I was walking along Town Lake the other day (a popular hike and bike trail along the Colorado River in Austin) when I came upon a family staring intently down into the water. A mom, dad, and their teenage daughter were completely captivated. I didn’t want to intrude, but my curiosity got the better of me, so as I got closer, I sneaked a peak into the clear water below. There, alongside a half-submerged log, was a red-eared slider, trying mightily to pull itself up onto the log. Each time the turtle got a foothold, the family would quietly cheer it on, and each time the foothold gave way, causing it to slide back down into the water, they would discuss the setback with disappointment.
“How long has it been trying to climb up?” I asked. “At least twenty minutes”, the daughter answered.
Yes, I believe we do need nature.
We depend on nature for the very air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. Nature helps us relax, decompress, and feel comforted. Nature inspires and guides us and reminds us we are connected to something larger than ourselves – something ancient, intricate, timeless, ceaseless. Nature reminds us of how much we, as social beings, need connection – not only with each other, but also the natural world. And the relationship goes both ways. Nature needs us to provide care, kindness, protection, and healing.
Ecotherapy Helps People Heal
Ecotherapy is as ancient as it is modern. For centuries, people have turned to nature for insight, healing, comfort, and guidance. As a formal discipline that is only a few decades old, ecotherapists work from a deep belief that people need nature for our health and well-being. Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that, as we become increasingly disconnected from nature, spending less and less time outdoors, our mental health suffers.
So How Does Ecotherapy Work Exactly?
As we stood at the intersection of a hiking trail, my client (with details changed) announced he had come to a decision. “I have wrestled for at least a year about what to do about my unhealthy relationship with my brother”, he said. “I have been stuck, unable to see a solution. Now, standing here, in this place – and I can’t believe I’m actually here at a literal crossroads between two trails – I realize what I need to do.”
This powerful case example from a client I worked with several years ago illustrates the deeply affecting, transformative change that can occur when nature, as a co-therapist, is integrated into a person’s process of healing and growth.
Perspectives from a Colleague
Ariana Candell, LMFT, R-DMT, is an ecotherapist in Berkeley who works with individuals and groups, often providing ecotherapy in the Berkley and Oakland hills of north-central California. In this interview, she shares with us her rich and interesting perspectives.
Amy: Could you describe, in general terms, what a typical ecotherapy session with you might look like?
Ariana: I will often begin by helping us transition into nature by perhaps explicitly naming the sacredness of the space, or by silently, internally, invoking the sacredness for myself. We then usually enter the space silently and go to a particular spot where the client is drawn to. There I might ask my client to focus on a sensory awareness practice to help them continue to shift from their previous regular life pace. I like to help clients calm and center themselves, especially if they experience a lot of stress or anxiety. After the person has shifted to a slower, more open mode, I might ask what they are drawn to, such as trees, open space, or water. From there, we will decide what we’d like to do next – walk, sit, or stand – as we talk. At this point, the session is somewhat similar to a regular therapy session indoors, in that my client discusses what is on his or her mind as I draw from the other interventions and techniques I might normally use. A significant difference is that I am also bringing in the support of the natural world around us. As the session is ending, we will talk about what experiences from the session my client might integrate metaphorically and energetically into daily life. Finally, we make the shift back into the pace of regular, daily life, which is often faster paced.
Amy: You’ve been an ecotherapist for 8 years. Are there particular diagnoses, concerns, or struggles people bring to you in hopes that ecotherapy can help?
Ariana: While ecotherapy and just getting outside can be good for people on all levels, I’ve noticed that it can be especially helpful for kids and teens with depression, anxiety, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Many of my clients live in the city, and doing ecotherapy outside is like a huge “reset” button; they find it very nourishing to be able to spend time in fresh air surrounded by plants, animals, and the natural elements.
I’m reminded of a particular client (with details changed) who wanted to have her session outside at a nearby park. She is a young woman living and working in a very urbanized area. After the session, she talked about how she had been recently feeling like she was struggling to handle the increasing stress of her life. But after spending some time outside in the fresh air surrounded by trees and meadows of wildflowers (doing ecotherapy), her perspective shifted and she discussed changes she intended to make to better deal with her stress.
Amy: How is ecotherapy, as a therapeutic approach, different from simply spending time outside?
Ariana: Of course, spending time outside in nature is always a good thing. Participating in an ecotherapy session is quite different, however. It is not just a therapy session set in the outdoors. As an ecotherapist, I help my clients connect to a deeper part of themselves – spirit, mind, and body. Ecotherapists have an awareness of the natural setting and how that setting can help facilitate and contain deep change and transformation. And, through a connection with nature, ecotherapists help lead their clients in the direction they would like to go. Importantly, ecotherapists also help their clients integrate their experiences and insights into their daily lives and relationships.
Amy: Now that it’s summer and kids are out of school, do you have any suggestions for how parents can help their children become more connected to nature?
Ariana: Yes! There are so many things parents can do to help connect their kids to nature. I’ll name a few of my favorites. Sensory scavenger hunts help kids engage all their senses in the natural world around them. You can also give your child a camera and ask them to find 10 kinds of flowers, for instance. Create a nature collage with items found on the ground. Build sand castles. Create art from items in nature. Help them find a favorite “sit spot” where they can spend time just sitting and noticing the natural world around them. It’s important for parents to find what they, as parents, like to do with their kids and try to find activities in nature that you both will enjoy. The Children & Nature Network is a good place to start to get some more ideas.
Amy: For any therapists, counselors, or others who work or volunteer in a helping or healing field, do you offer training programs to help people learn more about ecotherapy?
Ariana: I do. I’ll be offering my Level 1 Ecotherapy Certificate and Training Program again soon, which will be online. It will include webinars, group consultations, articles, and lots of ongoing support. If anyone is interested, they can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the information and registration page.
I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. – John Muir
A final note: one simple way to incorporate nature into your daily life is by checking out my Facebook page. I often post photos of various plants and animals with a little bit of information. My hope is that these posts might encourage people to spend a bit more time with nature.