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How does eco-therapy help people with chronic pain?

I am always encouraging my clients to get out into nature any time they can. I know it helps them. This is true both when I see people suffering from anxiety, especially as the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic hits us all, and also with my clients who come to me for psychology/hypnotherapy for chronic pain. 

The idea that nature is our natural cure is becoming more popular. It has a name – eco therapy – which is being widely talked about at the moment.

What is eco-therapy?

Lately a couple of my own clients have asked about eco-therapy and how they can participate. I was a bit worried that they seemed to think it would be difficult to access or to do. In fact, that is not true. Anyone can get the benefits and many therapists in different areas are now familiar with the concepts. It does seem to be an idea whose time has come, so I thought it would be good to write a blog about it.

It is not a new idea; some psychologists have been exploring the idea for at least 40 years. One of the pioneers was Theodore Roszak https://ies.bio/ecopsychology/what-is-ecopsychology/principles-of-ecopsychology/. He worked with many counter-culture groups from the 1960s onwards and developed the idea that many of our mental health issues stem from our societies’ movement away from the natural world into an urban environment.  He coined the term ‘ecopsychology’. 

Some practitioners say that the changes which we experience, can happen at a very profound level; that the earth has a ‘self-righting’ capacity with which we can integrate if we spend time, in a mindful and structured way, in a natural environment. Balance is often a watchword here. Being in nature introduces a natural balance which our everyday life lacks. Perspective is another useful concept. By closely interacting with the world beyond our human constructions we recognise, at a deep level, that there is a world out there which carries on without any regard to our neuroses, anxieties and obsessions. A bird sees the world differently and a tree is busy with its own stuff. This realisation can be very calming and grounding.

Let’s start by seeing what eco-therapy covers. The term can be quite wide, but most definitions share these things:

  • Getting out into a natural environment is healing and healthy in itself
  • Concentrating on an outside activity helps reduce anxiety
  • Many activities in the natural world can often be linked with social interaction with a group of people doing the same activity. In this way it breaks down social isolation.

Different types of eco-therapy

Eco-therapy can be self-directed and individual. You might decide to do an activity in the natural world by yourself, or your therapist might suggest some things to you. Sometimes it is more structured than that. There are programmes where a trained therapist will accompany the client into nature. I know of some therapists who work in a natural environment whenever they can. They will run a session with a client in an outside environment and sometimes will carry out the therapy while doing an outdoor activity such as walking. Group eco-therapy is another growing area. This combines the benefits of nature and of interaction with others. 

If you cannot get out you can still benefit from nature, its sounds and smells in particular. Research in a hospital setting has shown that fragrances of fruit and plants reduced depression. The sounds of running water, the wind in the trees and birdsong have been proven to reduce anxiety. Pictures and photographs of nature also seem to help. A survey by Roger Ulrich, with patients recovering from heart surgery, showed that they experienced less pain and anxiety when they could look at pictures of the natural world. He also showed that a view from a window onto the natural world could help recovery rates. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/17043718_View_Through_a_Window_May_Influence_Recovery_from_Surgery

Does eco-therapy work?

Many studies have shown that sustained time outside in green areas can improve mood, lift self-esteem and improve wellbeing. From my own experience I have seen how time in nature can reduce chronic pain in many patients and improve their ability to control their own lives and their own health conditions. With clients suffering from chronic pain or anxiety, perhaps because of worries over Coronavirus or more generally, time in nature can reduce anxiety quickly and effectively. This has been particularly useful in these times when we have been stuck at home and that isolation has not helped our mental health. At this time of a world-wide pandemic getting outside into nature is one of the things we can do safely, which is a great advantage of course.

Psychologist Terry Hartig https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Terry_Hartig conducted an experiment where people were set a task designed to mentally fatigue them. They were them split into three groups, one was sent on an urban walk, another was told to sit quietly and read and listen to music, the third was sent to walk in a nature reserve. The third group recovered from the fatigue more quickly and generally felt more positive than the other two. Another survey, by the mental health charity Mind, found that walking in the country reduced symptoms of depression in over seventy percent of participants, compared to just forty five percent of people who walked in a shopping centre.

Some of the things you can try

  • Targeted therapy in natural surroundings: Some therapists work with individuals or groups to draw out the power of nature to help. A therapist might, for example, ask their clients to focus on the freedom of the birds flying past and ask clients to consider how different their perspective of the world is from ours.
  • Gardening, growing and related activities. This is a powerful tool for recovery and mental wellbeing. Helping something grow can be healing in itself. A plus is that it often involves some physical activity which is good for both mental and physical health. The different rhythms and patterns of life of plants to us can give a wider perspective on life. The smells and texture of plants and the earth can help with chronic pain or anxiety.
  • Out with the dog or riding a horse. Animal therapy is a benefit in itself. When brought together with nature it can double the power. A walk with your dog or a ride on a horse can benefit mental health greatly.
  • Get out of the gym and into the woods. We know physical exercise is good for us -if you can try to do it outside. You will benefit even more.

If you want to know more, Mind has a very good five-minute video which tells some very inspiring stories. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NJDnEGWpzU.

I hope you found this useful. Contact me if you want to know more. Take advantage of the summer and breathe in nature.

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