Ecotherapy: Don’t forget the ‘therapy’
While ecotherapy is on the rise, many eco-therapists don’t have a clinical training. Yet, explains Dr Joe Hinds, working in nature is no soft option. Taking client work outside taxes our attentional capacities, necessitates a solid theoretical frame, and often – as the co-editor of Ecotherapy has discovered – demands deep reflexive practice.
Ecotherapy may be thought of as a broad extended family with a diversity of personalities, some of which place more or less emphasis on the therapeutic component. I prefer the term eco-psychotherapy simply because it implies with far less ambiguity the importance of the ‘therapy’ and the processes required to become a reflexive practitioner. This seems to be increasingly important with eco-therapy, as it is with mainstream mental health provision – which tends to lean towards short-term advice giving rather than any meaningful therapeutic dialogue.
Nature, in its widest sense, experienced from pictures to lengthy immersions in wilderness, can elicit a variety of emotional responses and may do so without an explicit therapeutic element. Yet, this exposure alone may have a therapeutic effect for many. So, although nature can be ‘healing’ (whatever this may mean) there is a danger, even for trained psychotherapists engaged in ecotherapy, that we fall into a non-therapeutic position and let nature do the work.
This may be perfectly appropriate and acceptable for many people seeking relief from common challenges, or as an escape from less sensual and aesthetically pleasing environments. However, for those people experiencing more complex difficulties, the psychotherapist working outdoors needs to have a solid foundation from which to practice. This foundation is twofold: a theoretical frame to best understand the work in its fullest sense, and a thorough, albeit never complete, process of self-awareness and examination developed in their own personal therapy, reflexivity and supervision.
I have been asked by clients to work outside many times, and I do so only after a conversation about ‘why’ (although not asked directly). The reasons will always leave me in a dilemma; these decisions are ridden with pros and cons – the paradoxical nature of psychotherapy. Their motives for going ‘out’ stand alongside mine. My childhood in rural New Zealand was such that the natural environment was an ‘escape’ – a safe place to go. So, I have a multitude of issues to consider:
Will I agree to this request because it feels like the right time for this person to broaden horizons for greater insight, or because there is a desire to avoid intimacy?
Is there a need for a visceral ‘working through’?
Is it an opportunity to observe the change from adapted to free child, and the associated rich metaphorical encounters that bring them ‘alive’?
Am I selling this idea because of my own reflexive avoidance, which has been transferred (sublimated) to an externalised evangelism?
Taking psychotherapy outdoors is not a panacea. It is important to be sensitive to the ebb and flow of someone’s psyche, and to communicate an understanding about whether going out
for that person at this time can be beneficial. By beneficial, I don’t mean ‘positive’, as going out is often fraught with fears and complications; awareness and change are seldom achieved without challenge. By leaving the holding capacity of a familiar room, with its privacy and predictability, therapy outdoors taxes the attentional capacities of the therapist. The facilitation of reflections, observations and interpretations of living, embodied and linguistic metaphors (‘evocative objects’) is a very different undertaking when moving through a dynamic and open space. It requires, for example, far greater attention to a sense of holding and containing. We are far more active physically and mentally because of the richness of place and encounter.
Therefore, conceptual and theoretical understandings help orientate and contain the therapist as much as they do the client, and must sit alongside human warmth and empathy – neither by themselves is sufficient in eco-therapy, particularly when working with more complex manifestations of distress.