Humans’ disconnection from nature seems to be an ever increasing global challenge as our world becomes more technologically advanced and urbanized. Theories from evolutionary psychology, such as the Biophilia Hypothesis, argue that early humans were immersed in the natural world for millions of years and that a detachment from nature seen in modern humans is a source of psychological distress. The therapeutic properties of time spent in natural environments are becoming more well known and in response, mental health therapists have begun to harness nature’s restorative capacity by challenging convention and offering therapy outdoors.
What is EcoTherapy?
Ecotherapy is the name given to a form of experiential therapy that incorporates counselling interventions in the natural world to improve the client’s growth and development. There are wide ranges of treatment programs, which aim to improve mental and physical well-being through doing outdoor activities in nature. Examples include nature-based meditations, physical exercise in natural settings, horticultural therapy, adventure therapy, conservation activities and nature-based therapy.
What does Nature-Based Therapy look like?
The concept of Nature-Based Therapy combines the inherent benefits of being in nature with a benefits of a therapy session with a trained counsellor. Nature is viewed as a healing partner in the counselling process. The outdoor environment has the ability to encourage different affects in relation to internal worlds. For example, a wooded forest can feel comforting to some while to others this might symbolize a fear they are challenged with. While different therapists will conduct a Nature-Based sessions differently, the concept is similar. This could look like a walk and talk session in a natural setting to applying metaphors from the natural environment to their current life situation.
Nature-Based Therapy is an effective means to boost mental wellness and has many psychological, physiological, and social benefits. The psychological effects of therapy in nature include lower blood pressure and research shows that exposure to nature will have profound impact in the decreasing of cortisol levels which can lower stress levels. As well, research also points to increased resilience, improved self-esteem and increased capacity to engage socially with other members of their community and society at large. Natural light, fresh air, exposure to trees and plants seem to improve many people’s outlook on life in a positive manner. One positive aspect of a Nature-Based approach for when an individual is depressed involves how people often retreat into indoor spaces, isolating themselves from the world around them. Using nature based therapy can help people to receive the benefits of being outdoors while still engaging in therapy in a less intimidating environment than a traditional office setting. The calming effect of nature makes it the perfect backdrop for a counselling session.
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Imagine being outside with a blue sunny, sky while you feel the soft snow beneath your skis and you feel the wind on your face. Any one that downhill or cross country skis will tell you that skiing makes you feel healthy and happy. But while the physical benefits of being outside in nature and skiing are obvious, it has only been in recent studies that science have proved that the mental benefits of snow sports are just as valuable. A study led by Stanford University found that city dwellers have a 20% higher risk of depression than rural residents and a 40% increased risk of mood disorders.
No stranger to finding creative ways to connect people to nature, Heather Hendrie is a Squamish based clinician who offers Ski Therapy in addition to her regular clinical practice. As an avid skier, former ski instructor and outdoor guide, Heather hopes to add ski therapy sessions to her suite of offerings this winter. Heather became interested in the healing power of nature through her healing journey, where nature provided great relief and a sense of perspective leading her to pursue a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counselling, specializing in Wilderness Therapy. Ski therapy seems a good fit for Hendrie, who made headlines when she created the “Lifts of Love” event in Banff. An annual singles speed dating event held at Mount Norquay. It follows naturally that she’d take her therapeutic work to the chairlifts and groomed trails. I caught up with Heather to discuss this interesting form of therapy.
What is Ski Therapy?
Heather describes Ski Therapy as a playful, Nature Based way to connect with a therapist while moving one’s body. The therapeutic process is at work while breathing fresh air, taking in the surrounding scene and engaging in bi lateral movement that is proving to support significant reductions in the levels of both bodily distress and emotional stress. These combined emotional physical and physiological benefits could make ski therapy a real 2 for 1 type practice, and ideal for people who’d like to try a novel approach in therapy.
Where do you offer Ski Therapy?
Heather hopes to offer sessions through maintained cross country skiing trails at the Whistler Olympic Park in the Callaghan Valley. Making this therapeutic modality accessible to more people is currently a passion of Heather’s, as skiing has historically been such an exclusive pursuit.
Do you need to know how to ski?
While Heather’s background is as a guide and instructor, the focus of ski therapy is healing and relief from symptoms, rather than the technical aspects of the sport.
