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Ecotherapy Taps into Nature’s Soothing Effect

By Gay Falkowski
Have you ever taken a walk in the woods or a lovely garden and emerged with a sense of serenity? Does a day exploring the shore or swimming in the ocean make you feel relaxed yet energized? If so, you’ve experienced the benefits of ecotherapy, also known as nature therapy.

A growing scientific field, ecotherapy is based on research that shows a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.* Ecotherapy is based on the idea that people are connected to and affected by the natural environment. Here’s why a dose of nature might bring relief next time you feel anxious, sad, or overwhelmed:

* Being in nature may help calm activity in the part of your brain known as the prefrontal cortex. When you’re depressed or under a lot of stress, your prefrontal cortex tends to malfunction and you may experience a continuous loop of negative thoughts. In a 2015 study reported by Harvard University, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that the nature walkers had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex than the urban walkers.

* Calming nature sounds have been shown to lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which soothes the body's fight-or-flight response. Research published in Scientific Reports describes how listening to natural sounds caused brain connectivity to reflect an outward-directed focus of attention. Daydreaming is an example of this process. In contrast, listening to artificial sounds created an inward-directed focus. During states of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression attention is usually on what’s happing ‘in your head’.

* Visual aspects of nature can also provide a calming effect. Focusing on something pleasant, such as trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less worrisome. 

If you want try ecotherapy on your own:

1. To see positive results, spend as little as 20 to 30 minutes a day, three days a week, or as much as entire three-day weekends immersed in nature, according to Dr. Jason Strauss, director of geriatric psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance. Try to make your interactions with nature part of your normal routine.

2. If you can't make it outside, or you prefer the cool indoors, just listening to audio of nature sounds can produce benefits. Even looking at pictures of nature settings, your favorite spot, or a place you want to visit can create a positive effect. One researcher reported that office workers who had a view of nature from a window reported higher job and life satisfaction than those who did not have such a view.

3. For an added boost, combine your nature outings with your regular exercise by walking or cycling outdoors when weather permits. But beware of overheating, a common hazard for those with MS. In many areas of the country, outdoor yoga classes are offered on weekends. Always check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.

4. Although ecotherapy often occurs in places such as the woods, the type of nature setting doesn't matter. Focus on places you find the most pleasing. The goal is to get away from stimulating urban settings and surround yourself with a natural environment.

5. Consider taking up a nature-centered hobby, such as horticultural or gardening. Digging soil, planting seedlings, weeding garden beds, and trimming leaves are all great activities to connect you with nature. Programs such as Thresholds, a Chicago-based mental health agency, have helped veterans cope with post-traumatic stress by teaching them to practice ecotherapy and getting them involved in horticulture.

6. Get involved in conservation activities. The act of restoring or conserving the natural environment can give you a sense of purpose and hopefulness. Since volunteering is usually done in groups, you may also gain a sense of belonging and a feeling of being connected to others. 

* Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Depression is a serious condition that often requires a multifaceted treatment approach.