Although I have a BA and an MS in Psychology and practiced as a therapist at a Mental Health Center for 20 years I felt there was something missing.
When I discovered Ecopsychology I realized traditional psychology has ignored our natural environment in the descriptions and practices of health and healing. We would never study another species out of context of their environment - yet we have done so with humankind. There was never any mention of our emotional bond with nature or that we can’t have life, or nourishment except as it comes from the earth. Or that the earth is a living system and humankind is an integral part of that system and that we evolved in concert with all life.
Ecopsychology was a coming home for me as it connects psychology, nature and spirituality and re-defines psychology to include the study of humankind in the context of our larger home, the Earth.
Long before I learned about Ecopsychology I experienced the spiritual and healing power of nature without realizing it. I thought canoeing, backpacking and sailing were recreational experiences until I had a profound experience while solo backpacking in the Georgia mountains that changed how I viewed God and nature.
The studies overwhelmingly show being in a natural environment is good for us. It lowers our heartbeat, blood pressure, muscle tension and brain-wave activity. Patients in hospitals who have windows overlooking greenery go home a day earlier and require less pain medication. People with pets at home recovery faster after surgery. Women with breast cancer who walk in parks, watch birds or tend gardens recover more quickly. Inner city kids who live near and play in parks do better in school and with friends. Office workers are more productive when they have windows. A NASA study to reduce astronaut's stress and boredom found pictures of natural scenes reduced stress.
A recent study at the University of Michigan shows a walk in a park improves memory. Students had significantly higher recall of numbers after a walk in the woods versus a city street.
Scientists at the University of Illinois discovered a daily twenty minute walk in the woods out-performed the drugs currently in the market for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children. A UK study published in an “Environmental Science and Technology” 2010 journal found a five-minute daily “dose” of nature was enough to improve self-esteem.
Research shows children lacking contact with the outdoors are significantly more prone to anxiety, depression and attention disorders. Richard Louv, in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” to describe these children. However ecopsychologist's believe many of us suffer from chronic environmental stress and have unexpressed grief and anger about urban sprawl, the pollution of air and water and the extinction of other species.
A psychologist with a Finland University measured the benefits of using the natural environment to restore ourselves. His 20-year research called “Attention Restoration Theory” (ART) shows how a walk in the woods helps focus the mind and revive the spirit. He found a link between the need for restoration from stress and the use of favorite natural places. He said people who spend less time in nature report lower levels of restoration.
He explained how nature's rustling leaves, clouds, sunsets and birds engage us in a relaxed, subtle, bottom-up way that restores and regenerates our attention. The lights, traffic, noise, crowds and advertisements of cities requires high-demand active attention. It's similar to the intellectual requirements of office workers.
A study found the average American spends 90% of their time indoors. Twenty years ago it was 80%.
James Hillman expressed his concern about psychotherapy in his book "We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy, and the World is Getting Worse" by offering the image of a sinking ship. He said, "Deep in the boat’s bowels, in a safe an cloistered cabin, a therapist and client are earnestly working away while the ship sinks lower and lower in the water, its crisis becoming critical."
When doing workshops on Ecopsychology for Mental Health Professionals and other groups I was amazed at how passionate people felt about the natural world. During one of my talks Sandy said she understood perfectly. She used to depend on her older brother for advice and spent most of her time indoors. She was devastated when he died and began to sit at his grave. To her surprise she noticed how good she felt among the flowers, birds and trees. She even found solutions to her problems. She was stunned.
Jill credits a flower for saving her life. A year after the birth of her second child she was still suffering from severe depression. Counseling and antidepressants brought little relief. While walking in a field something stirred inside of her when she spotted a small yellow buttercup. Her zest for life returned. Jill says the buttercup saved her life! Forty years later she has a MA in journalism and teaches at a University.
Kaye credits and old pine tree for helping her recover. She was suicidal and weighed 300 pounds. Her psychiatrist hospitalized her and said she would be there permanently. A year later thanks to a couple of concerned nurses she got a new psychiatrist and was discharged from the hospital. The new psychiatrist noticed she perked up when she talked about nature. They began speaking symbolically about plants and animals. One day he took her outside and showed her an old pine tree that had absorbed barbed wire into its trunk. She suddenly realized that she, like the tree, could flourish and grow in spite of her painful past. She credits the tree and her new psychiatrist for saving her life. She is now an LPN and works full time as a school librarian at a private school. She is also License to do Wildlife Rehabilitation and has been doing Pet Therapy for schools and nursing homes for over 30 years.
Jim had open-heart surgery in his 60s. He said watching hummingbirds helped him get back his zest for life. He was not doing well so his wife hung a hummingbird feeder in front of his window. He started to recover immediately.
Phillip Sutton, a therapist and the author of the book "The Healing Earth: Nature’s Medicine for the Trouble Soul" shows how to use nature as a "therapist" in counseling.
John's story is a good example of Sutton's work. John, Sutton's client, was undecided about staying in his marriage. Sutton told him to go to a natural setting, preferable a hill, early in the morning and stay there until a decision came to him. John watched the sunset and the first stars until he realized he’d already made the decision.
John told Sutton, "Watching the stars made me realize how much more there is to life than my problem. My wife and I are already emotionally divorced - it’s not fair to stay together."
Nursing homes called "Eden Alternative Nursing Homes" have started to introduce animals and plants. A Resident MD noticed his patients were dying of loneliness, boredom, helplessness and broken hearts in sterile environments at nursing homes in New York. His solution was to introduce animals, indoor plants and outdoor vegetable gardens. Patients were encouraged to help take care of the animals and plants. He also recommended building day care centers next door to nursing homes so the kids could do crafts, cook, sing and play games with the patients. The physicians and staff were shocked when patients showed a new purpose in life and there was a decrease in irritability, depression and psychosis. The companionship, diversity and enrichment of the environment worked. Eden Alternative Nursing Homes are all over the county now and have been featured in Medical Journals and TV programs.
"Love of nature" is as ordinary as "love of family." When we awaken our bond of love and loyalty to nature we begin to take care of the earth and ourselves.
John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” He was right. The research shows the mental, physical and spiritual value of nature. Parks and natural places need to be part of public health discussions. What happens to the earth happens to us. If the oceans become toxic, our rain, food and bodies become toxic.
When I discovered God is not "out there" somewhere, but in the soil, in the trees, in us and in all of creation nature became a doorway into myself. Awakening my bond with the earth got me back in touch with my larger self. The earth became my body’s larger temple. I believe the wisdom of the larger self is built into every person, waiting to be uncovered. Now when I struggle with choices I remember there is a healer who is holy and wise right at my doorstep. Her name is Mother Nature and her counsel is free.
Ecopsychology helped me understand my bond with the earth and access an "inner compass." From the revelations of Jesus in the desert to Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, nature remains unsurpassed in her power to transform.
Seeing myself as part of God's creation acknowledges my interconnectedness and interdependence. Redefining "sanity" as if the whole world mattered has helped me understand my life’s purpose.
Psychology Today May 11, 2010 “Ecopsychology: An idea Whose Time Has Come” by Steven Kotler
Miller-McCune: Smart Journalism. Real solutions: Janauary 11,2011
“Thoreau Was Right: Nature Hones the Mind” by John McKinney