Ecotherapy: Feeling Better, Feeling well, Feeling Good – by Relate’s Sue Reed

10 November 2015

We know physical activity is good for our bodies but did you know that it is also good for our mental health and wellbeing?

Exercise influences the release and up-take of chemicals in our brain and that can help us feel better. The Department of Health recommends adults should do two and a half hours a week of moderate intensity activity – exercise which makes us feel warm and breathe harder.  Only 40% of men and 28% of women in the UK meet these guidelines.

Staying active can lift your mood, reduce stress, help you deal with negative emotions and even help with anxiety and reduce the risk of depression. Every year one in four British adults will experience some kind of mental health problem and prescriptions for antidepressants have reached record levels.   Many G.P.’s and clinicians now recommend an exercise regime as part of the treatment, alongside counselling/talking therapies and prescribed medication.

Health clubs and gyms offer tailored exercise plans and taking up a sport or activity can be really helpful, but not for everyone.  Some people are intimidated by organised exercise groups, for some others don’t feel confidence in participating. So what else is on offer? Ecotherapy has a growing reputation as part of support and treatment for people with a mental health difficulty.

What is ecotherapy?  In lay terms, it’s a healthy dose of nature and is sometimes called “green exercise”. Being out on the land, breathing clean air, seeing, hearing and smelling what is around us is part of our human life. As babies we are a bundle of senses, trying to understand our experiences, our senses support us as we learn and develop.  As we grow into adulthood many people forget the sheer joy we had as children, making dens, running in the sun or gathering blackberries. Our lives fill with other activities and priorities, but getting back to nature can be nurturing and therapeutic.

The Big Lottery has funded projects for people with mental health difficulties which include community gardens, growing food, and conservation work. Other projects offer art and craft activities. These projects use natural materials; such as clay, wood, or leaves to produce pieces of artwork.  The work is set within a structured and supportive environment, and people from all ages, and all cultural groups can enjoy the opportunities.

Ecotherapy helps people to meet others and make friends especially in their local community, building up personal support networks, and importantly helping people to enjoy and look forward to social contact.  There is also evidence that ecotherapy has helped people gain confidence and skills and gain employment or go into education or further training.

The earth provides us with essentials for life like food, water, and fuel. It may also hold the key to supporting us to feel good and enjoy our lives.  For more information see Feel Better Outside, Feel Better Inside- University of Essex, October 2013.

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