Frequently Asked Questions About Ecotherapy & How It Works
How It Works
Let’s take a closer look at what ecotherapy is in general and how it might work in a session at Elemental Counseling.
Ecotherapy is relatively new in the counseling field and within clinical literature, but it is rooted in ancient ways of being. At Elemental Counseling in Freeport, Maine, our therapy focus is specific to you and whatever concerns brought you to counseling. But we make the context of the work and the possible connections to healing much broader by welcoming nature in as a ‘co-therapist.’ To learn more about ecotherapy and how it works, you can explore the FAQs below, and check out some of the research.
What is Ecotherapy?
I consider ecotherapy, also called nature based therapy, to be therapeutic work that facilitates a reciprocally nurturing, healing, and growth-full reconnection between humans and nature. Ecotherapy in the one-to-one clinical format has a stronger foothold in Europe and the west coast of the US than it does here in the Freeport, ME area. I don’t know for sure why this is, but I’d guess more temperate climates are a large factor! Other nature counseling practices that fall under the ecotherapy umbrella that are more common in the region include:
- Animal assisted therapy (dogs visiting nursing homes, for example)
- Horticultural therapy (the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has a nice section devoted to this approach)
- Equine assisted therapy (several sites in Maine do this work)
- Wilderness and adventure therapy (often targeted at youth/teens but effective for all ages)
The recognition that humans are part of nature is one tenet shared by most ecotherapeutic approaches. A second is that nurturing the connection between humans and the rest of nature is healthy and necessary for all to thrive.
What Kind of Things Would I Go to an Eco-Therapist For?
Ecotherapy can be effective for any of the typical reasons people seek out counseling – complicated life transitions (relationship & career changes), grief and loss, depression, anxiety, relational struggles, burn out, feeling a lack of purpose, and more. In addition, eco-therapists can be uniquely helpful in supporting people experiencing ecological grief/fear/anxiety (related to experienced and/or anticipated ecological loss due to human causes) and burnout related to activism.
What Does an Ecotherapy Session Look and Feel Like?
My indoor office has lovely outdoor views and is filled with objects from nature. (During Covid-19, we will not be meeting in my office due to its small size. Telehealth and outdoor sessions at 6 feet apart are both options.) Or we can meet outdoors, at a public park or trail in the Freeport area. Movement and/or experiencing different landscapes can often shift feelings of “stuck-ness” (see the next question for more details about outdoor sessions).
During either an indoor or outdoor ecotherapy session, we will begin with the concern or struggle that brings you into counseling. As we explore this concern, I will guide you in connecting and interacting with our surrounding landscape. My clients often report feeling calmed and supported by this connection, and they may be able to go deeper into discussing the really hard stuff because of this calm. They also report the connection with nature itself leads to more understanding of their own experience, often through metaphor, dialogue, or creating art with natural objects. We focus on working mindfully and with curiosity, staying open to whatever an experience or interaction (with me, with a rock, with a great blue heron, etc.) has to teach us.
I’m kind of a skeptic about lots of things. I like to see the science of how things work. The past few decades have exploded (in a good way) our understanding of neuroscience and how the brain works. Specifically, for therapy purposes, we understand so much more than we used to about how trauma impacts the brain and body. We also know so much more about how our brains are wired and the automatic brain responses that are out of control. (Humans are animals, too–neuroscience and ecotherapy go well together!) Finally, we also know more about specifically what practices, techniques, and skills that help our brains gain a sense of control, safety, and connection. Early in our work together, I will likely share some basics about the human nervous system with you. This will help guide our work and give you a framework for understanding and reflecting outside of our time together.
We will explore not just what our often busy minds have to say about things, but also work to get in touch with our somatic wisdom (what our bodies know–science is finally recognizing this as a valid source of wisdom!). Sessions will often focus on learning what the sensations in our body can teach us in addition to cognition. Ecotherapy and somatic work go together well because an outdoor experience has so many possibilities for deeply embodied exploration. Think of the difference between grounding yourself by imagining you are at the beach vs. actually being at the beach!
