Some thoughts on outdoor therapy…
Most often counselling work takes place within the confines of a room. Rooms that come in all shapes and sizes, from clinical rooms in GP surgeries surrounded by surgical instruments and sharps bins, rooms so small it’s a challenge to not knock knees (making Harry Potter’s cupboard under the stairs seem palatial), to a therapist's own room with their own choice of décor!
The room can impact on the work and distractions can definitely disturb the flow. Hard uncomfortable chairs, the cacophony of the sound of a surgery waiting room just outside the door, bathroom sounds from the toilet next door – they all have an impact and rarely one that is positive!
What is outdoor therapy?
Outdoor therapy brings different dimensions to therapeutic work. The conditions outdoors stimulate the senses and evoke individual and unique responses to the environment around us in a way that is very different from working in a room. In contrast to trying to shut out human sound indoors, opening up to the sounds of nature can be inspiring and show us how much we miss out on when our focus is limited to the activities of the mind. Outdoors it seems so much easier to move out of the busy mind space that we usually occupy and into a more balanced appreciation of mind and body.
Research has shown the benefits of spending time in nature, and exploring our body sense for different information about how we might feel can be revealing of our mental state. The full effect of this has become clear to me having worked therapeutically in nature. Even in the most comfortable therapy room, the key focus often seems to be on the mind. Although we might consider where feelings resonate in the body, the stillness and absence of stimulation in the room encourage a focus upon the mind and the body is often neglected. For some therapeutic work, this may be essential, the lack of external stimuli allows a deep exploration without distraction. Yet I have found that working outdoors offers an opportunity to reconnect with both the body and the senses in a way which opens up different channels of information. It can enable the identification of themes that we may otherwise be unaware of, such as change, life cycles, loss and renewal. Working outdoors might involve walking, exploring an area or sitting in one place.
The simple process of using five to 10 minutes at the beginning of an outdoor session to stand still and ground oneself with the earth and the flow of the breath can bring stillness and openness which is in direct contrast to the busy, chaotic workings of the mind. It can open up a space in which we can be more physically present. Similarly, scanning the body can enable us to recognise the tension in the neck and shoulders and release it, or to notice the dull headache that has been draining our energy levels without our awareness.
Beyond these simple attunements to our senses, there are a whole host of other phenomena in nature that can inform us about our mental well being. Noticing our responses to spaces - vast, crowded, dark, light, enticing or forbidding can show us where we feel comfortable and where challenge may lie. Thinking about what our senses are drawn to, do we seek out certain shapes, or atmospheres, do we focus on trees, birds, colours, smells, do we rely on some senses more than others? We often rely heavily on the visual sense but what about when we close our eyes and tune into sound? What about sensory experiences, removing the shoes and letting our bare feet make contact with the grass, soil or rocks or letting our hands trail through wet leaves, touch mossy walls? The seasons bring their own unique effect. For example, the woods are currently filling with fresh wild garlic with its wonderful aroma, evocative for me of spring days, new life, hope and change. It reminds me of the cyclical nature of the seasons and how growth continues regardless of how it might fit with our own emotional well being at a particular point in time.
As well as these benefits, there is also value in the movement of walking: of being able to walk vigorously or taking a slower, more mindful pace, in planning a route, or just letting the feet lead us, of being alongside another person, having someone accompany us very literally on a journey.
For me, outdoor therapy offers a huge amount of benefits but it also brings curiosity and intrigue, where will my feet take me, what will I be drawn to and what learning is there for me in the process? Maybe worth a try…
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