What is Ecotherapy or Outdoor Therapy?

Have you noticed that when you spend time walking in the woods or by the ocean your mood tends to improve? Have you ever felt sensations of awe under a starry sky? Did you ever feel such a deep connection to a tree, river or animal that it made you felt part of something bigger? If so, you have experienced some of the healing and transformative power of nature. If not, don’t worry, this work might help you with that.

Ecotherapy is a method of therapy in which healing and growth happens through connection with the earth. Ecotherapy centers the human-nature relationship for the purpose of healing both humans and the earth. It is a reciprocal healing relationship fostered by care and attention to our innate connection to the natural world.

Being in and connecting to nature is central to 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. By repairing our connection to nature, I believe we can repair our connection to our bodies and increase overall well-being. 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. In all other ways, it is similar to therapy as you might understand it. I use many of the same therapy methods and techniques that I would otherwise, with the added benefits of being exposed to nature. In addition, during ecotherapy we pay attention to the natural environment, integrating what we see, feel and hear around us into your learning and growth. Nature provides us with many lessons when we pay close attention. We 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 in Boston, so clients can easily access the natural environment by train, bus, bike or car, while being 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.

How does being outside in nature while engaging in therapy help? 

A a growing body of research has found that spending time in nature improves mental health, reduces stress, improves sleep, and improves cognitive function. Rhythmic exercise, such as walking, can support the process of self-discovery, insight, having breakthroughs in understanding, and an overall sense of well being. Being outdoors and moving also can help people with emotional regulation and self-soothing. 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 found what you’ve been ruminating over feels less overwhelming? This is why we walk and talk.

In my experience outdoor therapy is helpful in the following ways:

  • Being in nature and moving brings in a larger perspective and decreases feelings of stuckness.
  • People tend to be more relaxed while walking and as a result more open.
  • The combination of physical activity and vitamin D has immune and mood boosting properties.

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. Sme 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 modern people in urban environments who have had our relationship with nature disrupted by colonization, industrialism, capitalism, urbanization and racism, 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.

Why you might you consider ecotherapy:

  1. You love nature and want to be outside more!
  2. You have found peace and clarity outside in nature before and want to integrate this practice into your therapeutic work.
  3. You have an earth-based spiritual practice and want to integrate this into therapy.
  4. 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.
  5. You have tried office-based therapy before, but felt uncomfortable sitting face to face with a therapist in a small room.
  6. You feel stuck in your current healing practices (or life) and want to try something different that embodies movement.
  7. 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.
  8. You want to develop a new relationship with nature and the outdoors that is connected to your healing/therapeutic needs.
  9. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. Of course, if you want to discuss material that feels really sensitive and would feel more comfortable not being outside, we can plan for a remote session.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 said, if a client does not feel like they can be outside because of the weather, we can have a remote therapy session that day. Clients can make the weather call on the morning of sessions.
  5. Do I have to meet you outside? You always have the option of choosing do to therapy remotely. However, if you know that being outside is not your thing, we are probably not the best fit. I like working with people in person, whenever possible. And being in nature helps me do better work. While I don’t mind making accommodations when the weather is particularly bad (ie. Rain, extreme cold or heat) or for health reasons, I don’t work with people on a purely remote basis, expect in special circumstances. I also can’t guarantee a video session, so if you want a remote session and I am out, we may need to meet via phone.
  6. Will I get cardio exercise during therapy? No. While I’m a proponent of exercise, you should expect us to walk at a slow to casual pace. There are a few reasons for this. First, it’s hard to talk if we are out of breath. I find when people move really fast it is harder to be mindful of what they’re feeling, which gets in the way of therapy, as you might imagine. Lastly, in order to be able to walk all day I need to pace myself. I do my best to walk at the pace that best suits your needs. Sometimes I will invite us to pause and sit on a bench or the ground, or to stand in stillness for a few moments. If you have a lot of energy and need to jump around or do some sprints, I will gladly cheer you on from the sidelines! 🙂
  7. Can I use my insurance for ecotherapy? Yes! I take BCBS, Harvard Pilgrim and United 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 these insurance plans 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.

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