Ecotherapy is a newly emerging field within Western healing arts. In older traditions, ecotherapy is common or even implicit in general cultural practice. One example is with First Nations (Native American) people, who in their cultural traditions explicitly maintain relationships with the various elements of their natural environment.
In the modern Western context, the purpose of ecotherapy is to heal the damaged relationships between people and the earth. By “earth” I mean the ecosystems that created us, and continue to provide us with the essentials of life: air, food, water, clothing, building materials, medicines, etc. Sometimes I summarize ecotherapy by saying, “Engaging with nature to help heal people; and then people are inspired to heal nature, which then makes them feel even better.”
Nature is generally known to be very powerful and effective in helping people feel better. Most people, when asked to imagine something that helps them relax or feel good, will come up with images of nature, or animals. They may mention watching a sunset on a beautiful beach; or a peaceful forest scene, away from the rush of the city; or relaxing in their home at night, and feeling their warm dog cuddled up against their side. Some will mention peak moments of their lives, such as making it to the top of a tall mountain, or accidentally encountering a majestic wild animal in the forest. I know that one of many peak moments of my life was when I locked eyes with a beautiful, brilliant wild elephant on the Kenyan plain, alongside a river.
On the other hand, some people have experienced trauma in a natural setting: serious injury, animal attack, or natural disaster. These experiences may alienate the person from elements of their lives (and nature) which used to be pleasurable. Whether or not the person chooses to ever return to nature or to these activities, working with the traumatic imprint in somatic therapy can support renegotiation of the traumatic state, and bring considerable relief. Somatic Experiencing has specific protocols for working with inescapable attack, natural disasters, accidents, illnesses and injuries.
Eco-anxiety is also an issue that commonly arises in the therapy room. Eco-anxiety is the fear and anger that arises with our awareness that our ecosystems and animal species are currently being destroyed for profit. It is an entirely normal and understandable reaction; it is not pathological! In today’s modern world, however, there may be little support for such a reaction. Or, things may seem so overwhelming that the person turns away, repressing the anger and anxiety, which then may contribute to a variety of symptoms. Ecotherapy differs from many other branches of therapy in that we recognize and validate these feelings. We help the person to work through them and return to a more integrated state of internal balance.
For some, ecotherapy may involve establishing a regular nature practice: ways to regularly connect with the natural world, even while living in an urban environment. For others, it may involve animal assisted therapy, gardening, or moving towards healthier patterns of eating, living, and moving through the world. It may simply involve bringing an awareness of natural elements into the therapy room.
I have completed a Level 1 ecotherapy certificate from Ariana Candell, LMFT, Ecotherapist; and I am currently enrolled in a 100-hour ecopsychology certification course. This training supports me in incorporating ecotherapy into my practice in various ways, including indoors and outdoors, with individuals and groups. Ecotherapy may be practiced within an office setting, by incorporating natural elements (flowers, stones, photographs, memories) into a therapy session, and exploring their impact on the client. I also work outdoors, taking walks in natural settings here in Long Beach, and exploring the client’s awareness of their felt sense of movement, beauty, and well being. Please feel free to contact me for further details. Or check out my recent podcast talking about nature, how it can help us heal–and how we can help Nature.