Nature-based therapy is an antidote to climate fatalism

The physiological benefits of forest immersion may also be a survival tactic 

First-time forest bathers
First-time forest bathers walk to the location where they’ll experience a facilitated session of shinrin-yoku at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. Photo courtesy of Jill Leenay

In early December, Minneapolis joined the ranks of approximately two dozen U.S. cities by declaring a climate emergency. This declaration highlights the alarming fact that the impacts of climate change are not just future threats: The climate apocalypse is already here. 

While rallying the public to the urgency of the climate crisis, the increasingly ubiquitous use of apocalyptic rhetoric is taking an undeniable mental toll. There is a well-documented rise in negative mental health responses related to the already-unfolding realities of climate catastrophe, particularly among young people. In 2017, the American Psychological Association published an extensive report on the relationship between climate change and mental health, identifying deteriorating psychological responses including “conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation.” 

How can we address the devastating implications of climate chaos when doing so may undermine our ability to take care of ourselves? 

“The climate crisis puts you in the fetal position … and we don’t know how to react because out primal brain is adrenaline driven,” said Dr. Jean Larson, a University of Minnesota faculty member and specialist in nature-based therapeutics at the Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing. The constant inundation of climate fears adds up, compounding like a series of repetitive neurological paper cuts, she explained. 

In addition to her teaching and research in nature-based therapies, Larson is a longtime horticultural therapist at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. 

“The way we can most effectively address these issues of large overwhelming complexity is not through the analytical,” Larson said. “It has to come through personal illumination.” 

By encouraging her students to find places of nature connection, Larson believes they can expand their capacities to respond to the overwhelming apocalyptic doom of climate rhetoric. 

Nature connection can emerge through a wide range of nature-based therapies, a term she coined in academia but is quick to credit to a long lineage in non-Western medicine. “Nature-based therapy,” Larson explained, is an umbrella concept that spans from public health approaches to more targeted medical interventions. 

Some of Larson’s work falls on the more targeted end of the spectrum. For example, she is working in partnership with the university’s Integrated Medicine Program to research the use of virtual reality glasses featuring images of nature as an alternative to opioid prescriptions for nausea, pain and anxiety. This work is building off an existing body of literature that has demonstrated the efficacy of this VR approach for people who have suffered traumatic burns.

David Motzenbecker, a Southwest Minneapolis forest therapy guide, operates from the public health end of the nature-based therapy spectrum. Motzenbecker, principal and founder of Motz Studios, has two decades of experience as a landscape architect and collaborates with Larson for her therapeutic landscape design class. He began his forest therapy practice about two-and-a-half years ago, inspired by the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.” 

As a forest therapy guide, Motzenbecker operates with the clear-eyed conviction that deep, intentional exposure to nature is a question of human survival. “[Humans] are a species that evolved 99% of our time on this planet outside, in nature,” he said. “We need these kinds of [natural] spaces so that we can continue to exist.”

But humans — particularly in the Western world — have done a pretty good job of creating barriers between themselves and nature, both physically and psychosocially. As Motzenbecker argues, this barrier is antithetical to the evolutionary lessons that humans have embedded in our DNA. 

Because nature is so much a part of the human experience — physically, emotionally and evolutionarily — Motzenbecker suggests that this separation from nature also serves to sever people from their own states of being. “I believe it’s having a detrimental effect on our psyches, on our health,” he said. 

Motzenbecker’s clients range from corporate wellness programs to university students. Each forest bathing session lasts two to three hours, often taking place in nature centers just outside city limits. During this immersive time, Motzenbecker offers participants “the permission to slow down” while conducting a series of exercises centered on a confrontation with silence and stillness. 

“Because of the way society is structured, we are in a constant state of fight or flight,” Motzenbecker said. At a physiological level, this means that our bodies are constantly bathing our system in cortisol, with no rest at a more relaxed state. Forest bathing helps bring people out of this heightened state, in addition to offering a wide range of health benefits from alleviating pain to boosting the immune system. 

For Motzenbecker’s corporate clients, a three-hour forest bathing session likely won’t change this mode of hyper-stimulated operation. In fact, company-sponsored forest bathing sessions are often motivated by a desire to increase worker productivity. But Motzenbecker is confident that even limited exposure to forest bathing, and the reorientation toward nature that comes with it, can be deeply impactful. “I can give [my clients] the tools to slow down and appreciate the world around them more,” he said. 

According to Larson, rebuilding this love for nature has to counter a culture of learned fear about natural spaces. As Motzenbecker observes, “People don’t know about how to walk in the woods anymore. They’re scared.” 

Larson uses the terms “biophilia” and “biophobia” to explain this relationship. Biophilia, Larson said, is our innate love of nature, whereas biophobia is a collective understanding of fear in nature. “We are in this conflict all the time between biophilia and biophobia when it comes to nature,” she said. This conflict puts us in a state of “constant dissonance within ourselves.”

For Larson, addressing climate catastrophe must come back to relearning and re-strengthening our biophilic muscles. “Climate change is triggering our biophobia and the antidote is biophilia,” she said. 

As the work of nature-based therapies suggests, to be more in touch with nature is perhaps a path to better accept and address the current reality of climate apocalypse itself. If the world as we know it is over, we will need new ways of being to survive, including a fundamentally different relationship with the natural world. 

What could the expansion of nature-based therapies look like in the future? Motzenbecker hopes it will come through changes to our health care system that recognize nature-based therapies as credible medical interventions, a position that some countries have already taken. Larson’s work at the intersection of medicine and public gardens is one early example of what that credibility could look like. “Like integrative medicine,” she said, “it has to start from the grass roots.”