Ecotherapy: a way to improve health

  • Engaging in outdoor activities like gardening, nature hikes, or beach outings can notably enhance your mood and well-being.
  • A phenomenon termed “nature deficit disorder” is emerging, signifying a lifestyle prevalent in urban areas where individuals spend over 80% of their lives indoors, contributing to diminished psychological and physical health.
  • Ecotherapy, utilizing techniques to harness the health advantages of nature, has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression, enhance self-esteem, and deliver various other positive outcomes.

Spending time outdoors can significantly lift your mood, so it’s no surprise that outdoors activities such as gardening and nature hikes1 have been found to be good therapy. In one survey,2 80% of gardeners reported being “happy” and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67% of non-gardeners, and the more time spent in the garden, the greater their life satisfaction.

Among volunteers at an outdoor conservation project, a whopping 100% said participation improved their mental health and boosted their confidence and self-esteem.3 This general well-being among gardeners is typically attributed to the “recharging” you get from sticking your hands into soil and spending time in nature.

In the words of Craig Chalquist,4, a depth psychologist and chair of the East-West Psychology Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies, who holds certification in permaculture design, there’s a fascinating insight: “Moist soil, held for a mere 20 minutes, activates soil bacteria that can uplift your mood. It’s like having a natural antidepressant right in the ground.”5

Ecotherapy, which essentially recommends immersing oneself in natural environments, has been proven to bring about several positive outcomes. These include:6

  • Decrease anxiety and depression
  • Improve self-esteem
  • Improve social connections
  • Decrease fatigue in cancer patients
  • Improve blood pressure

Spending time outdoors also boosts your vitamin D level (provided you’re showing enough bare skin) and, if you walk barefoot, helps you ground (also known as Earthing).


Nature Walks Decrease Negative Thoughts

Research7 demonstrates that spending time in nature can effectively alleviate depression and anxiety by reducing rumination, characterized by repetitive negative thoughts. This persistent mental pattern is associated with heightened activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region regulating negative emotions.

To investigate the impact of nature walks on rumination, a study involved 38 psychologically healthy city dwellers, divided into two groups. One group took a 90-minute walk in a scenic area, while the other strolled along a busy four-lane road in Palo Alto, known as El Camino Real. As expected, those walking in the urban environment showed no decrease in rumination, while the nature walkers experienced a significant reduction in subgenual prefrontal cortex activity.

City Living Linked to Anxiety and Mood Disorders

Living in cities has been linked to an increased likelihood of mood and anxiety disorders, attributed to chronically elevated stress levels. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers at McGill University, Canada found that the urban environment can alter neural processes, influencing the risk of psychological problems. 32 healthy adults were asked to complete a difficult, timed math problem while simultaneously hearing negative verbal responses: Urban dwellers, particularly those raised in cities during their first 15 years of life, exhibited increased activity in the amygdala and the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, associated with fear, threat responses, and emotion regulation.

Psychologists emphasize that the perceived degree of control over daily life plays a substantial role in the stress variability observed in urban settings. Factors like social threat, lack of control, and subordination contribute to the stressful effects of city life8

Furthermore, additional research indicates that the sounds of nature alone can impact the brain by reducing fight-or-flight instincts and activating the rest-and-digest autonomic nervous system, contributing to relaxation.

Nature Sounds Help You Relax

Other research shows that the mere sounds of nature have a distinct effect on your brain, lowering fight-or-flight instincts and activating your rest-and-digest autonomic nervous system.9,10,11 

In this study, participants engaged in a unique experiment where they listened to two distinct types of auditory stimuli – nature sounds and artificial sounds from a man-made environment – all while undergoing fMRI scans. Throughout each five-minute soundscape, individuals performed tasks designed to gauge attention and reaction time.

The findings revealed that exposure to nature sounds led to brain activity associated with an outward-directed focus, while artificial sounds prompted inward-directed focus, linked to traits such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nature sounds were also correlated with higher activity in the rest-digest nervous system, indicative of a relaxed state. Additionally, external attentional monitoring tasks and mental concentration improved, with the most significant impact observed in individuals experiencing higher stress levels.

This study underscores the profound benefits of spending time in nature for both physical and psychological well-being. The suggestion is to be proactive in incorporating nature into your routine, treating it as an essential activity by scheduling it in your calendar. For those with limited free time, creative solutions such as combining activities, like reading on a Kindle during outdoor walks, can provide a dual benefit.

Maintaining a garden is another simple way to connect with nature, offering not only a sense of well-being but also potential cost savings on groceries and access to fresh, uncontaminated food, especially when grown organically.

On days when outdoor escapes are challenging, using environmental sound machines, CDs with nature sounds, or watching nature sound videos on platforms like YouTube can serve as alternatives. For those seeking professional assistance, ecotherapy, integrating nature into counseling or psychotherapy, is an option. In the U.K., resources from Mind’s ecotherapy page (mind.org.uk)  can be explored.

Nature Cure

Growing awareness highlights the crucial role of nature in promoting health and well-being, reflected not only in public perception but also in emerging literary genres such as “nature writing.”

The term “nature writing” as noted by The Telegraph,12 igains traction, emphasizing the adverse effects on health caused by limited exposure to the natural environment. This shift is evident in contemporary literature, with a rising genre known as “nature writing,” where authors intertwine personal experiences with the therapeutic aspects of nature.

The healing influence of nature takes center stage in these literary works, as authors share their encounters with the natural world, highlighting its profound impact on overall well-being.

Slowing Down

Nature’s inherent pace, significantly slower than our fast-paced human-made surroundings, has a calming effect, fostering a sense of winding down.

The natural world operates with a distinctive pulse and rhythm, where careful observation reveals that everything unfolds at its own unhurried pace. Change, rather than being instantaneous, follows a gradual and deliberate process.

In a society dominated by “lightning speed” internet and constant connectivity, the appreciation for nature’s measured tempo tends to be overlooked. The habitual pursuit of instant results and immediate gratification contrasts with the patient and deliberate unfolding observed in the natural world.

Immersing oneself in nature encourages the development of a greater tolerance for slowness, fostering the valuable quality of patience.


1 New York Times June 28, 2017
2 Natural Ange May 28, 2021
3, Depressionalliance.org, Ecotherapy Executive Summary 2009 (PDF) (Archived)
4 Ecotherapyheals.com
5, The Atlantic June 30, 2015
6 NAMI California
National Geographic, This Is Your Brain on Nature 2016
8 Nature. 2011 Jun 22;474(7352):498-501
9, Science Daily March 30, 2017
10, Health.com April 5, 2017
11 Time April 5, 2017
12 Telegraph September 26, 2016

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