How did we survive life’s ups and downs for all those millennia before therapists came along? Ecotherapy suggests that our everyday connection to the natural world played a large part.
By going for a stroll in a park, spending time in our garden or even bringing plants into our homes, we can tap into a bit of nature’s calming, head-clearing powers without disrupting our busy schedule. Go all out Cheryl Strayed and hike in the wilderness for a few months and the benefits could scale up appropriately.
I’m looking at the large Boston fern I have managed to keep alive in my living room for several months now and it is indeed the most joyful addition to the house since the dogs. On the basis of a potted plant, I’m willing to find out more.
In an article in The Atlantic, James Hamblin mentions a study that found soil bacteria to have a mood lifting effect on mice. This study is the inspiration for a psychologist in the same article, to advocate holding a handful of moist earth for twenty minutes if you want to give yourself a boost.
Some Victorian cures for low mood or anxiety recommend barefoot walking; similar advice is contained in The Nature Doctor, by Alfred Vogel. The Swiss naturopath said, “if walking barefoot is done sensibly, it cannot be recommended highly enough as a remedy for all those who are worn out and overworked, who suffer from glandular insufficiency and other problems”.
By “sensibly”, Dr Vogel meant on soft grass, in the morning dew, on warm, dry days. He urged against risking getting a chill on cold or wet days and says walking barefoot on concrete, asphalt and synthetic surfaces does no good at all.
He believed we should all hop out into the garden or local park before breakfast, for some gentle exercise while barefoot and breathing correctly through the nose. The benefit is believed to come from connecting to the natural, magnetic energy of the earth. He cited Sebastian Kneipp, a Bavarian priest and hydrotherapist, as discovering the beneficial effects of dew. And nose breathing, as opposed to mouth breathing, is important as the nose delivers air to our lungs at the right humidity and temperature, whereas our mouths send down gulps of unfiltered, un-humidified, non-temperature controlled stuff, which dries our throat and lets in bugs that have to be tackled by our wider immune system.
There is no mention of soil bacteria, dew, the earth’s magnetic energy or indeed nose breathing in Mind’s guide to ecotherapy. The mental health charity takes an altogether more common sense approach, backed up by more recent scientific studies than those of the Reverend Kneipp.
In short, Mind says ecotherapy works because being active is better for you than being sedentary; being active with other people makes you feel better and being in nature increases our overall sense of wellbeing.
Mind suggests many groups and organisations that can be joined or that your doctor can refer you to. They also give thirty-two ways in which you can try ecotherapy on your own, including doing daily activities like ironing, chopping vegetables or exercise in front of a window where you can see the sky. If you don’t have a garden, offer to help a friend or neighbour with theirs. Hang a bid feeder outside your window, sign up for a litter pick along the beach or sit under a tree with your back against the trunk.
If these seem like a random collection of activities, there is a deal of theory behind them. Greater exposure to natural light helps people with Seasonal Affective Disorder and we all benefit from spending less time under artificial lighting.
Doing more physical activity helps with our physical and mental health because, at its most basic, it gets the body doing what the body is designed to do. We produce more of the body’s natural mood-lifting, stress-reducing hormones when we move about than when we don’t.
We didn’t evolve to sit at desks and our ancestors did not tune into their sense of being in the great scheme of things, while sitting in a cubicle, car or commuter train. Right up until very recently, we were all outdoorsy.
And no matter how we feel about individual people or consider ourselves to be introvert or extrovert, our species is social. Bits of our brain and body chemistry just function much better when we’re around other living things.
To help turn indoor exercisers into outdoor exercisers, cat owners into horse riders and the users of a pinch of dried chilli into the growers of actual food there are lots of national organisations. We’ve listed a few of the big ones below, and you’ll surely find more in your area.
Marine Conservation Society
If you love to be by the seaside, this national charity holds regular beach cleaning events, as well as the Great British Beach Clean, in the third weekend of September each year
The Wildlife Trusts
This conservation charity owns nature reserves and organises over 11 000 events each year, from walks to photography groups to species surveying and much more
The Woodland Trust
The Woodland Trust’s volunteers do lots of jobs but one of the most energetic is their woodland work parties, where groups of volunteers meet once or twice a month to help manage an area of woodland
Walking for Health
A joint initiative between The Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support, in England, it organises 1800 local walks for adults and is aimed at the least active among us
Paths for All
Scotland’s champion of everyday walking is a partnership of twenty-eight organisation, all aiming to get us off the sofa at a pace we can handle
Let’s Walk Cymru
There are over eighty walking groups across Wales, supported by this group that provides local, easy-going walks, ideal for beginners
Open Farm Sunday
11th June is 2017’s date for Open Farm Sunday in the UK. Farmers across the country put a lot of work into welcoming visitors, showing them round, putting on activities for families and generally creating a fun day out
My pros and cons
When I was eight I loved nothing more than making mud pies
I had a flatmate who loved his weekly dry stone walling volunteer group and I always kinda wanted to join
My husband showed me that there is no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes
I can’t be gone for a whole days and there probably aren’t so many half-day things… but there will be some
I don’t want to be the least fit person who slows down everyone else… but I could always start on something easy
I don’t want to be the lone oldie, surrounded by kids and students… but I could ask about the age range and keep asking till I find one that suits me
…Okay, I will aim to try something in April, which gives me a few weeks to find the right kind of thing
Image by iStock.com/Goodluz
First published in Widows and Widowers magazine Issue 14