What theoretical approaches do you use?
Heather applies a Transpersonal, humanistic, mindfulness-based, experiential approach to her work, inspired by such leaders as Rogers, Maslow, Van Der Kolk and Peter Levine.
How do you manage confidentiality with others around?
Confidentiality looks different outdoors than when sessions are conducted within the confines of an office, but fortunately, the field of therapy is increasingly being de-stigmatized. That said, Heather mitigates any concern in this area by always addressing consent and confidentiality with a client before beginning work together.
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To clarify, I assume you mean overeating or eating unhealthily because remember eating good food is helpful.
There are lots of better ways to handle stress! It’s great that you are asking this question because it shows that you want to make some changes in how you are coping. Overeating would be considered negative coping strategy. It works but it’s not a very good long term solution for handling stress. Finding some positive coping strategies is important so that you have some lifelong coping methods to deal with stress. This is usually dependent on the person and what makes someone feel better. Does talking to friends help? Taking a bath? Doing some art? We all need to find those things that we can do to make us feel better when we are stressed. Here’s a list of a few general things you can do. Try different things and add things as you find things work. Most importantly, do those things when you are feeling stressed to help you out! Wishing you all the best on your journey.
Keep a positive attitude.
Accept that there are events that you cannot control.
Be assertive instead of aggressive. Assert your feelings, opinions, or beliefs instead of becoming angry, defensive, or passive.
Learn and practice relaxation techniques; try meditation, yoga, or tai-chi for stress management.
Exercise regularly. Your body can fight stress better when it is fit.
Eat healthy, well-balanced meals.
Learn to manage your time more effectively.
Set limits appropriately and learn to say no to requests that would create excessive stress in your life.
Make time for hobbies, interests, and relaxation.
Get enough rest and sleep. Your body needs time to recover from stressful events.
Don’t rely on alcohol, drugs, or compulsive behaviors to reduce stress.
Seek out social support. Spend enough time with those you enjoy.
Seek treatment with a counselor or other mental health professional
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How should I go about transferring colleges? I have been feeling extremely depressed and anxious. Will going to a new school help me grow and cope or should I stay and develop where I am at?
This is a common thought when things are not going well at one place. Having been a counsellor in schools I’ve experienced many students that have changed schools due to the same feelings.
First off, it sounds like it’s been really hard for you. Going through depression and anxiety is not easy and with the stresses of school it can make it that much harder. I hope you’ve sought out some supports (schools usually have great counselling access for free) and have some positive coping tools to help you deal with what your going through. If you haven’t already, please visit your family doctor and discuss what’s been going on with you.
Changing schools would change the environment around you but this would involve a lot of transitioning which would add stress to your situation. In most cases, I’d recommend students try to make it work where they are. Where they are comfortable, have some supports, know their way around, etc. The experience of depression and anxiety is an internal process that is not going to magically change by changing your outside surroundings. A person experiencing depression that gets put in Disneyland, still is a person experiencing depression.
I would encourage you to seek out support for your wellness as your first plan of action at your current school. If when you are feeling better and you still want to change schools, then go for it. Remember that facing adversity can be a positive thing that helps you grow stronger. Building resilience is a lifelong process that will help you face bigger challenges in the future. All the best in your journey.
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I’m a very socially awkward person. Recently, I’ve been trying to go out on my own (but I still suck at social interaction), and I was wondering, is it okay to go on your own to a coffee shop/fast food place or is it too weird?
First off, Congrats on taking that step to face your fears and do it anyway! You are well on your way to making this better for yourself. I think that is the key to really feeling more comfortable in public places. Slowly, gradually expose yourself to spaces that you don’t feel comfortable in. If you commit to this, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier. If you want to take it farther, try attempting to smile at 3 people you pass by in your day. To supercharge the process, see a certified counsellor or psychologist and they can support you systematically desensitize yourself to these situations that scare you.
In terms of going out on your own, Yes, of course it is ok to go to any place by yourself. Take a look at this pic.
You’ll notice so many people working or just using their phones in a coffee shop. Looks natural right? It is very common for people to just go to a space to enjoy a coffee and do some work or school.
As an aside, try not labelling yourself socially awkward because really, humans can just be shy or have trouble around people they don’t know. That’s normal and something that people can work on and totally ok! It’s important to tell yourself the right stories.
