Out of the Office and Into the Woods: The Healing Power of Nature Therapy

by Quentin Dunne

“Allow nature’s peace to flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.” – John Muir

The classic image evoked by the word psychotherapy is that of a client and therapist seated across from one another in the therapist’s office engaging in deep conversation as they mutually explore the client’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, dreams, and relationships, all with the aim of helping the client heal his or her wounds and lead a more fulfilling life. This enduring image may soon have an alternative as nature therapy (sometimes known as ecotherapy or green therapy) becomes more widely known and practiced, and the office setting shifts to that of the natural landscape.

Over the last several decades, a relatively small but passionate and growing number of mental health professionals have increasingly recognized and promoted the value of helping people cultivate a deeper connection with nature and the natural world as part of their healing process. Empirical research strongly suggests that increased contact and communion with nature through such practices as gardening, taking nature walks, spending more time in green areas, and reading nature-themed poetry are beneficial to people struggling with relational, emotional, and even spiritual difficulties. While some therapists discuss these ideas with clients in the office and encourage them to follow through between sessions, others have shifted toward integrating such practices into the session themselves, often meeting with clients in a park or forest and facilitating their engagement with the land’s beauties and mysteries. Still others prefer to provide weekly office-based talk therapy while also coordinating with a different therapist who meets outdoors with the client once or so per month for nature-based services.

There have been several key advancements in the recognition of nature therapy as a valuable clinical tool, one of which being the 1995 publication of Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, edited by Theodore Roszak, Mary E. Gomes, and Allen D. Kanner, and another being the Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist-edited Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, published in 2009. However, long before these titles hit the bookshelves, or indeed even before words such as ecopsychology or ecotherapy existed, sages and scholars extolled the redemptive value of a mindful relationship with the mountains, woods, and streams. Saint Francis of Assisi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and John Keats all wrote eloquently about the restorative beauty of our natural resources. Though none of these figures ever obtained a degree in social or work or psychology, they nonetheless planted the seeds of the principles and practices now embodied by such organizations as The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy and the Children & Nature Network.

My own passion for providing nature-based therapy began in 2013 when I first became involved in the Ecopsychology Network for Clinicians and solidified the following year when I started volunteering at Wolf Connection, a wolf sanctuary that also helps at-risk youth and substance abusers through their contact with both wolves and the rugged though beautiful desert landscape surrounding the sanctuary. At least those were my formal introductions to this (pardon the double entendre) branch of psychotherapy; looking back, I now realize my informal introduction began when I growing up in northern Pennsylvania and often found great solace in walking through the woods or watching the Susquehanna River flow. The ability to integrate my twin loves of psychotherapy and natural landscape has been a great privilege and fellow nature-based healers with whom I’ve communicated and coordinated have expressed the same sentiment.

Being a practicing therapist provides many rich opportunities for those interested in integrating other modalities of healing into the traditional format of interactive talk therapy. For example, those with a love for creative expression can utilize the techniques of art therapy or drama therapy while clinicians who favor a more body-based approach can, if properly trained and certified, provide yoga therapy. And, of course, mental health professionals who have felt calmer and more centered, more receptive to gentleness and beauty, while being near trees or gazing at flowers may elect to bring those similar practices to clients who share the same sensibilities.

Often, the most effective of healers are those who most deeply believe in the modality which they are practicing. Nature therapy is not for every clinician nor for every client, but for those professionals who feel called to practice it, there is a vibrant community waiting to welcome and support you.