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Have you ever felt at peace walking in the woods or laying on a beach? Have you ever experienced a sense of connection and wholeness when in nature? Or, felt more free, calm and relaxed under an open sky? If yes, you have experienced the powerful and liberating effects of nature. If no, ecotherapy can help you have these experiences.
Ecotherapy is a method of therapy through which healing and growth happens through connection with the earth. Ecotherapy centers the human nature relationship for the purpose of healing both humans and healing the earth. It is a reciprocal healing relationship fostered by care and attention to human’s innate connection to the natural world. Being in and connecting to nature is central to both human and environmental health. Ecotherapy helps us return to the awareness that we are connected to all of life and that our health depends on this reciprocal relationship. As a queer Latina ecotherapist, I also center the exploration of our ancestor’s connection (and/or forced disconnection) to the land and what this means for the healing and wellness of people of color in the U.S. Ecotherapy helps people get outside and be in conscious connection with nature while engaging in therapy with a licensed therapist.
What does ecotherapy look like in practice?
Clients participate in ecotherapy while walking, sitting and being present outdoors in nature. I use many of the same therapy methods and techniques that I do in my standard office-based therapy practice, yet do so while outside in nature. In addition, during ecotherapy we pay attention to the natural environment and integrate what we see, feel and hear around us into your learning and growth. Nature provides us with many lessons and we pay close attention to this during therapy. All sessions begin and end with a guided mindfulness practice geared towards connecting with the earth and yourself, as well as integrating your experience with outdoor therapy. We also look to nature for lessons during therapy, as it seems relevant to what you bring to session. The best way to understand ecotherapy is to try it.
I provide ecotherapy in the Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park in Boston so clients can easily access the natural environment by train, bus, bike or car, yet still be immersed in a natural setting. I provide this therapy year round and offer video based therapy sessions when a client does not to be outside because of the weather. Sessions are 50min long.
Walking outside in nature is also therapeutic. How does walking outside in nature while engaging in therapy help?
While research is ongoing to explain why outdoor walking during therapy is effective, one simple finding is clear: Rhythmic exercise, such as walking, can be conducive to the process of self-discovery, insight, having breakthroughs in understanding and an overall sense of well being. Have you ever been stuck on a problem and then decided to go for a walk or run and suddenly an answer comes to you? Or what you’ve been ruminating over feels less overwhelming? This is why we walk and talk.
One psychologist, Kate Hays, provides three reasons for combining walking and therapy:
- It helps a patient get “unstuck” when confronting difficult issues.
- It spurs creative, deeper ways of thinking often released by mood-improving physical activity.
- It encourages clients to be more physically active for mental and physical reasons.
Walk and talk therapist, Clay Cockrell says, “My therapy sessions are conducted outdoors while walking, and somehow the simple act of walking while talking out life’s issues – creates an environment of possibility and change.” I agree.
Walk and talk ecotherapy also allows people who sit a lot to have the chance to move around while engaging in therapy, which contributes to improved mental and physical health. In addition, some people don’t feel comfortable sitting and looking at a therapist. Walking outside allows people the comfort of more open space and the freedom to visually focus on diverse scenery while talking.
Why walk in nature?
The simple answer is that being in nature can provide a sense of peace and healing for many people. Many health care researchers and practitioners say that nature-based therapy improves mood and eases anxiety, stress and depression. One research study found that as little as five minutes in a natural setting, whether walking in a park or gardening in the backyard, improves mood, self-esteem, and motivation. In addition, for people of color in urban environments who have had our relationship with nature disrupted by colonization, industrialism, capitalism, urbanization and racist state laws, restoring a ritual relationship with the natural environment can be an act of reclaiming one’s historical relationships and traditional healing practices with the earth.
Lastly, as someone who loves physical activity and being outdoors, ecotherapy therapy helps me respond to clients from a place of aliveness and creativity, which bolsters my ability to support my clients’ healing processes.
Some reasons why you might you consider ecotherapy:
- You love nature and want to be outside more!
- You have found peace and clarity outside in nature before and want to integrate this practice into your therapeutic work.
- You have experienced peace, clarity and/or healing while doing physical activity and/or being in nature before and want to do this on a more regular basis with a trained therapist.
- You have an earth-based spiritual practice and want to integrate this into therapy.
- You have a job where you sit too much inside and would love to pair movement and being outdoors with therapy so you can do both things in your limited schedule.
- You have tried office-based therapy before, but felt uncomfortable sitting face to face with a therapist in a small room.
- You feel stuck in your current healing practices (or life) and want to try something different that embodies movement.
- You have seasonal affective disorder (or just get blue in the winter) and want to have support while being outside in order to get the therapeutic effects of the sunlight all year round.
- You want to develop a new relationship with nature and the outdoors that is connected to your healing/therapeutic needs.
- You live with depression and want to be more physically active, but struggle with being able to because of depression.
Frequently Asked Questions about ecotherapy:
- What if I see someone I know while we are outside? During our first session I will ask what you would like to do if we see someone you know while we are walking. No one knows that we are doing therapy when walking in a park and in general, if this happens, people just wave and we keep walking.
- What about confidentiality? Can people hear us? I carefully select the paths we walk for sessions in order to walk less travelled paths. Even when we are walking on main paths and pass others, we can easily lower our voices or pause if it feels necessary. That being said, when we walk we move past people so quickly that it does not seem to be an issue for walk and talk therapists who walk in public parks.
- What if I have a disability and cannot walk or move for long periods of time? I aim to make ecotherapy accessible to all bodies and we do not have to walk in session. If you want to do ecotherapy, and also have access needs, please contact me so we can discuss your needs and how to make sure you feel safe and supported in an outdoor ecotherapy setting.
- What about the winter?? It gets cold in Massachusetts! Yes, it does! One of my personal goals has been to embrace the outdoors all year round so that winter does not deter me from getting nature’s medicine. I have found that dressing appropriately allows me to feel comfortable outside in most weather conditions. That being said, if a client does not feel like they can be outside because of the weather, we can have a video therapy session that day. Clients can make the weather call on the morning of sessions.
- Will I get cardio exercise during therapy? We will walk at the pace that best suits your needs, sometimes pausing to sit on a bench or the ground, but will not run or do cardio exercise (unless of course there is a brief spontaneous burst of energy during therapy on your part!).
- Can I use my insurance for ecotherapy? Yes! I take BCBS and Tufts Health Insurance (commercial plans only) and am an out of network provider for anyone who has out of network insurance benefits. If you do not have BCBS or Tufts please call your provider and ask if you have any out of network behavioral health benefits. Clients with out of network benefits pay for sessions upfront and are then reimbursed by their health insurance provider.