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Ecotherapy: Nature’s impact on health and wellbeing

“The natural world produces no garbage […] everything is valued, nothing is discarded or unwanted and that defines unconditional love in action.” These beautiful words were uttered by ecopsychologist Michael Cohen, who was a pioneer in understanding nature’s ability to heal the human mind. In the last two decades since, researchers have begun exploring the myriad of ways that nature can awaken the soul.

As the battle rages against Covid-19, employee wellbeing is becoming increasingly strained due to lockdown. Ecotherapy offers a nature-based approach to health, which can help to build our resilience through practical and viable techniques from home. Studies suggest that engaging with nature can lower our blood pressure, reduce nervous system arousal, enhance immune system function, improve mood and reduce anxiety. But why is nature so beneficial, and how can it help our wellbeing blossom in the current climate?  

Origins of our connection with mother nature

The undeniably powerful roots of ecotherapy lie in our ancestral days. According to ecopsychologist Craig Chalquist, this was an era when a “thriving culture” depended on a connection with the land. He goes further to lament mankind’s abandonment of nomadic living in pursuit of a domesticated lifestyle. Crucially, these first walls divided us not just from one another, but from wildlife and the earth: “We have been living with the psychic consequences of this once useful but vastly overdeveloped split ever since.”

The workplace has not escaped the clutches of modernisation. While a typical day used to entail hunting food in the wild, our Covid-19 job specification now includes 24/7 connectivity to a screen with limited access to the outside world. It’s hardly surprising that our workplace wellbeing is wilting. 

Reaping nature’s rewards: soft fascination

According to Hansen et al. (2017), outdoor restoration focuses on the rejuvenating effects on our emotional, cognitive and physical functioning from exposure to nature. In fact, this is closely related to a Japanese concept known as shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, which means soaking up the forest atmosphere. It is now a cornerstone of preventative healthcare in Japan, evidenced by their 44 accredited Shinrin-Yoku forests. 

Lucy Jones has recently published a book, Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild, which offers some accessible alternatives based on Stephen and Rachel Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory. This hypothesizes that nature effortlessly renews our attention if we’ve spent too much time focused on one activity, such as work. A key concept is soft fascination, which emerges during less stimulating activities, and allows us to reflect and introspect.

Two wonderful examples are seeing leaves move in the breeze and watching birds soar through the sky. They can all be done from almost any window at home, and “lull us into a sort of hypnotic state, where negative thoughts and emotions are overtaken by a positive sense of well-being” (Andrews 2013). For a slightly more engaging activity with children, the National Trust encourages cloud gazing. Together, you can make up a story from the shapes and pictures or imagine what it would feel like gliding through the air.   

Biophilia: The urge to affiliate with other forms of life 

Biophilic design strives to cultivate our connection with the natural world through architecture. While not a traditional tenet of ecotherapy, designers Terrapin argue that this is not a new concept. In fact, representations of animals and nature are evident throughout history from bonsai trees in Japanese homes to garden courtyards in Spain’s famous Alhambra. For every naturally occurring aspect of nature, they offer a simulated or constructed alternative. Check out their fantastic report here, which guides you through the 14 patterns of biophilic design. Adapting their recommendations, we suggest some of the following wellbeing strategies:

(1) birdsong > digital simulations of nature sounds as you work (e.g. via YouTube or Spotify).

(2) visual effect of water > screensavers of scenic lakes or oceans on your phone, tablet or laptop.

(3) natural materials (pebbles, wood) > natural grain photo frame in your workspace.

(4) colours (blues, greens) > small low-maintenance plants, such as succulents, or candles on your desk. 

Awe: Nature’s awakening

Lastlynature is often synonymous with awe, which is a complex emotion associated with both wonder and fear. Awe not only prompts a sense of connectedness with others, but it’s also been linked to Eudaimonia, which is concept associated with inner peace and vitality. A superb free resource is the Hubble Telescope images repository which is bursting with photos of nebulae, constellations and galaxies. Such moments of transcendence can also be found in wildlife programmes, such as Planet Earth, and have been found to positively influence mental wellbeing through increased awe, joy, and amusement, as well as reduced stress, anger and tiredness (Keltner et al. 2020).  

It is clear that ecotherapy in a broad sense can offer refuge at a time of struggle when employees are more physically disconnected than ever from one another and their surroundings. To return to Michael Cohen’s insightful piece: “Ultimately we may find that healing the ancient split between self and Earth by revitalizing our felt ties to a world ensouled is less a matter of fostering new attitudes or habits than of uncovering a latent love for the world, a love ineradicable so long as we remain truly human.”

17th June 2020