Over the past few decades, we’ve taken major steps forward when it comes to acknowledging the damage that mental health issues have on society and expanding access to quality treatment. With an increase in awareness, there will naturally be an increase in treatment options. In this piece, we’re going to be discussing one that has become more popular recently and has had positive feedback as treatment for a variety of different mental health conditions: outdoor therapy.
It’s known by several names — beach therapy, wilderness therapy, adventure-based therapy and others — and it has a real, scientific foundation that may explain its effectiveness. So, what is outdoor therapy and why is it gaining popularity for its application in mental health treatment?
Moving Treatment into Nature
Outdoor therapy has a broad definition. Anything that moves away from the conventional office setting of one-on-one mental health counseling and takes it into natural surroundings can be considered outdoor therapy.
As we learn more and more about how to treat mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD, we’re developing proven, evidence-based methods of treating it. Most of the treatment best practices involve one-on-one psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” where experienced counselors get a chance to guide patients through their own thoughts and decision-making processes in order to help them change their ways of thinking. There’s also the onset of new, more effective drugs that have been successful in helping people recover from depression, bipolar disorder and a range of other conditions.
Why is this important? Because as we’re learning more about what conditions and cases do respond to conventional therapies, we’re also learning that there are patients who won’t be helped by these approaches to treatment. For example, certain people don’t respond to medication or counseling for depression as well as others. This has become known as treatment-resistant depression, and it’s thought that emerging, outside-the-box (or maybe, outside-the-office) therapies may be what these cases need to find a success.
Types of Outdoor Therapy
There are many different types of outdoor therapy options, including but not limited to:
- Beach therapy: Nature therapy that takes place on or near the water
- Wilderness therapy: Outdoor therapy that involves a more primitive, survival-type model
- Horticulture/gardening therapy: Patients interact or tend to plant life as part of their therapy
- Recreational therapy: Outdoor therapy that involves an organized activity or sport
- Nature meditation: A more holistic form of outdoor therapy that centers around mindfulness strategies in a natural setting
- Adventure therapy: Treatment that revolves around a long trip or outdoor expedition
But outdoor therapy isn’t defined by the backdrop. It’s defined by the benefits and positive outcomes it has the potential to provide for the patients who opt for the nontraditional after other options have failed.
Evidence and Benefits of Outdoor Therapy
A recent study cited by Psychology Today found that outdoor behavioral health treatment programs for adolescents were more effective than both alternative treatment and no treatment models. Teens are usually more resistant to traditional talk therapy, which suggests that nature-based therapy is a practical option in difficult cases. Other research suggests than for certain patients, outdoor treatment can have a positive impact on depression, dementia, PTSD and even chronic pain. But how does beach therapy — or any outdoor model — provide benefits?
Reframing the Conversation
Sometimes the reason why outdoor therapy is effective is one of the simplest: It moves the conversation out of the office into a space where the patient can feel more comfortable. Being in nature has a private, secluded, peaceful feel that a counselor’s office doesn’t, and for some patients, this is all that’s needed to help them break through walls in their therapy.
Depending on the outdoor therapy in question, the inherent value of nature plays a role. In nature meditation, patients get a chance to truly interact with the solitude of their surroundings. Many adventure-based programs use the landscape to foster a feeling of positivity and accomplishment.
We know that exercise has a positive effect on mental health. When exercising, the body releases endorphins, which help you feel good. This is why many people choose to jog or hike as a way to de-stress, and many outdoor therapies leverage this benefit in a way that makes it more sustainable.
Leveraging the Benefits of Nature
One study points out that people who live in urban areas are more susceptible to mental illness. To test the theory that exposure to natural and more remote areas has the opposite effect, researchers had participants take walks through both natural and urban environments and measured the effects on their well-being. In those who were exposed to urban areas, the brain showed more neural activity linked to the development of mental illness than in the group who walked through nature.
What this suggests is that being in nature, at least occasionally, is vital for anyone, not just those suffering from mental health disorders. It allows our brains to reset and find the peace we need to stay healthy.
Being Safe in Outdoor Therapy
As with any therapy, outdoor therapy should be done with the guidance of a licensed counselor. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t take nature hikes or spend time outdoors, but trying to treat yourself in any capacity has the potential to introduce risk. Additionally, it can be dangerous to go into some wilderness settings without expert supervision.
Although outdoor therapies like beach therapy and recreational therapy have shown to be successful, mental health treatments have the best potential when combined with other, proven methods. For example, if you’re someone who’s not responding to traditional talk therapy, undergoing nature therapy doesn’t mean you should stop going to other forms of therapy entirely. It also doesn’t mean that you should stop taking medication. In the end, the addition of outdoor therapeutic modalities may be what your body and mind need to unlock or increase the effectiveness of other influences on your mental health.
Therapy Options at FHE Health
There are many new therapy methods with exciting potential in the mental health treatment space. We’ve known for a long time that what works for one patient won’t necessarily be the same thing that works for another. In addition to outdoor and adventure therapies, exposure therapy, neurotherapy and other emerging modalities can offer treatment facilities a more broad range of options, increasing the odds that they can find solutions that work in any given case.
If you or a loved one is struggling with your mental or behavioral health and conventional therapy isn’t working, you’re definitely not out of options. Contact FHE Health and learn more about the ways we can help you reach recovery.