Healing Holidays Through Nature Eco Therapy

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Once part of a post World War II vacation home development Blue Mountain Lake in New Jersey is now a popular recreation area for fishing, hiking, and nature study.
Nature is nurture. Here is the Blue Mountain Lake in New Jersey, a popular recreation area for fishing, hiking, and nature study.

Eco-Therapy Holidays: Let Nature Nurture

By Dr Nicola Davies

Holidays are a time to relax and leave your worries at home so that you come back rejuvenated and ready to once again face life’s challenges.Farm Pond Preserve, a hidden nature reserve right off the bike path in Oak Bluffs.

Yet, so often we return from a holiday even more stressed and tense than when we left. By focusing on one, seemingly insignificant factor we can ensure that we return from holiday fresh and focused.

That one factor is nature. Living and working in the colorless concrete jungle that many of us do, incorporating nature into your holiday and your life has never been more essential. Psychologists call this ‘eco-therapy.’

Eco-therapy is a broad term used for practices that heal the mind through spending time with nature. This connection with nature could be any outdoor activity and includes animal-assisted therapy. It is not a coincidence that big cities are the breeding place of tension and ill health. So, what exactly are the benefits of spending time in nature?

It is all good and well to say that nature is healing and relaxing, but what are the facts? Has any research been carried out to support this claim? As it so happens, there is, and here’s what has been found.

Nature for the Body

We all know that exercise is good for the body. However, research shows that ‘green exercise’ – exercise taken outdoors – is more strongly associated with decreases in obesity. There are also the additional benefits of breathing fresh air and soaking up the all-important vitamin D that we get from the sun. This vitamin is vital for improved immunity and the strengthening of our bones for healthy aging.

Interestingly, you don’t even have to be outdoors to benefit from nature. After surgery, when the body needs time to heal, patients with views of nature (rather than buildings) recover faster.

A good way to incorporate nature into your holiday for its health benefits would be going for a long walk on the beach, a bicycle or horse ride through the country, or backpacking through the mountains.

Crater Lake is a famous nature site near Portland, Oregon.
Crater Lake is a famous nature site near Portland, Oregon.

Nature for the Mind

The benefits of nature on the mind is well-researched, and there is strong evidence that connecting with nature helps relieve depression, stress, and mental fatigue. This means that just through simple activities that involve nature, such as a walk through a park, you will begin to feel happier and more in control of your life.

Such activities will also give you a sense of purpose. Why not make it a habit to ensure that every holiday is filled with activities that involve nature? Even if you find yourself in the bustling cities of Athens or Rome, take time out to visit their green companions such as Thessaly or Lucca.

Being outdoors in the sunlight in full-spectrum light also helps alleviate the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), so be sure to spend some time every day of your holiday in nature to get its full mental benefits. It could be anything from camping in a tent or cabin or abseiling down a cliff, to walking through the park to get to your next city-based landmark. Wherever you are, make time to watch the sunrise or sunset.

A typical scene outside Van Long Nature Preserve, not far from Cuc Phuong. The landscape is dominated by the huge, weirdly shaped, eroded limestone hills. Like many homes in the area, the house in the foreground has a fish pond in its front yard. Photo by Dan Drollette
A typical scene outside Van Long Nature Preserve, not far from Cuc Phuong.

Nature for the Soul

Research has shown nature to be associated with significant improvements in feelings of relaxation, self-esteem, self-confidence, and optimism. Consider the effect that successfully completing a wilderness challenge would have on your self-esteem. Being taken out of your comfort zone and overcoming the circumstances you find yourself in would give your entire being a boost.

This is the very principle that wilderness therapy and wilderness rites of passage programs are based on. Spending time in nature allows you to reconnect with yourself and others.

Consider a wilderness excursion for your next holiday. Immerse yourself completely in nature and allow yourself to experience freedom from stress as you soak in the peace and tranquillity of nature. Use the perfect setting of nature to find the core of your being and become the person you want to be.

For those who are not keen to give up the comforts of a hotel or holiday apartment, consider an ocean cruise or holiday accommodation that has a private garden where you can enjoy your meals outside or meditate in solitude.

Nature for Children

Kids love staying on farms, hunting for eggs and enjoying the nature.
Kids love staying on farms, hunting for eggs, and enjoying nature.

Children are especially in need of nature in their lives, as well as in their holidays. Studies have shown that 96.5% of significant childhood memories involve nature. Playing in a natural environment helps children to pay more attention, delay gratification and manage their impulses.

In other words, nature helps children develop patience and self-control. This is why the symptoms seen in children with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are reduced when they have access to green spaces.

Beth Kennet with her granddaughter on their farm.
Beth Kennet with her granddaughter on their farm.

Animals, which are often found in nature, are also a calming influence on children. Research shows contact with animals helps aggressive children learn to become calmer and more cooperative. Furthermore, children with disabilities have been found to experience less psychological distress when they are treated with animal-assisted therapy.

Such therapy also helps build their social skills. Going to a game reserve, a zoo, or a petting farm on your holiday will give you and your children the opportunity to reap the benefits of contact with animals.

Let Nature Nurture

The pace of life is increasing, and with it so are stress levels. Holidays and, in particular, holidays that embrace nature provide the perfect solution. The next time you plan your holiday, make sure you schedule in some time to be with nature. Of course, the most effective healing would come from completely devoting your time away to nature in the form of a wilderness retreat where you can spend time alone to connect with nature and focus on relaxation.

However, this intensely natural experience isn’t everyone’s idea of a good holiday. If that is the case, you can still gain the benefits that nature provides by adding gentle touches of nature to your holiday and allowing it to nurture both your mind and body.

What the Numbers Say about Nature

After a nature walk:
  • 90% Self-esteem
  • 71% Depression

After a walk through a shopping center: 44% Self-esteem

Taking part in green exercise: 94% Mental health

Minimum time in nature needed to improve mood and self-esteem: 5 minutes

The meaningful childhood memories involving nature: 96.5%

Nicola DaviesNicola Davies is a Doctor of Psychology and Freelance Writer from Bedfordshire, UK. She has written for over 100 magazines in 10 countries, (her website) and has recently expanded into travel writing. You can follow her on Twitter @healthpsychuk. 

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