Therapy In The Park

Mental health,
March, 2022

The natural environment enhances the effect of psychotherapy.

Pilgrims and guides have always existed. They wandered the landscape and shared the wisdom of life. Eventually, the church soon took over and turned her attention to the inner world. Psychology took over the monopoly and settled the inner world between the four walls of the church building. Nature offers us a different dimension of experience than a therapeutic chair: take a good bath in the forest bath and do a lot of work on yourself.

We are increasingly aware that we have roots that do not grow out of concrete, and that our ancestors do not come from blocks of flats. We begin to return to nature as a mediator of our own mental health. Psychologists and therapists, who are beginning to work therapeutically among the trees, are also increasingly turning to nature.

The coronavirus period offered a very special opportunity in this: many clients did not want to transfer the work they had started to the online space, so they exchanged four walls for Stromovka with their therapists. I also heard from my colleagues that they had their therapy or supervision in the park, and I was happy about that. Going out with the client is definitely not just an emergency solution.

The potential of therapy in nature

I want to share with you some experiences that prove the potential of nature for therapeutic work; at the end you will find a few links to the theoretical framework. The possible benefit of therapy in nature lies mainly in movement, authenticity, environment and means.

In classical therapy "once a week for fifty minutes", a client - let's call him Peter, for example - described to me how he drowns in the clutter of his thoughts that he can't get out of the blackness of the inner world, he feels overwhelmed. I tried to understand his inner world, to come up with individual insights.

In several sessions, I was surprised by the energy with which Peter entered the room: as if he were glowing. He mentioned that on the weekend he went on a trip to Česká Třebová. Why there? I don't know. He took a notebook with him to clarify his thoughts in nature, to sort them out nicely, to write them down. He mentioned that he had failed in this regard, but that this did not mean that he hated the trip because he was in the "here and now".

He felt every step, with the stimuli of nature, with his senses. He didn't think so. Even though his phone subsequently ran out and he was lost, he didn't despair. He discovered a new quality for himself: he was able not to think, and break free from the blackness that bothered him so much. This was also the reason why I decided to pay more attention to nature in therapeutic work.

Let's get on the air

We have all probably tasted what the research confirms, namely that movement leads us to greater creativity. We take a break from work and we can breathe easier, get an overview, and think. The therapeutic potential of movement has worked in art therapy, dance therapy when working with traumas. In nature, the potential lies in change, alternating walking and sitting, as well as choosing a path.

On one trip, after about forty-five minutes, the client mentioned to me that he was surprised at how uncomfortable he was in the position to lead the way, to decide where to go. He thought that freedom of choice would suit him, but in the end, he mentioned that he had been uneasy about himself for quite some time. We got to why I didn't hear about it before, and then to the sequence: because, because, because…

The reason was that he did not want to restrict me, and at the same time, he realized that something similar was happening to him in both his work and personal life. The feeling that he does not want to restrict anyone, then subsequently bubbles and, accompanied by the march of the "Papin's pot", ends with unintended consequences. Movement and choice of path thus became a learning moment and helped to discover the pattern.

Nature as a source of stimuli

All therapeutic approaches agree that the therapist-client relationship is the most important element in the path to self-development. However, individual approaches oscillate on a scale of directives - some are more directive, others less. In some approaches, the therapist is an expert, in others, he is a bit of a guide or an imaginary tennis wall, about which we bounce a ball.

I would say that in therapies in nature, the therapist's authenticity comes to the fore - it is easier to access. Thanks to this, the client and thus the whole relationship can be more authentic. An example might be the journey itself, in which the client and the therapist are together. Environments and weather that we do not have full control over and we somehow react to. Breaks for a snack or a toilet take us back to the "here and now".

Compared to art therapy, classical therapy in the room is a bit deprived of means of expression. In nature, the environment itself becomes an integral part of it. This creates a relatively large space for the use of imagination, synchronicity or even mindfulness. The journey itself can be reflected in the client's conversation.

On one trip, I told the client that he was strict with himself, that he felt that he was being flogged and that I wanted to take the whip and throw it away. His reaction was to pick up the stick and throw it into the distance with all his might. The circle closed. The natural environment naturally leads us to work with the body. As if working with the body were more common in nature, it was easier.

Enter the silence

Silence in common takes on another dimension in nature. Silence is a natural part of human communication - it has its informational value, which we do not always appreciate. Silence plays an important role in therapy and opens up interesting possibilities for both parties. Thanks to him, stimulating thoughts and fantasies can grow, we can gain strength, we can realize ourselves. Silence can come as an offer ("let's both try to keep quiet now") or it may appear spontaneously.

In any case, in the psychotherapeutic process, we can talk about productive, neutral or unproductive silence. Productive silence is (with a little simplification) pleasant, creative silence, when the client reaches for something, experiences something, something happens, or even when he is just calm, in a certain rest. On the other hand, we can experience such an unpleasant, disturbing, embarrassing silence, which distances the therapist and the client, somewhat disrupts the relationship, if we do not process such silence.

During therapy in nature, we can also experience aesthetic silence or mindful silence. An example is an observation of how sunlight is reflected from the surface of a pond, how the wind creates ripples, and so on. During a longer therapeutic process in nature, we can talk about the luxury of silence: in the therapy room it can be a few strange seconds, but in nature, we can sit (almost attentively) for a few minutes.

What to say in conclusion? We don't have to wait for another wave of health regulations to drive us out. We can take clients to the park and also clients can talk about the park. Several colleagues mentioned to me that their clients had asked about the park or other natural spaces and that they had exchanged the walls for trees for the next session; the frequency may remain what you are used to. I'm not saying that therapy is in nature for everyone, but at the same time, it has an interesting potential that it would be a shame not to use.

More on the topic:

For those interested, I can recommend Martin Jordan's book Nature and Therapy, which covers:

  • records of the psychological and healing potential of natural places,
  • understanding the therapeutic relationship and the unique therapeutic processes that occur in outdoor natural spaces,
  • transfer of internal therapeutic work to the outdoor environment,
  • the practicality of setting up and running a therapeutic session outside the room environment (an example might be how we react when we meet a client's acquaintances; first of all, it is a good idea to open the topic before the situation occurs).

In the book Ecotherapy, Jordan gives examples of programs and their impacts that have been accompanied by research activities. These are the benefits of nature in palliative care, the perception of nature as a mediator for recovery from the crisis, natural therapies associated with stress disorders. Last but not least, work with nature leading to emotional development, discovery, autonomy, and a sense of belonging.

Author: Adam Táborský

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