Nature therapy: A whole world of possibilities

When I first heard about nature therapy (sometimes known as outdoor, walk and talk or ecotherapy) during my counselling training, I thought it sounded like a nice idea, especially given my own sense of ease in the natural world. At this point, I had no idea the depth of potential it would open up for therapeutic work. I have now had experience of this both as a client and as a therapist, and it is truly profound. 

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I will not list the many benefits of being outside in nature, as these have been well documented and many of us know from experience that a walk in a forest or park usually leaves us feeling calmer, nourished and invigorated. Instead, I am interested in how nature can be utilised as a third entity in the therapeutic relationship; how taking therapy outdoors can take it to a whole new level.


Nature: The great mirror

In my online work with clients, I often liken myself to a mirror, reflecting aspects of the client back to them by repeating words and phrases, or by paraphrasing. Working outdoors, nature acts like an additional mirror in which both client and counsellor can see facets of themselves and the therapeutic work. 

Nature, which is constantly moving and unfolding, often reflects our own internal processes. An example of how this can happen is in the abundance of metaphors it continually offers us. Meaning can be made from almost anything, from the ripples on a lake to the fungus growing on a damp log. Noticing these elements can take some practice and involves slowing down and tuning into the senses. For this reason, it can be helpful at times for me to observe these details, and invite a client to make meaning from them. This inevitably leads to significant learning and sometimes a shift in perspective. 


Relational depth

Relational depth refers to those special moments in therapy where the client and therapist connect in a profoundly deep and meaningful way. In my experience, these moments happen frequently in outdoor therapy, often through spontaneous encounters with nature that elicit a very authentic response in both therapist and client. A buzzard suddenly soaring majestically in the sky above, or a moment when my client and I noticed hundreds of tiny froglets hopping about on the path we were walking on. The raw emotional response these shared experiences can evoke - whether that's joy, awe or even fear - is an opportunity for greater empathy and connection. 


Boundaries

As we know, boundaries are crucial in therapy to protect the client, counsellor and the therapeutic relationship. Sometimes it takes some work to establish and maintain boundaries, as some clients will not have experienced healthy boundaries before. 

Because of the risks of working in a large, open space with potential hazards around every corner, outdoor work presents a great opportunity to make boundaries and their necessity explicit; agreeing on these can, to some extent, be a collaborative process. 

Boundaries outdoors are often very concrete, for instance: we will enter the therapeutic space when we reach that tree, and end when we return to it. Working within these clearly demarcated parameters can help clients learn to implement boundaries in their own lives too. 


Autonomy and empowerment

I believe that working outdoors lends itself brilliantly to the person-centred approach, which is the modality I employ as a therapist. Being very familiar with the location where my work is based means that I can allow clients to choose (within reason) how to navigate the environment. They are free to follow their instincts to learn how to let nature provide what they need in each moment. 

I changed the description of what I offer from 'walk and talk therapy' to 'outdoor therapy', because clients may not want to walk; they may prefer to sit or move in other ways. I have always believed that giving people as much choice as possible helps them feel trusted, valued and ultimately empowered. 


Nature: The great stage

Outdoor work is an embodied practice whereby self-awareness and self-regulation can be achieved through movement in and connection with the natural surroundings. Aspects of a client's experience can be enacted to a greater degree outdoors than in remote or indoor work. To explain what I mean by this, I will give an imaginary vignette:

Having been asked how he would like to use the space this session, the client, Simon, begins down a certain path. He then stops in his tracks. He has changed his mind and would prefer to sit down on a log. However, just moments later he wants to go up a different path that takes us uphill. And so on. It emerges later in the session that Simon has been feeling very restless this week, and has found it impossible to make decisions in his life. This has literally been acted out in therapy, and this presents an opportunity to explore this together.


Nature: A supportive other

Nature is a rich provider of support, for both client and counsellor. It is an ever-giving resource which can teach, guide and heal. Through regular work together in nature, the client and counsellor develop a relationship with the chosen space, which can foster deeper care and respect for the natural world. 


Working outdoors is a powerful vehicle for change and growth. However, it is important to note that due to the openness and unpredictability of the natural world, along with the intensity of emotion that can be experienced in embodied work, this may not be the safest or most helpful option for every client who is seeking therapeutic support. It may be that the safety of an indoor space is what is needed, but that outdoor work could be considered at a later point for the client. That said, there are plenty of ways to creatively bring nature indoors so that clients are still connecting with it.

In terms of the benefits of outdoor work, I have only scraped the surface. I have no doubt that much more learning will occur as I delve deeper into this work, and I am excited at the prospect!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, ST7
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Written by Laura Green, MSc, MBACP Registered Counsellor- Creative Souls Counselling
Stoke-On-Trent, Staffordshire, ST7

Laura Green is a person-centred counsellor working with adults both online and outdoors using a creative approach. She specialises in helping people discover authenticity and connection with themselves, others and the world around them.

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