Nature based therapy/ecotherapy
Nature is in a constant process of flux and change; the day gives way to the night; the tides ebb and flow; winter gives way to spring. These cycles are marked by transition and change, just as our lives are. The fact that our lives are marked by transition and change is no surprise given that we are part of nature and therefore governed by the same forces and processes that are inherent in nature. However over time, particularly in the western civilization, we have become increasingly alienated from the natural world; we have come to see nature as something "out there", and ourselves as separate and different from the natural world.
Ecopsychologists and ecotherapists suggest that this alienation and separation has significantly impacted on our emotional wellbeing and our behaviour towards our environment. If we see nature as something that is impersonal, separate and somehow inferior to our own being we open up the potential for abuse. This is exactly what has happened – we see the earth as a resource, other animals as inferior, and we have wreaked havoc on the environment on a colossal scale.
Although addressing the destructive impact of our behaviour on the environment as a result of our disconnected relationship to nature is of vital importance, in this article I want to focus on ecotherapy/nature based therapy as a means of emotional healing.
Nature and Counselling
There is considerable anecdotal and empirical evidence to support the notion that being in natural spaces is beneficial to our emotional wellbeing. Ulrich’s (1983) Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory is based on the research evidence that has demonstrated a reduction in stress following exposure to nature. Ulrich’s theory proposes that this response to nature is an inherent reflex associated with the oldest part of the brain, the limbic system, which plays a key role in the processing of emotions. The fact that nature has been demonstrated to have a soothing affect on distressing emotions is important from a psychotherapeutic perspective. Not only is being in a natural setting beneficial in itself, but counselling in a natural setting (i.e. nature-based therapy) can potentially help individuals face difficult and painful issues in their lives, because of the soothing affects of being amongst nature.
Not only does nature have the capacity to soothe us, but it can facilitate a capacity to reflect more deeply on ourselves and our lives - a necessary component of any successful psychotherapeutic intervention. The work of two psychologists Kaplan and Kaplan in the 1980s supports this idea. They proposed a theory called the Attention Restoration Theory based on their research. This demonstrated that just being in nature can help to restore our minds if we have become fatigued by work that requires directed attention. They also found that such a restorative affect often opens up our mind to consider personal unresolved issues and life’s larger questions.
Nature-based therapy may involve seating and/or walking in nature, utilizing the soothing, healing and the reflective space that nature facilitates while talking and working through personal difficulties with a counsellor. There is something in the natural rhythm of walking in peaceful, beautiful surroundings that aids the working through and resolving of personal difficulties.
Nature, Metaphors and Counselling
Metaphors are often used in psychotherapeutic work to help clients explore aspects of their inner life and life situation that are elusive and difficult to describe. The use of metaphors in therapy can deepen our understanding and help to reframe difficulties in ways that can be helpful. The natural world is a rich source of metaphor. Humans have been comparing themselves and their lives to other living beings and processes in nature for thousands of years as a way to self-understanding and transformation. We see ourselves reflected in the qualities of animals; our lives in the processes of nature, such as the seasons and the weather. For instance, we can think of the growth of new mental and emotional capacities as young shoots, that are vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions, this can then set in motion thoughts about what is needed to protect and encourage the thriving of our growing, but tender, capacity. The seasons can reflect the cycles of grief experienced in loss; the bleakness of winter can mirror feelings of despair and spring can represent a sense of hope to name but a few examples.
The metaphors used in nature-based therapy can be a powerful vehicle for self-understanding and change in that what client and therapist encounter in their outdoor therapy session can come to represent the client’s inner struggle. The metaphor is vivid and alive as opposed to an image in the head, and can be explored to deepen understanding and highlight potential for change. A client reflecting on a new found capacity for self-assertion with their therapist, for example, may come across a young tree in a wood, the brambles having been cleared around it; this may lead on to reflecting what the client needs to do to protect and nurture this new capacity, just as the tree had been protected from the brambles. Other questions could be considered such as - what do the brambles represent in the person's inner and outer world? In this way, the living metaphors in nature, there in front of the client and therapist, can be a vivid and potent source of self-understanding and point to potential changes that the client can make.
As can be seen from the above, nature-based therapy is not just counselling in a different setting – outdoors as opposed to in a room – but can incorporate nature as an active participant in the therapy process. This way of working with emotional problems may not be suitable for all, or even desirable for many clients; it is often best that an initial or a few therapy sessions take place indoors so that a therapeutic relationship can be established, and taking therapy outdoors discussed. There can be a flexible arrangement with regards to working outdoors on some sessions and indoors at times depending on what is felt to be most appropriate, or to take into account the weather conditions.
Working psychotherapeutically outdoors can be a powerful medium for positive change. Through nature-based therapy clients can heal their emotional wounds as well as develop a deeper bond with the natural world. A bond that ecopsychologists and ecotherapists believe is essential for our emotional wellbeing. We just have to reflect on our love for pets and animals and the deep grief and sadness that many of us experience when thinking of environmental destruction to know how deep this bond is.
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