Our mental health feels like a deeply personal experience, yet it is profoundly impacted by the collective state of our planet. What happens socially, politically, and environmentally impacts us individually.
The fundamental connections between human beings and the environment are being mapped by a pioneering field of psychology: ecopsychology. This discipline states that we cannot heal our internal worlds without considering the impacts of the natural world.
Through an ecopsychological perspective, the stresses of modern life – overworking, overstimulation, city noise, pollution, lack of social connection – are impacting our mental health in negative ways, leading to anxiety, depression, addiction, burnout, and feelings of emptiness and existential confusion.
Research supports that, the more separated we are from the natural world, the more our mental health suffers. We begin to believe in the illusion of separation, that we as human beings are separate from nature “out there.” This type of thinking also contributes to the perceived separation between us as human beings, which creates a sense of disconnection and leads to the us-vs-them mentality that seems to justify disrespect toward one another. A bond with the natural world helps us see the interconnection between all life, human to human and human to flora and fauna.
How can we connect to the natural world, and how may this connection improve our wellbeing?
Ecotherapy or wilderness therapy has an answer. This form of nature-centered therapy encourages our participation in nature in simple but profound ways to benefit our emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual wellness:
Even a few minutes of sunlight on your skin may have beneficial effects. Sunlight plays a direct role in the production of the mood-regulating and stabilizing “happy hormone” serotonin. You can easily get more sunlight by taking a few minutes to stroll through your neighborhood or a local park, soaking in the sun’s healing rays.
Keeping plants in your space not only cleans the indoor air but, according to researchers, plants in a room also lead to higher levels of energy, more positive thoughts, and reduced anxiety levels. Studies show that plant oil vapor can enhance the production of the brain’s calming chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid, and also boost serotonin.
Benefit from nature by mixing up your exercise routine or taking your existing routine to a local park. In one study, running outdoors as opposed to an indoor treadmill was associated with less fatigue, fewer anxious thoughts, less hostility, and more positive thinking and increased energy.
Human beings have evolved alongside animals. We have an innate inclination to connect with nature and different forms of life. And so, it may be no surprise that interacting with dogs increases oxytocin, a hormone that boosts social connectivity and altruistic behavior, and reduces stress and fear.
Research shows that mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are linked to an overproduction of inflammatory chemicals. One way to reduce inflammation in the body is to eat a diet rich in whole foods, foods that are in their most natural, unprocessed state. Adding seasonal fruits and vegetables to our meals enhances our physical well-being. In a spiritual sense, this practice connects us to the earth in that we are receiving the energy, the caloric fuel, from the soil that these foods come from.
If you enjoy reading, journaling, or meditating, why not take such a self-care activity to a greenspace for added wellness? Access to greenspace –areas of grass, trees, and vegetation— safeguards against stress. Simply spending a brief time in nature or having a view of it reduces the stress hormone cortisol and improves immunity.
These are available ways in which we may cultivate our connection to the natural world, opening us up to a greater sense of belonging. In the midst of the chaos of our day-to-day lives, we often forget that we are a part of something greater outside of ourselves. We belong to a vast system of interconnection, from breathing the oxygen produced by trees to the emotional bonds we share with our beloved human communities.
Ecotherapy may be incorporated into traditional talk therapy to help remind us of our place in the planetary community. A nature-centered therapist will help you identify ways in which your modern-day life is impacting your emotional, physical, and spiritual health. By assessing how your most natural and essential needs are being met, a nature-based therapist may help you recognize ways in which living closer to the natural rhythms of the planet helps create a sense of balance and calm in the hurriedness of your life.
Maja Nuoffer is a licensed therapist with a decade of clinical experience, providing solution-focused counseling and in-depth psychotherapy. She enjoys helping individuals work through overwhelming anxiety, debilitating stress and burnout and those what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life?! existential and spiritual crises. As a psychotherapist, coupled with her certifications as a health coach and yoga teacher, Maja provides a holistic approach to mental health that includes understanding the powerful mind-body connection. She incorporates nature-inspired and client-centered positive psychotherapy into her work to give clients concrete tools to make strengths-based, attainable and timely choices that lead them out of discomfort and fear and into wellness. Please contact Maja at [email protected], or visit her website at www.natureofselfcare.com.