One of the big differences between ecotherapy and more traditional approaches is that the relationships we build with nature continue outside of sessions. I find clients often report revisiting (literally or imaginably) a particular place, being, or experience between sessions, which can support deeper and faster healing.
Outdoor Nature Therapy Sessions? Huh?
At Elemental Counseling, we may meet at an outdoor location and walk/explore, work in a garden, or find a spot to sit and talk. We have also been known to splash in puddles, skip down hills, create art out of natural objects, leave messages in the sand, sculpt snow, and lie on warm boulders in the sun. (Yep, it can be really fun and healing, all at the same time!) We commonly meet at beautiful public access trails in the Freeport and Brunswick areas. If you have a favorite outdoor spot in the area, I am open to exploring meeting there. What we do and where we are will depend on your goals for therapy, your comfort and desire to engage with outdoor work, and the appropriateness of different environments for your particular needs and situation. Typically, I preferred to meet indoors at least once to review things like confidentiality, safety, and logistics of outdoor work. As that is currently not a viable option, we will have a phone conversation before our first meeting to cover these issues. We are incredibly lucky to live in a part of the country with extensive lands preserved for public use, and we acknowledge that, well before our towns existed, the Wabanaki lived on and cared for these lands.
What if I Don’t Want to Go Outdoors?
No problem! We can meet via telehealth. When the health concerns related to Covid-19 ease, we can meet again inside our temperature regulated, tick free, and comfortable indoor office located a few miles from downtown Freeport. If you are interested in ecotherapy, we can work with nature in all sorts of ways, even while indoors.
What If I Think I Might be Interested in Going Outdoors, but I Don’t Feel Fit Enough or Adventurous Enough?
Don’t worry! Our work together is not an exercise routine or a wilderness expedition. We are focused on your therapeutic needs. Increased heart rates and fancy gear are absolutely not part of our work. Sometimes sitting in a sunny spot by the water or with your back against a solid tree is what you need, and we can do that. We can stroll, we can walk briskly, we can run, but we never run longer than 100 yards because I won’t be able to keep up! Regardless of your comfort level outdoors, if you are interested in being out, we will work together to figure out where and how that feels right for you. Once we are outdoors, we will be observing and listening deeply for what you need in that moment, so a change in activity or location is always possible during session.
What If It’s Raining/Sleeting/Snowing/Hailing/-30 Wind Chill/Dark for Half the Day?
If you’re asking this question, it’s clearly not your first day in Maine! There are plenty of days in our state that just aren’t practical to be outdoors, and we can meet in my office or via telehealth at anytime. Note that inclement weather is not always a reason to meet indoors. As long as the conditions are safe and you have the clothing necessary to keep you warm, there is often something to be learned from experiencing rain, wind, snow, or darkness with intention and curiosity. Meeting outdoors is an option year round, but it is never a requirement.
What About Confidentiality if We’re Outside for Nature Therapy?
That is a really important question. A counseling relationship is legally and ethically a confidential one, so navigating outdoor sessions has some special considerations. There are definitely ways to work with confidentiality, even in our small town/state, and we won’t leave the office unless we have a plan you feel comfortable with. Before our first outdoor session, we will talk in detail about this exact concern, but here’s a general overview of how we handle confidentiality in the great outdoors:
- Before leaving the office, we will talk about what feels best for you if we run into someone on the trail that either of us know, and I am happy to follow whatever feels best for you.
- I try to work with clients in lightly trafficked areas.
- Of course, I can’t promise we won’t run into other people. When the person is unknown to both of us, it’s typically pretty easy to just pause the conversation while passing, and/or move far away enough from them to avoid overlap completely.
- Finally, even if you prefer being outside for therapy, there may be some particularly challenging topics or explorations better served by a guarantee of privacy, and we can always plan to meet in the office for that work.