Research indicates that encounters with nature bring a sense of balance and relief from everyday stressors and also rekindle a sense of belonging to the natural world (Chalquist, 2014, p. 71).
In addition to promoting physical health, active participation in the natural world appears to be associated with the decrease in stress, anxiety and anger and the increase of optimism, self-esteem and vitality (Chalquist, 2014, p. 71).
Interacting with the natural world appears to help in human development. Friedrich Froebel, the founder of kindergarten (child garden), suggested that when children learn empathy toward nature it promotes a general empathy for life. Further, bringing nature indoors provides benefits that include improving mood and work productivity.
The use of nature-informed imagery in psychotherapy has been found to promote deeper relaxation as evidenced by decrease in heart rate and subjective self-rating than imagery without natural images. Clinical implications also suggest that interacting with the natural world (animals, plants) helps decrease agitation and loneliness in Alzheimer’s patients (Chalquist, 2014).
One research study found a decrease in depressive symptoms in as little as two weeks following the interactions with dolphins.
Another study found that people with schizophrenia, anxiety, affective disorders and personality disorders showed improvement in coping, self-efficacy and symptom reduction after spending three hours twice a week working with farm animals for 12 weeks (Chalquist, 2014).
Horticulture Therapy was found to be effective in reducing stress, treating substance abuse and fostering emotional restoration.
Further, Horticulture Therapy promotes community and aids in the development of community relationships. Zen Buddhist monk and author Thich Naht Hanh employs gardens to aid children in mindfulness practices.
Steve Ritz, a school teacher in the Bronx transformed the lives of his students who were considered ‘lost’ in the system by creating a garden. The children tended, and took home vegetables from the garden. Attendance increased from 42% to 92%, and grades improved significantly
In addition to improving physical wellness and community relationships, exposure and connectedness to nature were positively associated with psychological well being and greater reported spirituality.
Furthermore, through the implementation of hierarchical regression and mediation analysis, positive relationships between both nature exposure and connectedness to nature with psychological well being, were significantly mediated by spirituality.
The researchers concluded that spirituality can be an important aspect of one’s experience of nature and, as a consequence, the positive effects derived from it (Kamitsis &Francis, 2013).
Application of Nature-Informed Therapy
If one is not fortunate enough to have a permaculture food forest to engage therapy, a private location that allows for connection with the earth will suffice.
This location may be a garden, a bench under a tree, or seating by a window overlooking the outdoors.
Preferably in an outdoor setting, the intake can begin with allowing the client to select her seating location. Her selection may reveal her specific connection with nature. For example, I created a labyrinth in my backyard that encircled an apple tree.
This apple tree provided fragrant flowers in the Spring, shade in the Summer, green apples in the Fall and perching posts for cardinals in the Winter.
This place was sacred for me and my choice to sit beneath this tree would have been a starting point to unpack part of my story with nature.
Along with the typical demographic questions, a counselor can inquire about family history in eco-contexts. Where was the client born? Was she raised in the desert of the southwest region or on the salty side of the Chesapeake Bay? Who or what did the client spend her childhood playing with-animals, humans, electronic screens? When in her life did she feel most connected? Where was she during that time?