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As our technological society advances and urbanizes, it is apparent that we are putting distance between ourselves and how our ancestors once lived. Could it be that perhaps our distance from nature could be having an impact on our psyche? There are some that aim to bridge this divide by bringing humans back to their roots, in nature. Nowhere is bridging this divide more important than in the therapeutic work that counselling professionals do.
Ecotherapy is the name given to a form of experiential therapy that incorporates counselling interventions in the natural world to improve the client’s growth and development. There are wide ranges of treatment programs, which aim to improve mental and physical well-being through doing outdoor activities in nature. Examples include nature-based meditations, physical exercise in natural settings, horticultural therapy, adventure therapy, conservation activities and therapeutic nature-based counselling.
Therapeutic nature-based counselling is an aspect of ecotherapy that has shown great results for work with individuals and/or groups. It encompasses working with clients in a natural setting with an end goal of individual and/or family wellness. This style of therapy has a close relationship to family systems theory in that both theories recognize the inter-relatedness of being and our surroundings. Nature is viewed as a healing partner in the counselling process. For instance, when an individual is depressed, they often retreat into indoor spaces, isolating themselves from the world around them. Using a nature therapy approach can help encourage individuals to move outdoors while still engaging in therapy.
Further, nature-based counselling helps cultivate awareness in individuals as they explore their relationship to themselves, others and their sense of place in the world and natural surroundings.
The fundamental process for therapeutic practices in nature is the reconnection to nature as a reconnection to self. (Jordan, 2009)
Research on the effectiveness of therapeutic based nature therapy is limited but encouraging. However, there has been considerable research into the effects of individuals spending time in forests. Several studies demonstrate the unique factors that forests can have on individuals and the counselling process.
In Japan, a very popular and well-studied concept is Shinrin-Yoku or forest bathing. This involves the simple health improvement strategy of immersing oneself into a forest. The effectiveness of this practice is well documented with benefits such as immune function enhancement while in contact with forest environments. It also has been shown to lower elevated stress levels when in natural environments (Lee et al, 2012).
The therapeutic rationale for having experiences within nature is to encourage clients to awaken their senses. An important step in truly grounding oneself through distress. Buzzell and Chalquist (2009) cite enhanced self-concept, self-esteem and self-confidence as benefits to therapeutic nature-based therapy. They also believe that to facilitate treatment of mental health issues or improve family relationships, employing nature is a potent therapeutic intervention. It has been shown to improve mood, anxiety, stress, and depression. It has also been demonstrated that it works well for a variety of ages. Nature therapy is about utilizing these demonstrated benefits in order to help facilitate a client’s therapeutic goal.
The traditional office setting can be seen to be an intimidating experience for some clients. The face-to-face interaction can be off putting and cause unease in some. Moving therapy to an outdoor space can alleviate this as some people experience nature therapy as less intimidating than an office setting.
Doucette (2004) outlines the nuances of walk and talk therapy as walking outdoors whilst engaged in counselling. Walk and talk therapy happens outside the usual confines of an office space. In Doucette’s research with adolescents, therapist and participants met over 6 weeks, once per week for 30-45 minutes or walking outdoors on school grounds. This research found considerable improvements on individual’s moods. Participants discussed what had happened that week and they were taught strategies during the sessions, which included ways of managing stress and painful situations, positive self-talk, mental imagery and through focusing techniques to reduce stress.
Moving from the confines of the traditional four walled therapy space involves some considerations in order to be successful. It is important that during the initial client assessment that any initial fears about the outdoors be discussed. Comfort levels with the weather can vary and are important to mention. If the client gets cold easily, it obviously best to avoid the outdoor space when the temperature dips down. Client safety in outdoor spaces is important and so it is recommended that simple well-worn paths, which do not have any obstacles, are best.
It is imperative that the therapist knows the area well before embarking with clients in an outdoor space. The therapy should be the focus, not trying to navigate both of you back from an unknown path.
The confidentiality piece is important and needs to be addressed at the initial assessment. While the four walled office space provides you with a contained, private venue for intimate discussions and limited interruptions, the outdoor space brings with it other challenges. For example, it should be discussed what the client is comfortable with when other people are encountered on the trail. Would they prefer to stop conversation, lower their voice, or continue talking?
