Getting outside is officially ecotherapy

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We all feel better after a walk in the fresh air. Izzy Anwell of Dorset Mind explains how ecotherapy leads to good mental health

here are countless benefits attributed to connecting with nature and being outside. However, the lack of research makes it hard to know how effective the treatment is, from a clinical perspective. Ecotherapy is the name given to healthcare which draws on the benefits of nature-based activity to support people with mental health problems. Even just taken at face value, ecotherapy encourages socialising, exercise, sunlight exposure and learning and sharing emotions, all of which aid ‘good mental health’.

Good mental health
Characterised by a person’s ability to fulfil several key functions and activities, the markers of good mental health include the ability to learn, to feel, to express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions and the ability to form and maintain good relationships with others.
Ecotherapy supports all five stages of the ‘five ways to wellbeing’ as it encourages its participants to connect, to learn, to get active, to give back and to take notice.

Connect
Ecotherapy encourages those who may have become isolated due to their health to socialise with others, to build connections and relationships and regain social skills.
There is strong evidence that feeling close to, and valued by, other people can contribute to a person’s daily functioning and act as a buffer against mental ill health.

Garden
As part of Dorset Mind’s ecotherapy project, users are taught how to tend to and maintain a garden or plot, supporting the concept of hands-on learning which provides the opportunity to safely make mistakes and learn through trial and error.
It also ensures the participant really has to take notice of their surroundings.

Keep Active
Ecotherapy actively encourages exercise and activity, which we all know helps to release those feel-good hormones like adrenaline and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.
Interestingly, it has recently been suggested that the act of digging and disturbing soil releases a microbe called ‘mycobacterium vaccae’ which acts as a natural anti-depressant. The validity of this research has not yet been confirmed but most gardeners would emphatically agree. And what if it were true?
Another benefit that comes from being active outside is that participants get regular sunlight exposure. This prompts the body to produce Vitamin D, vital for bone and muscle health but also a general mood-booster.

Give back
As part of Dorset Mind’s Eco in Mind ecotherapy project, all the produce grown is harvested and donated to local food banks. Having this knowledge as a participant evokes a sense of pride and accomplishment.
It’s National Allotment Week between 8th and 14th August. This gives us the perfect opportunity to get outside and connect ourselves with the earth around us, whether you have an actual allotment or just a small patch of garden. If you do make it outside, try and be mindful as you work, making yourself aware of your surroundings and how they make you feel.

If you are struggling to cope with your mental health in general, please talk to your GP. If you’re in a crisis, treat it as an emergency. Call 999 immediately or The Samaritans, FREE on 116 123.
Dorset Mind offers group support that can also help with your wellbeing. The group offers peer support and helps to reduce stigma by normalizing conversations about mental health. You can also check out further support for stress and mental health here. You’ll find links for 1-2-1 and groups mental health support we offer here.

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