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Why Doctors Are Prescribing Nature-Based Therapy

You may recall the serenity of sitting by the water, or perhaps you’ve taken a walk through the park to cool off after a stressful day – most of us can attest to the healing properties of nature. 

It’s no secret that spending some time in nature can have a calming effect, with a study showing that just 2 hours a week spent outdoors can significantly improve both mental and physical health.  

But did you know that nature can be a part of a complementary therapy? It’s an emerging field with growing popularity, and is a holistic form of treatment known as nature-based therapy or ecotherapy. 

Nature therapy offers an alternate avenue for managing the symptoms of mental health conditions, which have only been bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate anxiety. With anxiety prevalence reaching 7% globally and 3.3 million Aussies experiencing this condition, we have a mental health crisis on our hands and it’s not going away any time soon.  

As a result, doctors, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists and social workers have started implementing elements of nature-based therapy into their treatment.   

How does it work? 

Nature therapy begins with a health professional, this could be a therapist, and requires access to an area of the natural environment and a willingness to explore. From more thrilling activities like white-water rafting and mountain biking to the quieter therapies like forest bathing or even stargazing, there are a range of treatments on the market. 

Types of nature therapy. 

  • Animal-assisted therapy: This is exactly what it sounds like – therapy with the extra cuteness of dogs and cats. Some may even include horses, any interaction with animals can provide therapeutic benefits. Research has proven that something as simple as petting a dog can release oxytocin – the feel-good hormone which reduces stress levels.
  • Adventure therapy: Dating back to the 60s, adventure therapy involves more exciting activities like rock climbing, mountaineering and skiing. Bush therapy is an increasingly popular form of adventure therapy and makes use of the calming Aussie landscapes.
  • Farming therapy: This is often a community-based therapy and may involve working with animals and crop harvesting. 
  • Wilderness therapy: If you enjoy the great outdoors, wilderness therapy might be of interest. It involves primitive skills training – for instance, learning how to make a fire, along with group exercises to break down damaging beliefs. 
  • Forest therapy: This involves mindfulness and immersion in a forest environment. In Japan, a form of forest therapy called Shinrin-yoku has long used the calming effects of forest bathing to counter the stresses of a fast-paced life.  
  • Night therapy: This will be based around night-time activities and involves exploring nature from a different perspective. Stargazing and night walking are a couple of the elements of this therapy. 
  • Green therapy: Going for a run or walk in leafy green areas are some of the things you might do during green therapy. It involves mindfulness and meditative activities. 
  • Therapeutic horticulture: Gardening, nature appreciation and food cultivation all come together in this type of nature therapy. It can help the process of rehabilitation for those recovering from physical and mental illnesses. 

The effectiveness of nature-based therapy 

Research supports the potential for nature-based therapy to provide therapeutic effects on patients. Animal-assisted therapy is one such treatment backed by researchers. One study found that those who directly interacted with dogs showed a more substantial decline in anxiety than those who simply watched a video.  

Studies have also shown that the forest therapy, Shinrin-yoku, can lower cortisol levels, blood pressure and pulse rate, leading to relief from some of the symptoms of stress and anxiety.  

Though it’s worth noting that evidence is incomplete when it comes to the efficacy of nature therapy and, as such, it’s best to consult a health professional to find a suitable treatment plan. Research shows that when paired in conjunction with treatments like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, nature therapy can have promising results. 

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