Go Outside, Doctor’s Orders

Reconnecting with the natural world through ecotherapy and nature prescriptions is helping ease climate and pandemic anxiety.

The Deschutes river flows through the Deschutes National Forest outside of Bend, Oregon. The author tried her hand at forest bathing on this mixed use trail where there are plenty of trees, rocks and wildlife to entice the senses.

By Bethany Osborn

Apr. 15, 2022

Everyone thinks the world is going to end in their twenties.

This is a common sentiment Ryley Steel hears from his father whenever he tries to talk to him about climate change. This is a common refrain echoed by most of San Clemente, a coastal town at the southernmost edge of Orange County in California, where he’s from.

“I didn’t start reading or talking about climate change until I went to college,” said Steel. “You’re at this institution that’s supposed to help you plan for your future, but it's tough to think about the future when there's this big unknown question mark.”

Steel is an advertising and journalism student at the University of Oregon, and one of the thousands of people who suffer from climate anxiety, an emerging mental health concern psychologists say ranges from overwhelming feelings of helplessness about climate change to excessive worrying about impending climate disasters. Young people are especially affected. According to a global survey from The Lancet, 60% of respondents who were between the ages of 16 and 25, said they were extremely worried about climate change.

With new climate reports raising the stakes of global inaction, and an ongoing pandemic, there’s a lot to be anxious about. Regardless of age, it certainly feels like the end of the world. Ecotherapy offers a respite.

Ecotherapy is a growing field of psychology that broadens the traditional scope of psychotherapy to include the human relationship to nature. Early studies of ecotherapy go back to the late 90s and early 2000s before the term was even coined, but its deepest foundations—that humans benefit from connecting with nature—go back to the beginning of human evolution. The formal practice, however, has grown exponentially in the last two years as people look for ways to deal with anxiety.

“More and more people are spending time indoors and on screens, and away from the natural world,” said Dr. Patricia Hasbach.

Hasbach is a psychotherapist, author, educator and owner of Northwest Ecotherapy in Eugene. Hasbach said she’s always been drawn to the outdoors and being outside was something that consistently made her feel better when she was frustrated or down, and as a therapist, she wanted to explore why.

This curiosity led her to an ecopsychology conference in Palo Alto in 1996. She’s been studying and practicing in the field ever since. Hasbach is considered to be one of the pioneers of what is now called ecotherapy and has been practicing in Eugene for the last 20 years.

“So much of psychology over the last 200 years has focused on the human-to-human relationship,” said Hasbach. “This looked at the human and nature relationship, and it made a lot of sense to me, that we are part of nature.”

A key aspect of ecotherapy is finding ways to reconnect to nature, or what Hasbach describes as “nature prescriptions.”

A nature prescription is like therapy homework, said Hasbach, giving a common example: When a patient is dealing with an ending, like leaving a job or a long-term relationship, she recommends they spend time outside as the sun sets, thinking about their end, or even journaling about it. It works for new beginnings and sunrises too.

“What I have developed over the years that I've been doing ecotherapy is thinking about some of the interaction patterns that are on our primal level as humans and how we interact with the natural world. And when we can focus it that way. The prescription that we make can be very impactful,” said Hasbach.

Another example of ecotherapy is Shinrin Yoku, a form of mediation founded in Japan. In English, Shinrin Yoku roughly translates to “Forest Bathing.”

“Shinrin Yoku is an intentional quiet walk in the woods,” said Kate Nelson, who facilitates Shinrin Yoku trips through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Oregon.

The first step to this outdoor meditative practice is to engage all five senses by focusing on one familiar tree. Mona Meeker, another OLLI member, recommends thinking about the first tree you remember from childhood. The level of focus required to think about each of one’s senses, forces presence in the mind, creating a meditative state.

“Everyone has a tree they can picture,” said Meeker. “I like to think of it as reverting to childhood when you’re using all of your senses.”

Nelson and Meeker have been facilitating Shinrin Yoku trips throughout the Eugene and Springfield area for the last three and a half years. They learned about the practice from a mutual friend who lived in Japan.

There isn’t a goal to Shinrin Yoku. The idea of having a goal is antithetical to its entire premise. Shinrin Yoku exists to turn off the narrative part of one’s mind and be open to the sensation of feeling and reacting, rather than thinking.

“The goal is the process itself, and it's much more enjoyable that way,” said Nelson. “You feel as if certain things have been lifted from your shoulders, you feel lighter.”

While it might seem silly to think one needs instruction on how to take a quiet walk in the woods, these intentional meditative actions have been proven by Japanese scientists to lower  heart rates, blood pressure and cortisol levels. Over the last 15 years, scientists have compared subjects in both urban and natural settings with the participants who practiced meditation in nature seeing significantly lower levels.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned from the pandemic,” said Nelson. “I think about the idea of going back to simple pleasures, going back to things that are meaningful, being around family, friends, having a good meal, and that's what Shinrin Yoku feels like to me. It's going back to those simple kind of primal pleasures that we all enjoy.”

Despite pausing their group trips with OLLI members for the pandemic, both Nelson and Meeker said they’ve continued practicing on their own in areas throughout the Eugene and Springfield area like Dorris Ranch, Alton Baker Park and Mt. Pisgah.

“If we've learned nothing else from this pandemic,” said Hasbach, “we have certainly learned the need to be connected with the natural world.”