Further evidence for the positive effects on health and wellbeing from contact with nature is found in some unique forms of therapy based on the human relationship with nature. These forms of treatment, discussed in the proceeding pages, have proven to be successful where conventional treatments have often had limited success.
Ecopsychology or nature-guided therapy
Ecopsychology or nature-guided therapy considers every aspect of the human-nature relationship. It is primarily concerned with the fundamental alienation of humans from nature and the effects on human health (Scull, 2001; Burns, 1998; Gullone, 2000). The person-environment relationship is both the unit of analysis and the basis of treatment (Burns, 1998). Although only relatively recently adopted in modern western society, ecopsychology is essentially modern interpretation of ancient views of humans and nature held by many indigenous peoples. In essence, most native cultures view humans as part of the rest of nature by believing that human beings are intricately linked to all life forms and life-like processes, and that by harming nature we harm ourselves (Burns, 1998; Martin, 1996; Knudtson
and Suzuki, 1994; Suzuki, 1990; Rockefeller and Elder, 1992; Orr, 1993) (refer to earlier section on Spirituality ,Religion and Nature).
As echoed by researchers in other fields, ecopsychologists believe that
disconnection from nature has a heavy cost in impaired health and increased stress (Scull, 2001; Burns, 1998; Glendinning, 1995; Katcher and Beck, 1987; Gullone, 2000). Clinical ecopsychology operates on the premise that many psychological and physical afflictions can be due to withdrawal from the healing forces of the natural world (Scull, 2001; Roszak et al., 1995; Levinson, 1969). No longer able to identify with nature and its representatives, humans find themselves in a psychological void (Nasr, 1968). However, people may be able to regain some emotional harmony by re-establishing a bond with the animate and inanimate world (Levinson, 1969; 1983).
Many western psychologists are now readily adopting ecopsychology as a
form of treatment or are subscribing to its views (Burns, 1998; Durning, 1995; Hillman, 1995; Roszak et al., 1995). In fact, the field of mainstream psychology is undergoing a paradigm shift as a result of new problems brought about by urban existence and the destruction of the natural environment that are proving difficult to treat (Hillman, 1995). Australian psychologist George selection of nature-based interventions. The work cited
Burns (1998) reviewed by Burns (1998) included the following beneficial effects from contact with nature: enhancement of positive affect; stress reduction; improvement in parasympathetic nervous system functioning; and enhancement of self-concept, self-esteem, and self-confidence.
Although ecopsychological treatment usually involves excursions into wilderness, it is now recognised that any exposure to nature, such as spending time with plants and animals, or going to a park, can have positive benefits (Scull, 2001; Cohen, 2000). Burns (1998) has documented his success treating patients with simple nature-based assignments. These assignments use natural objects or natural processes that have in the past, or are likely to in the future, assist the patient with achieving a therapeutic goal. Burns (1998) has successfully treated patients suffering from a variety of negative psychological states associated with severe trauma, cancer, depression and anxiety, using nature as the basis for treatment.
Although there is a lack of scientific research in this area, in a similar way that wilderness therapy and outdoor adventure therapy also lack research evidence of their efficacy, anecdotal evidence suggests that ecopsychology is particularly successful in treating stress-related illness. However, unlike wilderness therapy and outdoor education from which the benefits may be short-term, ecopsychological treatment is believed to have more lasting positive benefits than ordinary outdoor recreation (Scull, 2001).
Stainbrook (1973, in Lewis, 1996) states that an over-urbanised, dirty environment, and a lack of natural surroundings confirms the negative self-appraisal a person may have developed through other negative contacts with society. Since self-esteem is the keystone to emotional wellbeing, a poor self-appraisal, among other factors, determines how one treats his/her surroundings and how destructive he or she will be towards themselves and others (Stainbrook, 1973 in Lewis, 1996). If the self were expanded to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of natural systems would be interpreted as self-destruction (Roszak, 1995).
Hence, to suggest with the full weight of professional psychological authority that people are bonded emotionally to the earth gives a powerful new meaning into our understanding of the term ‘sanity’ (Roszak, 1995; Orr, 1993). Furthermore, as Levinson (1969; 1983) states, humans must remain in contact with nature throughout life if they are to maintain good mental health, not too mention their humanity. It has been proposed that the modern life as prescribed by Western Society results in adverse outcomes on the human psyche (Gullone, 2000), the full impacts of which are yet to be realised.