Michael was a bank teller. His past counselling experiences had not been positive. Michael mentioned that his previous counselling sessions had brought up very difficult feelings that he did not know how to handle. At assessment, Michael talked about his family history, which included how his mother and father’s marriage had been unstable with numerous splits and walkouts. He noted that his father was very volatile in his family interactions while his mother had been very self-absorbed. Michael had grown up with a poor sense of self, quite often adapting himself to others’ needs and wishes in order to be liked. Michael was mistrustful and it was apparent that he felt attacked and persecuted through the therapist standard line of assessment questioning. There were long pauses and silences in the subsequent sessions and Michael reported feeling very ambivalent about therapy. The therapist suggested they might meet outdoors and walk together, as the sessions indoors felt so difficult, and for them both to see how this felt. They met at a local municipal park, walked, and talked as they made their way through a quiet forest loop. In the session, Michael talked more about how he felt and the session went well. At the end, the therapist asked Michael how he felt about this way of working. Michael report that he found it much easier to talk without the room and the eye contact of the therapist and that compared to his previous experiences of therapy it was much easier to open up and share with the therapist outdoors which they were walking. In subsequent sessions, they met in forest locations, walked, and talked. The therapist also found it easier to tune into Michael on an embodied level and make contact with him more easily than he had done indoors. At times, Michael would stop and make eye contact with the therapist when he had an important thing to say in therapy. As the sessions progressed, Michael was more able to initiate contact in this way in the therapy and began to be more able to stay in touch with painful feelings whilst moving outdoors.
Integrating Nature into your counselling practice
Incorporating therapeutic nature-based therapy into your practice is not for every client or clinician but there are many that would benefit from the alternative setting for therapy. When you think of those resistant clients that really struggle in the traditional setting, it can be worth it to look for new spaces to engage them in therapy. By incorporating nature in a relational way into your practice, this can support new internal perceptions which help individuals to reflect, challenge and support new ways of thinking on their therapeutic journey. Nature has been healing through the times and so, an important consideration for clinical work. As society becomes more urbanized, it will be important for therapeutic work to remember the inherent connection we have to the natural world. As Abrams so eloquently describes in his book The Spell of the Sensuous, “By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us.”
For further reading:
– Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind – Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist
– Nature and Therapy: Understanding counselling and psychotherapy in outdoor spaces – Martin Jordan
– Eco psychology – nature as therapist http://counsellingbc.com/article/ecopsychology-nature-therapist
– Back to Nature – Martin Jordan https://www.academia.edu/1502225/Back_to_Nature
Abrams, David (1997). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
Doucette, P.A. (2004) Walk and Talk: an intervention for behaviourally challenged youths. Adolescence 39(154), 373-388.
Jordan, Martin. (April 2009) Back to Nature. Therapy Today
Jordan, Martin (2015) Nature and Therapy: Understanding counselling and psychotherapy in outdoor spaces
Juyoung Lee, Qing Li, Lisa Tyrväinen, Yuko Tsunetsugu, Bum-Jin Park, Takahide Kagawa and Yoshifumi
Miyazaki (2012). Nature Therapy and Preventive Medicine, Public Health – Social and Behavioral Health, Prof.
Jay Maddock (Ed.),
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As a result of stressful situations in daily life a, research is pointing us in a direction of getting back to our roots. Nature therapy, a health-promotion method that uses medically proven effects, such as relaxation by exposure to natural stimuli from forests, urban green spaces, plants, and natural wooden materials, is receiving increasing attention.
It is empirically known that exposure to stimuli from natural sources induces a state of hyperawareness and hyperactivity of the parasympathetic nervous system that renders a person in a state of relaxation. This state becomes progressively recognized as the normal state that a person should be in and feel comfortable. Could this immersion in nature be helpful for you?
You must teach your brain to seek out the good things in life. Research shows merely listing three things you are thankful for each day can make a big difference. This technique has been proven again and again and again. One of the reasons old people are happier is because they remember the good and forget the bad. Gratitude is a powerful force for training your brain.
When your vision of your life story is inadequate, depression can result. Psychotherapists actually help “rewrite” that story and this process is as, if not more, effective than medication.“Retrospective judgment” means reevaluating events and putting a positive spin on them. Naturally happy people do it automatically, but it’s something you can teach yourself. And when it comes to the future, be optimistic. Optimism can make you happier.
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