Improves mental health
Ecotherapy can make a significant difference to how you feel, for example by helping you feel more grounded, providing an alternative perspective on life and helping your mind and body to relax. It can:
You might also find that ecotherapy benefits your wellbeing by providing a therapeutic space where you don't have to talk about your problems, or even think about them – instead there is more space to learn new skills, develop new interests and make new friends.
How does ecotherapy reduce depression?
Research into ecotherapy has shown it can be a successful treatment for mild to moderate depression. This is thought to be due to a combination of:
- doing more physical activity, which is known to have many physical and mental health benefits
- getting more regular social contact with people, which can reduce loneliness and boost self-esteem
- being surrounded by nature, which can boost your overall mood and sense of wellbeing
Environmental conservation programmes and care farms in particular, have been shown to reduce anger and depression and improve self-esteem. Evidence also suggests that being more active in nature can improve your mood far more than doing similar exercise indoors.
I have depression, anxiety and BPD. [Doing ecotherapy] has allowed me somewhere that is my safe place, a place of my own, where I can be quiet and peaceful. The act of growing and caring for something else helps me to stop thinking about what is going on in my head.
Can it help with severe mental health problems?
If you experience a more serious or long-term mental health condition, such as psychosis or ongoing suicidal feelings, there may be specific programmes that are set up in ways that can support you. Some gardening and conservation projects offer increased support from psychiatric staff and may involve a more long-term commitment.
(See our ecotherapy FAQs page for suggestions on how to assess which project is right for you.)
Being at a supported gardening project has transformed my life and saved the life of my partner who had attempted suicide four times before she regained hope.
Improves physical health
Ecotherapy can improve your physical health through:
- regular opportunities for physical exercise
- spending time in the fresh air, which can increase your energy levels
- using up excess stress hormones in your body by physical activity
- relaxing your nervous system by being surrounded by a calm, natural environment
- increasing your stamina and fitness
(See our pages on physical activity, sport and mental health for more information on the benefits of being more active, and how to increase your activity levels safely.)
I volunteer at a community garden project and have done the beginners course there. [It] helps me get out of the house and be around people again. Sometimes it is hard [...] but when I get there I immediately feel comfortable being in the open air and around the plants.
Develops your social life
By participating in an ecotherapy project, you could:
- meet new people
- lessen any isolation and loneliness, and increase your sense of belonging
- build your peer support network
- create more of a structure to your week
- make connections with people, which may develop into long-term friendships
Many gardening and walking groups are open to everyone, rather than being specifically for people who experience mental health problems. Going along to an introductory session, if there's one available, could be a gentle way of trying these out.
I saw an advert on Twitter for a free 'taster' session for Nordic walking and it was near where I lived, so I went along. It gives me a scheduled reason to go outside for a walk and interact with people.
Ecotherapy could also help build your confidence through:
- enabling you to meet and overcome new challenges
- trying new activities and learning new skills, which can increase your confidence to try new things in other areas of your life
- increasing your motivation to stay active
- providing the satisfaction of completing tasks and contributing to positive change for yourself and the environment
- potentially providing opportunities to gain qualifications
My sister encouraged me to volunteer after I moved to a new place and didn't want to go out much... I didn't think I was a 'gardener' before, but now I have a lovely garden, and am heavily involved with the allotment, too!
Strengthens your connection with nature
For example, you can:
- spend more time outside in all weathers
- learn about the natural cycles of the year
- tune into the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world
- create habitats for wildlife
- become aware of your wider connections with animals, plants, trees and different landscapes
- work with natural materials such as wood and clay
Nurturing something else into life has really helped my wellbeing – gently caring for something helped me learn to care for myself.
Helps you practise mindfulness
Mindfulness is a type of therapy which involves becoming more aware of yourself in the present moment. Bringing your attention to the natural world around you can help shift your focus away from thoughts that might be stressful or upsetting.
(See the BeMindful website for more information about how to practise mindfulness, and whether it's right for you.)
This information was published in October 2015. We will revise it in 2018.