Here’s What ‘Ecotherapy’ Means (Plus Its Awesome Effects on Your Health), from Experts

What is ecotherapy, you ask? Psychology and gardening experts say it may explain one of the biggest home and lifestyle trends of recent years.

When countries began to lockdown in early 2020, for many people everyday life suddenly shrunk to the boundaries of our own homes. Unsurprisingly, services like online streaming and food delivery surged in demand. But another industry saw an immediate uptick, according to a report from the American Society for Horticultural Science: home gardening supplies.

Gardening as therapy has long been a strategy to ease stress and anxiety, says Sam Nabil, MA, LPC. The approach is grounded in what’s called the “biophilia hypothesis,” which, according to a July 2021 article published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests humans are fundamentally drawn to nature and plant life. Researchers point to the COVID-19 pandemic as strong evidence to support this theory: more than ever, some say, we collectively turned to “ecotherapy,” or the concept of nature as a mental health boost.

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What is “ecotherapy”?

Gardening is a prime example of a mindfulness activity, Nabil explains. Because it requires our full focus on the task at hand, the mind is less likely to wander and worry. This can encourage relief from stress and anxiety, as “all of your senses are engaged [in plant care], so your mind is cleared of distractions,” Nabil says.

Scientists have documented this effect clinically. According to 2021 article published in the peer-reviewed urban planning journal Cities, a team of horticulturalists and public health researchers found that gardening and plant care reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bodies. The study also highlighted how gardening contributes to what the authors called “significant improvements in well-being,” such as generating feelings of accomplishment, prompting social connections (for example, giving you reason to reach out to that acquaintance who’s raised the same kind of wildflowers you’re trying to grow), and instilling a sense of purpose.

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How can I practice ecotherapy if I don’t have a garden?

The therapeutic effects of gardening have been well-documented since at least 1812, when Dr. Benjamin Rush first published a study demonstrating how gardening led to better recovery rates among mental illness patients. Yet, with 83 percent of the U.S. population living in urban areas, not everyone has the space that many gardens require. As a 2016 article in The Atlantic pointed out: even among homeowners, the average size of American homes has grown…which means our lawn areas keep shrinking.

However, recent research suggests that any exposure to plant life promotes mental health benefits. One study reviewed in Clinical Medicine in 2018 monitored participants’ EEG (electroencephalogram) recordings as they looked at plants, and the researchers found that measures of stress, fear, anger, and tension significantly fell.

Another 2020 study published in Ecological Applications surveyed people living in Tokyo, Japan, during the city’s COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The scientists found that those whose windows offered a green view reported higher levels of self-esteem, life satisfaction, and happiness and lower levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Houseplants don’t just soothe us, either. Researchers from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension found that keeping plants in the workspace improves memory retention and concentration by up to 20 percent—and the resulting work is generally of higher quality.

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Do houseplants promote physical health?

Getting your hands dirty in the garden counts as a moderate-intensity physical activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And spending time in the garden also means you’ll soak up vitamin D from the sun, a nutrient essential to immune system support and mood regulation (in addition to these other benefits). Just don’t forget to wear sunscreen—with this list, we’ve got you covered with the ones dermatologists use themselves.

Still, while tending to your succulents might not give you the same caloric burn as the Peloton, a study reviewed in Clinical Medicine found that just looking at plants reduces your blood pressure, pulse rate, heart rate variability, and muscle tension.

Nabil says indoor plants also improve the air quality in your living space while helping to keep moisture in the air, which may ease respiratory illnesses over the dry winter months.

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Don’t have a green thumb? Just go faux

Whether you travel a lot for work, have pets, or just struggle with a “black thumb” (yep, that’s what they call it), plant care isn’t for everyone.

The good news? Current research suggests that artificial plants in the home can have just as powerful an effect on our mental health as living greenery. In fact, just seeing green goes a long way—a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that both real plants and posters of plants help reduce hospital patients’ stress levels.

The pandemic-era research from Ecological Applications backs up this effect in a perhaps unexpected way. “Surprisingly, the effect of a green view on people’s mental health was generally greater than that of the use of green space,” the study’s authors wrote, suggesting that any exposure to nature—be it through a window, in a painting, or in artificial form—has an immediate, positive psychological effect.

Other recent research supports the use of biophilic design in the home, which incorporates natural materials, colors, and smells (like with aromatherapy). A March 2020 study published in Environmental International found that nature-oriented design has therapeutic benefits on sleep, mood, and feelings of isolation. The researchers also noted that people who were exposed to a biophilic environment also had better responses to, and easier recovery from, stress and anxiety. And, even more evidence of the power of plants to pervade our senses and ease our minds? In this study, these benefits were observed even when study participants experienced biophilic design virtually. Those Zoom meetings may be one more reason to adorn your office with life.

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Sources

HortTechnology (American Society for Horticultural Science): “Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Gardening in the United States: Postpandemic Expectations.” 

Frontiers in Psychology: “Biophilia as Evolutionary Adaptation: An Onto- and Phylogenetic Framework for Biophilic Design.”

Cities: “Why garden? – Attitudes and the perceived health benefits of home gardening.” 

Clinical Medicine: “Gardening for health: a regular dose of gardening.” 

Ecological Applications: “A room with a green view: the importance of nearby nature for mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “Stress-Reducing Effects of Real and Artificial Nature in a Hospital Waiting Room.” 

Environmental International: “Effects of biophilic indoor environment on stress and anxiety recovery: A between-subjects experiment in virtual reality.” 

Websites:

Rutgers University, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station: “Enabling Gardens: The Practical Side of Horticultural Therapy.” 

Michigan University Center for Sustainable Systems: “U.S. Cities Fact Sheet.” 

The Atlantic: “The Shrinking of the American Lawn.” 

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension: “Health and well-being benefits of plants.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Gardening for Health: Using Garden Coordinators and Volunteers to Implement Rural School and Community Gardens.”  

Leslie Finlay
In addition to The Healthy, Leslie has written for outlets such as WebMd.com, Fodors.com, LiveFit.com, and more, specializing in content related to healthcare, nutrition, mental health and wellness, and environmental conservation and sustainability. She holds a master's degree in Public Policy focused on the intersection between public health and environmental conservation, and an undergraduate degree in journalism. Leslie is based in Thailand, where she is a marine conservation and scuba diving instructor. In her spare time you'll find her up in the air on the flying trapeze or underwater, diving coral reefs.