Do You Need a Nature Prescription?

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 13, 2021
4 min read

Maurie Lung, PhD, was in second grade when she realized what she wanted to do when she grew up.

“When I went away to summer camp, my little Strawberry Shortcake diary said, ‘When I grow up, I want to help people in the outdoors,’” Lung says. And that’s exactly what she does today.

Lung oversees the nature-based and adventure-based counseling programs at Prescott College and is also a licensed therapist and counselor who does nature-based and adventure-based counseling for individuals, couples, and families.

Nature therapy, also called ecotherapy, is the practice of being in nature to boost growth and healing, especially mental health. You might also hear it called green care, green exercise, green therapy, or horticulture therapy. Although people use those terms to describe lots of outdoor activities, they can also be examples of specific nature therapy programs.

The meaning of nature therapy can vary from person to person, but in general, nature therapy involves:

  • A trained, supportive professional, like a therapist
  • A green environment
  • Appreciating and exploring nature

Because nature therapy programs can include many activities, there are different types of therapies. Some include:

  • Adventure therapy. This uses activities that explore nature and can be done in an individual or group setting. Rafting and rock climbing are good examples.
  • Animal-assisted interventions or therapy. Both of these options include spending time with animals. Animal-assisted interventions use locations like farms where you can pet or feed the animals. On the other hand, animal-assisted therapy focuses on building a therapeutic relationship with animals like dogs or houses.
  • Arts and crafts. Like the name suggests, this type combines creative crafts with nature. You might use your creative skills to paint in a green space, like a park or a forest. This type also includes using natural materials like clay, grass, or wood or using green spaces as inspiration for art.
  • Conservation. Conservation pairs protection spaces in nature with physical exercise.
  • Dark nature. Dark nature activities take place at night, so you might practice stargazing, for example.
  • Green exercise. Here, you’ll do physical activities in green spaces. That could be running, going on a walk, or taking a bike ride, for example.
  • Therapeutic farming. With this type, you’ll participate in farming activities, so you might grow crops or take care of farm animals.
  • Therapeutic horticulture. This involves gardening, so you might grow food in community gardens. Sometimes therapeutic horticulture leads to other activities, like selling home-grown crops at a farmer’s market.
  • Wilderness therapy. This type of therapy works well in a group. You’ll spend time in the wild doing activities like hiking or making shelters.

More and more research suggests that spending time in natural environments can be linked to mental health benefits.

For example, being in a green space has been linked to less anxiety, fewer depression symptoms, and lower stress levels. Spending time in nature helps people with depression and kids with attention problems think more clearly.

“One of the top benefits that we address are for people who are trying to reduce anxiety or depression and increase relationship and connection,” Lung says. “I also think it’s super engaging, so for kids and teenagers ... [and] for people who are reluctant to be in therapy.”

Patricia Hasbach, PhD, a licensed professional counselor and clinical psychotherapist, is another expert in ecotherapy. She’s also co-director of the ecopsychology program at Lewis & Clark College.

Hasbach recalls one such person, a patient in a cardiac rehabilitation center, who was reluctant about therapy.

“He was pretty nervous about talking with me and I suggested, ‘You want to just take a walk outside?’ And I just noticed how his voice changed,” Hasbach says. “He become more relaxed ... and that was my first ‘aha’ moment that there’s something here that I need to pay attention to.”

Researchers have studied nature’s healing effects in a number of areas, including:

“[It’s about] noticing what’s around you and increasing our own awareness of ourselves in relation to our world and environment,” Lung says. “Just the symbiotic benefits of being outside.”

Not everyone who does nature therapy has a mental health condition. Anyone can reap the benefits of ecotherapy.

“I really operate in my clinical practice on this idea that because we are nature, everybody can benefit from including ecotherapy into their work,” Hasbach says.

You can do nature therapy anywhere, whether you live in rural, suburban, or urban areas. For example, Lung’s practice is in a very urban area, but she often relies on county parks and nearby beaches.

Nature therapy might involve places like gardens, farms, forests, or parks. Usually, nature therapy involves experiencing nature (like taking a walk through the forest) or working in nature (like gardening).

The amount of physical activity you’ll get in nature therapy depends on the person. Lung says she tailors the activities she incorporates into her practice based on the people she’s working with.

“If I’m working with a teenager and we’re working on frustration times, then I might be doing paddle boarding outside. But I might not do paddle boarding if I’m working with couples because it’s a super individualistic activity. In that case, I might do sailing because that’s a cooperative activity,” Lung says. “Nature-based interventions have the flexibility to be really clinically relevant.”

Nature therapy can be paired with other options, like:

“Ecotherapy is one tool that you have to draw on to strengthen and deepen the work that you’re doing with your clients or your patients,” Hasbach says.