Attention restoration theory suggests that contact with nature improves the
ability to concentrate and aids recovery from mental fatigue. Mental fatigue, as mentioned earlier, can arise from extended periods of directed attention on a particular task, while shutting out distractions (Herzog et al., 1997). Symptoms include a lack of concentration, increased irritability, and a proneness to mistakes or accidents. The effect of nature on children’s capacity for concentration was studied by Taylor et al. (2001) who tested the ability of nature to improve the concentration of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). They found that children functioned better after activities were carried out in natural play settings, and that the ‘greener’ a play setting the less severe were the attention deficit symptoms (Taylor et al., 2001). ADD affects many children and can have a detrimental effect on most aspects of life (including school, interpersonal relationships, personal growth etc.) (Taylor et al., 2001). It is not an easy disorder to treat, but natural settings could be used to improve children’s concentration, thereby somewhat alleviating the need for drugs (that have serious side effects and do not aid children’s long-term health or development) (Taylor et al., 2001). This research highlights the importance of ‘green’ playgrounds and the availability and access to parks and nature for childcare centres, kindergartens, and schools.
However, attention restoration is not just relevant for children, but has increasing relevance for adults in the current social and economic environment in which people are working longer hours and spending long periods of time looking at computer screens. While Hartig et al. (2003) demonstrated that natural environments have both stress reducing and attention restoration benefits for young adults (university students), a study by Herzog et al. (2002), also involving university students in the USA, found that recognition of the restorative effects of natural environments was limited. Herzog et al. (2002) suggest that strategies to address this lack of awareness should include communication of the benefits through images and narratives, and urban design which brings people closer to nature.
Wilderness experience and wilderness therapy
As well as being restorative in terms of attention enhancement and stress
reduction, natural environments can also be used educationally and therapeutically for other purposes. The terminology for such activities varies, and includes ‘outdoor education’, ‘outdoor adventure’, ‘wilderness experience’, ‘wilderness therapy’, ‘wilderness adventure therapy’ and ‘bush adventure therapy’. Whatever the terminology, participation in such activities is typically undertaken for physical, emotional and/or psychological health reasons (Mitten, 2004). However, its potential as a population-wide health promotion tool has only recently been recognised (Pryor, Carpenter and Townsend, 2005).
Challenges presented by wilderness are used in wilderness experience programs such as Outward Bound and other wilderness therapy programs to boost the self-confidence and self-esteem of participants. These programs encourage leadership ability, social cohesiveness, and facilitate an increased awareness of, and respect for, nature (Furnass, 1979). Although these benefits can be substantial and have a long-term effect on individuals, it has been claimed that they are somewhat superficial compared to the psychological and spiritual benefits that can arise from contact with wilderness itself (Cumes, 1998).
At least one wilderness program, however, draws on this aspect, namely the
Wilderness Vision Quest Program, run in the United States (Easley, 1991). This program, founded in 1976, emphasises the spiritual dimensions of contact with the natural world and focuses on fostering conscious efforts to heal, enrich, and expand the human spirit (Brown, 1984 in Easely, 1991). Deeper experiences with wilderness are used in the emotional and psychological treatment of patients suffering from any number of conditions, including psychosis, substance abuse (Bennett et al., 1997) or violence, and injury (Beringer, 1999; Crisp and O’Donnell, 1998). The combination of physical activity and social connection in the context of the natural environment has been found to be effective in preventing both the
onset and the escalation of depression (Crisp and Hinch, 2004). However, the multifaceted nature of the outcomes of such programs (particularly their broader social and environmental wellbeing outcomes) is often forgotten in the intense focus on the outcomes for individual participants. ‘When small groups of people adventure together in natural environments, the health and wellbeing of humans, communities and the natural environment are enhanced’ (Pryor, Carpenter and Townsend, 2005 p. 11).
This area is only just beginning to be understood and no appropriate terms
exist for the powerful effect of nature on the human psyche, although the term ‘wilderness rapture’ has recently been suggested by Cumes (1998). More thorough research on wilderness therapy programs is required, particularly to determine whether beneficial effects on participant’s lives are long-term. One commonly reported outcome of wilderness therapy is that self perceptions and perceptions about the one’s relationship to the natural world change (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989). This can assist people in finding meaning or higher purpose in life.
Some of the most important wilderness areas worldwide are contained in parks. Those parks that have minimum facilities or infrastructure are ideal settings for wilderness therapy or wilderness adventure. For example, many National Parks and all of the Wilderness parks in Victoria (like Big Desert and Wabba Wilderness Park) although designed for conservation, are also ideal for self-reliant recreation and the use of wilderness for therapeutic purposes.
Healthy parks, healthy people
The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context
A review of relevant literature
School of Health and Social Development Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences
© Deakin University and Parks Victoria 2008
Authors Dr. Cecily Maller Associate Professor Mardie Townsend Associate Professor Lawrence St Leger Dr Claire Henderson-Wilson Ms Anita Pryor Ms Lauren Prosser Dr Megan Moore