SENSE I CONNECT I CREATE I GROW
“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”
There is a growing body of evidence that time spent in nature has many benefits to our health and well-being. Therapies that use nature as therapy are described as nature-based therapy.
At Imagine nature-based therapy is offered as an approach within occupational therapy services. This means that before we head out into the great outdoors we consider what you want to get from it. You will have your own goals and we will consider the best kind of nature-based work for these, and how it could fit in with other therapy approaches and the other roles and responsibilities you have.
One way we might work is by doing our therapy sessions in nature. This might mean meeting on a beach or going for a hike together. We might have sessions accompanied by Jack the dog. We might combine nature-based work with other therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness.
Despite us knowing that nature is good for us, often we find it hard to get outside. The Nature Conservancy of Canada found 74% of people said that it is easier to stay indoors. It can be especially hard to make the effort if we are struggling with our mental health. Therefore another way we might do nature-based work at Imagine is to focus on increasing your contact with nature in your daily life, outside of sessions. We will come up with an individualised plan together and can adapt this as we go.
Green exercise describes exercise that involves contact with nature. Examples of this could include biking, horse-riding or cycling. Green exercise is beneficial for you, not only due to the contact with nature but of course because of the positive impact of exercise on both physical and mental health.
Horticultural therapy is where gardening is used as therapy. This might be in a setting where groups or individuals are enabled to grow flowers, fruits or vegetables in community gardens. It could also be where individuals or families grow plants at home.
Wilderness therapy involves being in nature away from urban environments. Wilderness therapy programs often involve an element of adventure, learning to survive with only the basics. Participants might stay overnight or for an extended time.
Animal assisted therapy is therapy involving animals. This commonly involves equine-assisted therapy and use of therapy animals such as dogs. Whilst animal-assisted therapy can be seen as a therapy in its own right, it can also be seen as nature-based when animal interactions take place outdoors.
These examples show some different ways people engage in nature-based therapy. Different ways of interacting with nature will have different effects. For example, even sitting outdoors has positive effects on mental health. But adding an activity like hiking or gardening can increase the benefits further.
Many professionals are recognising the potential for nature-based therapy as an approach to reducing mental health symptoms. Nature-based therapy has been shown to reduce symptoms of both depression and anxiety.
Furthermore, time in nature has been shown to be protective against the development of mental health problems for children later in life.
Recovery from mental health problems often takes a combination of approaches. Some people take medication, and it is also important to look at thinking styles and behaviour. What perhaps has not been considered enough is the significant potential for nature-based work to be part of the recovery journey.
There is good evidence for nature-based therapy being helpful for those with ADHD, through boosting attention.
Spending time in nature has also been shown to improve recall of information and reduce stress.
Other benefits of nature-based therapy that studies have found include improved self-esteem, cognition and creativity.
Most of us instinctively know that being in nature is good for us. The Nature Conservancy of Canada found that 94% of Canadians recognise that spending time in nature makes them happier, healthier and more productive. So what is the reason that simply walking outside our front door can make us feel better? No-one knows for sure. Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1989, 1995) suggests four themes, which have been echoed in research:
Nature-based therapy means stepping into nature, out of our daily life. In the same way that going on holiday can give someone a sense of rest and relaxation, being in nature can give you a break from the everyday roles and responsibilities that you have.
The detail and beauty within nature often lead us to stop and observe. This is a kind of attention that differs from needing to concentrate for work or school. Its spontaneous and enjoyable. Researchers think this kind of attention serves to kind of fill our tank so that we are more able to attend to the tasks that are more difficult.
This kind of attention is also very similar to the practice of mindfulness, which has many benefits for mental health. Mindfulness involves being ‘in the moment’ rather than letting our thoughts take us to past events or worry about the future. Nature-based therapy is a perfect setting for mindfulness work.
“And she gazed at the sky, the sea, the land, The waves and the caves and the golden sand, She gazed and gazed, amazed by it all, And she said to the whale, “I feel so small.”Julia Donaldson in The Snail and The Whale
Whether scaling a mountain or seeing seeds sprout through the soil, being in nature can give us an appreciation that we are part of something bigger. This may impact on our own ways of thinking and give us a different perspective to our own lives.
Compatibility refers to the activities and practices that we might choose within nature-based work. You might choose to go on a fast hike if you’re feeling frustrated. Or to tend to your garden if you feel a need to be cared for. Children might gravitate towards the trampoline when they want to burn off some energy or find enjoyment in making a den in the woods. Nature has an endless amount of possibilities to match our mood and needs.
Nature-based work might be something that appeals to you, or you might be sceptical about whether it will really work. You might already spend lots of time outdoors or you might find it hard to motivate yourself. Either way, we invite you to give it a try. Grab your boots, step outside, and see where you end up.