Nature Based Therapies

The great outdoors is seen as a great tool for people to use to improve their overall health. There are an abundance of activities that can be done outside, so much so that it is easy to individualize your activity to your wants. While some simply take walks through their neighborhood, others go outside for yoga. There are many options for any person to pick from. There is increasing evidence that activities outside have benefits to one’s own health. Studies show that just mere exposure to a green space can improve mood, lower cortisol levels from stress, and can lower rates of chronic illnesses incidents, (diabetic attacks) (Twohig, 2018). There is clear evidence that there is an impact on physical health when it comes to nature, but what about our mental health?

Well, it is actually just the same. People talk about how great nature is for their heart, but why don’t more people talk about how it benefits our other just as important organ. The brain. This paper will use the Broaden and Build Theory by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson (Fredrickson 2001) to describe how therapy can utilize nature as a tool for healing. 

Nature and Mental Health

First, let’s give some background information on how nature impacts our mental health then apply it to Dr. Fredrickson’s theory. There is strong correlation between being in a natural setting and having the ability to reflect. A study was done trying to find the benefits nature has on our minds. One major finding reported was a willingness and ability to reflect on current problems (Mayer 2009). During the study the participants were asked to answer questions based on the negative happenings that were going on in life. The experimental group that was exposed to a nature reserved reported that they were able to have a sense of freedom to think about their problems, (Mayer 2009).  In a fast-paced culture that we live in sometimes it is hard for people to settle down and truly think on some of the problems that are going on in their life right now. When exposed to nature these participants were able to slow their minds down. Not having all this outside stimulus created an atmosphere where they think about their current issues, and for some think about them from a different perspective. In other words, they were able to see the problem either clearer or from a totally different perspective. They allowed themselves this time to reflect on what was happening in their life.

Another benefit found in nature is the increase in positive affect when exposed to nature, (Mayer 2009). Going back to the more physical symptoms, there are many studies proving that exposure to nature decreases stress levels, (Twohig, 2018) but why is that? Dr. Mayer tested this in her study as well and found that most test subjects felt a sense of positive euphoria once coming out of the woods. They felt their shoulders drop and were able to use nature as a way of escaping from their day-to-day stressors. This also coincided with an increase in positive affect (happiness, calm) and a decrease in negative effects (anger, frustration). People unconsciously carried this emotional baggage around with them. Nature seems to have been used as a tool to unload that bag and replace it with more uplifting emotions.

(Kids enjoying Nature © Wallpaper Flare, 2022)

How Nature Could Affect the Therapeutic Process

According to Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory, (Fredrickson 2001) there is a connection when it comes to reflection ability and positive affect. The theory states that the more positive emotions experienced the more one is able to broaden the thought repertoire and broaden someone’s line of thinking, (Fredrickson 2001). Once the thought repertoire increases, the positive affect will also increase more, and it becomes an exponential increase for both positive affect and thought repertoire. With this increase in overall mood, the mind becomes more resilient to negativity. Basically, the more positive one is, the more resilience they will be to negative events and be less affected by these events. For example, someone who is experiencing more positive emotions would be able to be more creative in the moment and be able to think more openly. When thinking more creatively the person will be more open to experiencing these positive events which in turn continue to supply positive affect for the person. If this person were to experience a negative event along the way such as dropping and cracking their phone’s screen they would be able to shake that event off more easily than someone who was already experiencing negative emotions.

This is important in therapy when we think about how sessions are conducted. Some people have high stress when it comes to therapy, and the idea of being vulnerable to a person inside a room sparks all sorts of ideas that end up increasing the anxiety in a person. It is fair to say that some of these people are coming in with some negative affect which creates a challenge for the therapist to navigate. One of the main goals of a therapist is to create a safe space for the client. If the client is already having negative thoughts going into the therapy, then it would be more challenging for the therapist to create a room in their office to offset these negative preconceived notions.

Changing the environment could get rid of this anxiety entirely.  Nature has been shown to create more positive affect in general for people and allows them to be more open with themselves. Nature is an environment that could push back against these preconceived notions about therapy without the therapist having to step in at all. The therapist now could focus on the therapy itself without having to try to also convince the client on the space there in being safe.

Walk and Talk Therapy

One way that nature is being utilized right now is something called walk and talk therapy or hiking therapy. It is just as it sounds simply walking in nature while going through an hour of therapy.  A finding from these types of therapies is that that the hierarchy of practitioner to patient is broken down completely, (Cooley 2020). The patient and practitioner both feel as if the pressure of being on the patient/practitioner role is lifted. There is a level of calming that nature offers that breaks down these roles as explained by participants in this type of therapy, (Cooley 2020). Clients start to see their therapist as a very concerned friend and this can increase dialogue while also allowing the client to bring up more vulnerable subjects, (Cooley 2020). Clients also become more open to new information on their problems. Therapist report less stubbornness for how the patients view their struggles and say that patients are more willing to change their viewpoints of certain struggles they are having (Cooley 2020). The way of thinking is freer flowing and less rigid towards what the patient thinks.

 (Walk and Talk Therapy © Katie Arney, 2021)

Nature and Treatment for PTSD

Another example is how nature is being used for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Nature for PTSD victims is being used in a variety of ways. It can be something as low stress as nature bathing where you sit outside and let your mind naturally wonder, or to something as intense as exposure therapy where you try to confront something that is anxiety driven. One study by Dr. Mayer combines both of these methods. The clients with PTSD were already going through intensive care for their PTSD and volunteered for the study on this new type of therapy. Every day clients participated in an outdoor activity (gardening, hiking), did a mindfulness activity outside, and then a therapy session (which only happened three times a week). The results seemed to be consistent with Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build theory. Lots of patients created a safe space with nature, because of the positive affect from their experiences with nature. This allowed them to have a calmer level in nature, which allowed them to open about their traumatic experiences. For some patients it too a few weeks, and for some a few months but most of the participants reported these safe feeling in nature. Once clients started talking about their traumatic events, they were able to open themselves up to new ideas on the subject, and the continuing of positive affect in nature supported their recovery.

(Veteran in Nature © Sarah Hubbart 2018)

Nature can and is being used to create a healthy and safe environment for practitioners to use for their benefit. Instead of trying to convince patients that their office space is a safe space to talk about their problems, more and more therapists are starting to try out nature as a totally new environment for their patients. Those who feel like the normal therapist office isn’t doing it for them then try out taking their therapeutic healing out into nature.


Cooley, S. J., Jones, C. R., Kurtz, A., & Robertson, N. (2020). ‘Into the Wild’: A meta-synthesis of talking therapy in natural outdoor spaces. Clinical Psychology Review77, 101841.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American psychologist56(3), 218.

Mayer, F. S., Frantz, C. M., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., & Dolliver, K. (2009). Why is nature beneficial? The role of connectedness to nature. Environment and behavior41(5), 607-643.

Poulsen, D. V., Stigsdotter, U. K., Djernis, D., & Sidenius, U. (2016). ‘Everything just seems much more right in nature’: How veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder experience nature-based activities in a forest therapy garden. Health Psychology Open3(1), 2055102916637090.

Revell, S., Duncan, E., & Cooper, M. (2014). Helpful aspects of outdoor therapy experiences: An online preliminary investigation. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research14(4), 281-287.

Stanley, P. J., & Schutte, N. S. (2023). Merging the Self-Determination Theory and the Broaden and Build Theory through the nexus of positive affect: A macro theory of positive functioning. New Ideas in Psychology68, 100979.

Twohig-Bennett, C., & Jones, A. (2018). The health benefits of the great outdoors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of greenspace exposure and health outcomes. Environmental research166, 628-637.

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