mind as you immerse yourself in nature.
The list goes on, but the key takeaway is this: nature heals, and by deepening our connection to the Earth, we can reap the benefits.