Many of our planet’s natural environments are being threatened by climate change, pollution, overharvesting, and habitat destruction. At the same time nature is under attack, many Americans report spending less time in nature and feeling less happy than ever. Tellingly, research shows that spending time in nature is associated with improved physical and mental wellbeing in people, while people who have positive nature experiences are more likely to protect nature. In other words, those who spend less time in nature feel less need to protect it, even as they personally suffer from the disconnect.
How can nature therapy help to reverse these trends? A large part of addressing the environmental threats necessarily involves head-on activism: making people aware of the issues, explaining the consequences of inaction, and urging concrete action. This is unavoidable. Yet, turning back to the research, by adding a sense of urgency to every experience with nature, activists run the risk of instilling ecophobia in participants. Basically, constant emphasis that nature is in peril can unwittingly turn people away from nature: people begin to associate negative feelings with nature, so as a protective mechanism, they dissociate.
At the same time, other barriers work in concert to keep people away from nature. Jobs and populations have largely moved indoors, and allure of the screen keeps folks inside even during off-hours. Many people erroneously believe they can’t experience nature without driving hours to the wilderness—an investment of time and money that many cannot afford. The cycle becomes self-repeating: people disconnected from nature don’t realize what they’re missing, so they don’t seek it out (and similarly, why bother to protect something they don’t feel they benefit from?). As the disconnection deepens, nature even becomes intimidating: its wildness and mystery—the very features that the regular nature-goer comes to love—seem threatening.
To compound the poor health outcomes that result from disconnecting from nature, the environment suffers, as well. After all, spending time in nature is associated with pro-environmental behaviors in both adults and children. Studies find that many environmentalists attribute their values as developing during their youth through many hours spent enjoying a wild or semi-wild place. In other words, few activists credit their passion as reactive to threats facing nature; they credit their passion not to fear but to proactive love: ecophilia. A love of our planet is best built by spending time in nature, and that love will drive the most powerful activism.
As a recent study noted: “Loss of human−nature interactions presents a health risk, and it can also reduce peoples’ appreciation of natural environments, creating negative feedback loops. In contrast, positive experiences, such as psychological restoration or social cohesion, can motivate positive ecological behaviors. Increasing urban nature could potentially provide mental health benefits while simultaneously protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services of natural environments.”
Fortunately, guide-facilitated nature therapy removes some of the biggest barriers that keep people out of nature. Participants learn that nature can be found and enjoyed in many places, many of them reasonably easy to access (including backyards and local parks!). For the inexperienced nature-goer, the reassurance of a confident guide overseeing the experience makes nature seem less intimidating. The guide’s gentle steering keeps the session pleasantly focused on nature and the senses, so participants don’t miss the forest for their phones. Plus, the guide’s work in recruiting participants pulls in new nature-lovers (and potential future activists) in from the sidelines. All of this means that participants are getting into nature, which naturally fosters side effects of better health and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.
However, given the urgency of degrading environmental conditions around the world, many nature therapy guides feel remiss if they do not raise awareness and urge action at every available chance. So, how can guides help participants channel their love of nature—reinforced by nature therapy sessions—into productive and pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors, while retaining a positive mood during sessions? A few ideas (taken from our Nature Therapy Certification program) include:
- Hold special “giving back days” where guides invite previous participants to perform volunteer work together, such as removing invasive plants, at the park where the nature therapy session was held. Link local issues to larger ones, such as by explaining how climate change will stress native plants and make it easier for invasive plants to spread.
- Share success stories that highlight the positive outcomes of action, such as briefly explaining how a restoration project at your park tripled the local nesting eagle population.
- At the end of the session, provide participants with handouts referring them to environmental organizations or sharing information on issues of concern.
- Let participants know that the guide is available to discuss environmental issues.
These approaches help guides to avoid overwhelming or alienating participants in the context of the session, keeping the focus on positive nature contact, while still allowing for meaningful outreach opportunities.
At the end of the day, nature therapy sessions should focus on making participants feel good in and about nature—instilling (or reinforcing) ecophilia. Fortunately, research shows that this is an extremely important step to building pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors. Fostering a connection to the environment will, in most cases, inevitably lead to wonder and reverence for it—and thus a desire to protect it. As guides, our most important role is to first convince people to get into nature, and then make sure they have the tools and information to act from there.
Become a Certified Nature Therapy Guide with the Natural Wellness Academy. Learn to implement a structured-yet-flexible template for leading successful nature walks and meditations, cultivating bidirectional healing experiences between nature and diverse audiences. Our program can be taken online, at your own pace, with no out-of-town travel required. Plus, all required materials are included with tuition. Click here to learn more.