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What is Nature-Based Therapy?

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.

Benefits

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. 

ski therapy 3

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.  

 

Interested in learning more about Ski Therapy? Check out https://heatherhendrie.com/

5 Reasons to Try Nature Based Therapy

Nature-based therapy is an effective means to boost mental wellness. 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 based therapy approach can help people to receive the benefits of being outdoors while still engaging in therapy.

1. Nature based therapy can be less intimidating than a traditional office setting

Nature based therapy

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. 

2. Enhanced self-concept, self-esteem and self-confidence

Employing nature is a potent therapeutic intervention in combating negative self concept or self esteem. One study found that combining exercise and nature and participating in group exercise activities outdoors improves both mood and self esteem. 

3. Nature based therapy can improve anxiety and depression.

Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced anxiety and depression. It’s not clear exactly why outdoor excursions have such a positive mental effect. Yet, in a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of healthy people after they walked for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or an urban one. They found that those who did a nature walk had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions.

4. Nature based therapy can lower stress levels

 

Research shows that exposure to nature will have profound impact in the decreasing of cortisol levels. The calming effect of nature can have a profound effect on stress levels.

5. Psychological effects of therapy in nature include lower blood pressure

Natural light, fresh air, exposure to trees and plants seem to improve many people’s outlook on life in a positive manner but also reduce blood pressure. 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.

1   Squamish Spit Estuary Trail

This peaceful nature preserve is a flat, easy wander that is only a short 10 minute drive from downtown Squamish.

Located at the tip of the Howe Sound and bordered by the Spit on the west, the Squamish Estuary provides some of the best local views of the Stawamus Chief and is home to literally hundreds of species of birds and other habitats. The 3.2 kilometer trail features a river and is good for all skill levels. The trail is primarily used for hiking, walking, and birding and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.

Getting there:

Heading north on the Sea to Sky Highway, continue past Downtown Squamish until you reach Industrial Way where you will turn left. Turn right at the Queen’s Way intersection and follow Queens Way until it curves left and becomes Government Road. Take Government Road 1 kilometre past the train tracks, to a small sign for The Spit on your right. Continue down the gravel route until you reach another T intersection where you will turn left. Follow the gravel road until you reach the hiking trail head signs on your left for the Estuary.

2.  Four Lakes Trail

This hiking gem in Alice Lake Provincial Park weaves its way through 4 different lakes and can be competed in 2-3 hours.

4 lakes trail

Roughly 5km north of Squamish on Highway 99 sits the picturesque Alice Lake Provincial Park, home to a classic Squamish hike. The 4 Lakes Trail is an easy 6.5 km loop that meanders through creeks, second growth forest and visits four distinct mountain lakes. Which makes it a great place for calming oneself from the stresses of day to day life.  

Getting There

Alice Lake Provincial Park is located along Highway 99, 5 km north of Squamish on the east side of the highway. Follow the signs for the park and the trail is accessed either via Alice Lake itself or via the Stump Lake entrance, which is just opposite the entrance to the park and offers its own parking for hikers.

 

3.  Ray Peters Trail

Walk among mature evergreens right off highway 99. The Ray Peters Trail weaves its way through various branches or smaller trails, but is fairly easy to navigate because it is surrounded by roads at its edges. Hiking here can take from 30mins to 2 hours depending on the trail you take.

Ray Pe

This popular Squamish trail, the Ray Peters trail is great for all ages and users. This gently sloping area is the remains of a very large piece of the dormant volcano on Mt. Garibaldi that blew off and slid 10 kilometres down eons ago. Now part of the Cheekye Fan, it is a rambling expanse of pleasant woods and some old pavement from a defunct trailer-court of the 1960s. The area is a peaceful getaway close to Squamish.

Getting there:

The most convenient access point is just across Ross Road from the lower parking lot at Don Ross Secondary School, because this gives assured parking. There are also a few trailheads near Highway 99.

 

4. Loggers Lane Trail

Running along Loggers Lane Road lie a few easy trails to get out for a family walk. This is probably the best of the trails for the younger crowd due to the small distances.

Loggers lane

Combined with the busy Loggers Creek Trail, Nature Trail provides a large area of paths among old trees, wetlands and bubbling brooks. Prior to the Mamquam River changing its course westward in 1921, this area was its estuary. The maze of side channels along the original path of the river provided the necessary mixing of fresh and tidal waters that salmon and trout need for rearing juveniles. This was a prolific fishing area and the Squamish people caught a lot of their wintering supplies in the old mouth of the Mamquam River.

Getting there:

The best access point is parking at the Squamish Adventure Centre and crossing the street to the paved path and turning right. Soon you’ll be immersed in the forest with a couple pathways to chose. Alternatively, parking at the Smoke Bluffs parking lot of Loggers Lane works as well.

 

5.  Ocean Front Loop- Newport Beach

Squamish’s most dog-friendly beach, Newport Beach, is the site for an easy loop for the family. The rustic, sandy centrepiece of Squamish’s oceanfront where dolphin, whale and other marine life sightings are not out of the ordinary.

Getting there:

There is an access point for walking trails in Downtown Squamish near the corner of Vancouver Street and Second Avenue.

From Downtown Squamish, head west down to the end of Cleveland Avenue past the Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Co. and turn left on Vancouver Street. There, you will see the Yacht Club. Turn right. Signs will direct you towards the beach.

Be aware of the development in the area that may affect this route. The Developer states “Public may experience trail closures from time to time on the loop trail. We encourage users to park closer to the Yacht Club or Brew Pub and start the loop from there or, park at Newport Beach on the Oceanfront.”

 

Therapeutic Nature Based Therapy: Nature as a Healing Partner

Ecotherapy

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.

What is Therapeutic Nature-Based Therapy

Nature based therapy

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)

Effectiveness

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.

Considerations

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?

Case study

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

References:
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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