As technology advances, it may seem hard to imagine that the next step in human evolution could be a return to more natural living environments, and self-actualisation of our importance within damaged ecosystems. Urban living has created a void between mind, body and spirit, leaving many to question where their instinctive sense of purpose has gone and is pushing traditional psychology in new directions, such as Ecotherapy.
eco - prefix
concerned with living things in relation to their environment (e.g. the eco-system). *1
therapy – noun
1. treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process.
2. curative power or quality.
4. any act, hobby, task, program, etc., that relieves tension. *2
Though some would regard early human existence as a period of ignorance or savagery, primitive peoples understood their place within the natural order of the environments they inhabited. Foraging for food, hunting, gathering and existing as nomadic tribes provided for their mental, physical and emotional requirements.
However, modern man finds himself almost without these struggles and typically confined within an office. Human evolution has seen a shift from working with our surroundings to bending the forces of nature to suit our existence.
Within climate controlled urban life, many people sense something is horribly wrong - missing. Artificial environments have ushered in an era of disconnection, both in terms of people and relationships, including our relationship with the earth. The result is ‘cognitive dissonance’ and this isolating breakdown in empathy can lead to denial, avoidance, over-consumption and addictive behaviours, which can push people away from family, friends and their surroundings.
Traditional psychology has pursued a pharmacological path, seeking to control mental reactions through medication. However, no matter the amount of medication given to some patients, there seems to be no relief or cure and once the medications are withdrawn, symptoms often resume. This has proven especially true for those suffering from major depressive disorders. And with the World Health Organisation predicting that depression will be the second leading cause of illness by 2020, most governments are currently considering options to prevent this outcome.
One of the more radical arguments that in a sense supports ecotherapy is that the rise in mental illness and depression - particularly in young people and an otherwise healthy (or not empoverished) population - could imply that these people are not necessarily ill but are reacting quite rationally, to their perception of the environment of modern society (which is at the very least complex, and at worst quite maddening).
In a bid to confront the challenge, psychologists have sought to find how the mind/body connection functions. The research has established a definite correlation between regular exercise and a lower incidence of major depressive episodes. Furthermore, the environment in which exercise is taken can significantly increase or reduce the frequency of depression. Results have shown that participants who exercised outdoors, near trees and water, experienced the most significant benefits. It is more difficult to assess the subjective and relative experience of being reminded about our place in nature - whether in the context of ecology and evolution and the practical permeatations of such, or in a more philosophical and metaphysical way, which can help us to keep our lives in perspective.
Today, science and modern holistic healing practitioners are merging into common ground, realising that a return to our natural environments is the way forward for human mental and physical well-being. This convergence of methodology has been primarily focused on Ecotherapy.
What is Ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy has many forms which can include anything from regular walks in woodland to strenuous physical tasks performed outdoors, but the goal is to immerse participants in an environment in which the human mind was genetically predisposed to function.
When combined with traditional counselling, Ecotherapy has shown remarkable results. Many typically unresponsive patients were able to find relief from depression and its related symptoms without the need for medication.
A study conducted by Mind, a leading mental health charity in the UK, benchmarked the effects of green therapy on 20 members of their local groups. The results demonstrated that 71% of participants reported decreased levels of depression following a country walk, whereas 22% had an increase of depressive symptoms after walking through an indoor shopping centre. The green walks reduced stress levels and had a surprising knock-on effect of increasing self-esteem - 90% of participants stated they felt better about themselves after a country walk.
While the study illustrates the benefits of a simple country walk, some believe the progression of Ecotherapy should be a more holistic solution which works towards restoring the delicate balance of how humans relate to and integrate with their natural environment.
Self-discovery, eco retreats, courses and seminars have been designed to push participants both physically and mentally in rural environments, performing many tasks which primitive man undertook on a daily basis to survive. These courses have gained significant interest and what was once a niche movement during the 1990’s, with a predominantly ‘new age’ following, has now become more mainstream.
Participants spanning all socioeconomic backgrounds are participating in Ecotherapy retreats, green neighbourhood groups and clubs which focus on creating more harmony with the natural world. Some psychologists are not only recognising the validity of these endeavours but also endorsing the restorative tasks by attending training camps to help better understand the process as well as how to complement the results of a patient’s holistic pursuit of wellness.
Whether you approach Ecotherapy from a person-based (where the primary focus of therapy is on the individual and restoring their inner balance) or a sustainability-focused approach (concentrating on human interconnectedness with the planet and dedication to living in a sustainable manner) the outcome is the same. Patients soon realise they are part of their environment and naturally begin moving towards more sustainable lifestyles.
And perhaps more importantly, the process rebuilds the bonds of relationships as a result. Creating empathy with the natural world can spread to how participants treat all their relationships. The combined effect enhances overall mental well-being while producing the added benefit of giving patients the ability to take immediate action if they feel a depression setting in.
The benefits of Ecotherapy are being recognised and utilised by city planners as well. Large green spaces are becoming more popular and provide urban dwellers with some escape from everyday grey city centres. Most major international cities have dedicated green areas and new development plans frequently place green features within their designs. The green spaces benefit everyone and encourage the return of wildlife which had been previously driven out.
Currently, organisations such as Mind are pushing for larger mainstream acceptance and use of Ecotherapy by general practitioners. Mind’s Chief Executive, Paul Farmer says, "Hundreds of people have benefited from the green projects run by our local Mind associations but if prescribing ecotherapy was part of mainstream practice it could potentially help the millions who are affected by mental distress."
All material © copyright Ecotherapy UK 2008
*1 American Psychological Association (APA):
eco. (n.d.). Kernerman English Multilingual Dictionary.
Retrieved October 28, 2007, from Dictionary.com website:
*2 American Psychological Association (APA):
therapy. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1).
Retrieved October 28, 2007, from Dictionary.com website: