My Twitter and Facebook feeds have been lighting up recently with research studies, articles, quotes, and comments about the healing benefits of nature.
I have previously written about Nature and Well-Being here and Ecotherapy was the topic of my thesis for my degree (more about ecotherapy later)…clearly I am passionate about the benefits that nature can have on our mental and emotional health.
This passion comes from personal experience. I have always enjoyed spending time outside, have always loved observing and learning about animals and, since I started my journey in the world of counselling and psychotherapy, I have been intrigued by the links between our mental health and nature. I find great benefit from engaging with nature. For example, I love cuddling my cats or going for a walk across the fields with my dogs. And, like many people, I love the soothing sound of the waves of the sea. Bee stings aside, I don’t remember the last time I spent time in nature and went away feelings worse! But what happens to me emotionally and mentally when I am in nature? I feel better…but why? And how?
First, I think that being out in nature or observing nature awakens the child in me. I’m often filled with a sense of uncomplicated fun and awe that is usually only present in children. Recently, while watching the mother swallow and her two babies in the nest above our window, I lost track of time. They were looking down at me, turning their feather-fluffed heads from side to side, and I was filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation and respect for them. It’s as if my adult responsibilities and worries momentarily disappear and I was fully in the moment. Which brings me to the second effect that I think engaging with nature has on me: it helps me to be more aware of the here and now, rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. When one of my cats comes along and curls up on my lap, all the while purring softly, I’m rarely thinking about the list of things I have to do that day, I’m just happy for the love and warmth that I’m receiving. I feel connected to this furry little being. And that’s the third gift that spending time with nature gives me…connectedness. When I am in nature I feel the strong ties that exist between me and the earth, the land, and all living things. I even feel more connected to myself. I learn about myself. I feel more grounded. I feel less up in my head and more in my heart and I am calm, strong, and more tuned in. So all of this child-like awe, mindful awareness, connectedness, and groundedness help me to better tap into who I am and what is truly important and, even if momentarily, my worries dissipate, my heart opens, and a smile finds its way to my lips.
My love of nature and my interest and respect for the connection between it and our mental and emotional well-being has led me to world of ecotherapy. Ecotherapy is an approach to therapy that acknowledges the relationship between humans and the environment. Ecotherapy “refers to healing and growth nurtured by healthy interactions with the earth” (reference below). I’m clearly not the only one who experiences benefits from spending time in nature…there is a whole approach to therapy dedicated to it! In my counselling practice currently, although it is not my main approach to counselling, I use ecotherapy in a variety of ways. In both my home office and my office in the city, I have plants. Do not underestimate the calming and awareness inducing powers of indoor plants! I also use a grounding exercise before each session prior to the client’s arrival, which utilizes the visualization of a tree. During sessions, if appropriate, I often ask clients to tell me about a favourite place in nature that they like to visit. I also ask about pets, past and present. Discussions around these can deepen my understanding of the client, can help the client to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, and, quite often, the client will re-engage with this place in nature or this pet or the memory of a pet in order to bring calm, awareness, and groundedness. I also listen for stress and worry associated with our human impact on the earth, as this has been shown to be a cause of feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and frustration. I help the client explore these feelings and make sense of them. It’s truly a rewarding way to work.
As always, I welcome feedback. I’d love to hear how nature brings you healing.
Buzzell, L. & Chalquist, C. (2009). Ecotherapy: healing with nature in mind. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, p. 18.