To conclude this dissertation, there are four points that I think are important to convey to the reader so that they are left with questions to explore, personally and within their therapy practice, and to discover whether they feel compelled to utilise some aspect of ecotherapy practice. These four points (summarised below) will be illustrated through discussing them in relation to my personal process writing this dissertation. These four points are: (a) therapists need to consider how they are taking up the environmental crisis in their practice; (b) ecotherapy interventions can be simple and transformative; (c) therapists can utilise the healing properties of nature with clients; and (d) consider the different possibilities for bringing nature into the therapy room.
Writing the final stages of this dissertation has been very challenging. Spending a lot of my time working and being inside on the computer, has been taxing physically, mentally, and emotionally. It has been agony to live so near the beach, in beautiful bush and not have much time outside to enjoy it (as I had very little free time with the pressures of a looming deadline). This combined with moving countries and looking for employment to start my new career as a psychotherapist, has been very stressful and at times, overwhelming. In order to work with my sense of overwhelm, and the pressure to push on, I thought critically about my situation and tried to make my work structured, and planned out, in order to maintain a sense of accomplishment, and to contain my anxiety of not finishing or not doing a good job. After working with this for a week or more, I had reached the stage where I could not push on, and this intellectual technique was no longer helping. I needed to clear my head, take some space, and realised that I needed to get to the beach. This was not an unusual desire, as I often use nature to feel restored, so I trusted my intuition about what would help me find some space.
At this early point in my process, I had lost touch with my connection to the natural world even though my work was focused on the environment and nature, this was because I had spent most of my time inside and on the computer. Through feeling as though I needed to accomplish this task (writing this dissertation), the pressure of the work had taken over, and my connection to, and love of, nature had been lost. I realised I felt this way as I experienced very little emotion during the later phase of my work, even though I tend to feel emotional about this very personal topic. This disconnection with nature could also occur for others who are focusing on environmental work. Even though, cognitively, they are focused on this area, by sitting indoors and thinking about it, the feelings and passion for this earth, that probably were the impetus for this activity, can become lost. It is important to regain this connection; otherwise, the work could become methodical, uncreative, and rudimentary. This could result in people not reaching the goals they had set out to achieve.
Returning to my process, once I was outside and walking along the beach, I felt some space, breathing room, and the feelings of overwhelm and pressure disappeared. I was no longer concerned about getting things done, and making my dissertation as good as I possibly could, I was being present and aware of my body and the beach, and really enjoying it. I admired the beauty of the cliffs, the forming rock pools, and the rhythmic waves; I felt a sense of reconnection to nature, and the beauty of the earth. Simultaneously, thoughts arose of how we are mistreating this planet and I became aware of feeling sad and angry; I wanted to make it stop, to go away, and for this dissertation to mean something to others, for therapists to become healers of the earth and its inhabitants. My gaze was turning critically towards psychotherapy, and strong emotions arose with questions about how it came to be this way, and why does therapy limit our care and attention to humans. These questions felt like accusations, directed at all of the talented and inspiring therapists in history. I became aware of a felt sense of moral requirement, that we should be doing more to protect the natural world.
This brings me to my first point, that therapists should take up some form of ecotherapy, or at least, consider how they are, or are not, addressing the environmental crisis in therapy (and their lives). I feel that morally, therapists should do something, rather than remaining invisible on the sidelines. This use of the world “should” is worth examining, as I believe it can have negative connotations, such as being associated with guilt, rather than love. Nevertheless, I feel that psychotherapists have unique skills to bring to the environmental crisis, and as this crisis needs urgent attention, I believe that we all should bring our unique skills to help address it. I also think that we should respond to this crisis, as deep down many of us do love nature, and we should do our best to act in accord with what we value deeply.
Additionally, behind this “should” are my personal feelings of sadness and anger at environmental degradation, along with the real sense of the beauty of the earth. These feelings are very personally connected, and they are a sustainable, healthy source of motivation (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007). This is in contrast to the “should” that we are often faced with around the environment, internally or from other sources, that are often driven by a sense of guilt and fear (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007). For example, we should stop global warming as the polar ice caps are melting and if this continues, a whole ecosystem will become extinct, and this will be our fault, something that we might feel very guilty about. However, viewing this from a more sustainable perspective (Nordhaus & Shellenberger, 2007) could look something like this: polar bears live in these affected areas; I find them very beautiful, and they are majestic creatures that I really care about. They also have as much of a right to life as I do, and I want to do what I can to protect them, and this means protecting their habitat – the ice. In essence, this protective behaviour is motivated by love instead of fear. According to Nordhaus and Shellenberger (2007), environmentalism has tried to motivate people through presenting scientific data to engender the motivations of fear and guilt, the ineffectiveness of this is shown through the lack of adequate collective behavioural change in the face of large issues, such as climate change.
Returning to my point, that therapists should be engaged in environmental issues (Blair, 2011). Up until recently, our attempts to deal with the environmental crisis has been to explain these changes through scientific evidence, in the hopes that being faced with the facts, we will decide to become more environmentally friendly in our behaviour. These appeals to the rational mind have not been enough; something that does not surprise therapists, who know that human behaviour is complex and often highly irrational. Despite psychotherapy having a valuable understanding of unconscious processes, we have offered little of our expertise to help us to understand the relationship between humans and the environmental crisis. That ecotherapy is such a fringe part of psychotherapy is evidence that psychotherapists have not taken up environmental issues to the extent that other more politically or scientifically oriented professions have. For instance, the research that I referenced regarding the numerous benefits of exposure to nature (covered predominantly in the introduction section), were not studies by psychotherapists, they were executed other professionals, such as environmental psychologists (Bringslimark et al., 2009; Gidlöf-Gunnarsson & Öhrström, 2007; Hartig et al., 2003; Kuo & Sullivan, 2001), physicians (Antonioli & Reveley, 2005; Maas et al., 2009; Park & Mattson, 2009), scientists (Fuller et al., 2007), or social scientists (Mitchell & Popham, 2008; Vries et al., 2003). Psychotherapists have a unique and valuable perspective on human behaviour that would expand and deepen the dialogue on the environmental crisis and human-nature relationship – benefiting our planet and its inhabitants, and increasing the reputation of psychotherapy. Are we going to step up to the challenge of environmental issues, or are we going to continue to convince ourselves that the environment, or ourselves as psychotherapists, are not relevant?
To go back to my process after my walk on the beach, I realised that I felt alone and incapable of making a difference, and unable to complete my dissertation to my satisfaction. I had connected with feelings that people often face when looking into environmental concerns, helplessness and a sense of overwhelm (Macy, 1995). What made a difference in my situation (Macy & Johnstone, 2012) was how I had also reawakened my sense of love for, and connection with, nature, along with the feelings of sadness and anger towards environmental degradation. This engagement helped me not to dwell in feelings of helplessness, as I had a strong, personal motivator for action (Macy & Johnstone, 2012). I then became aware of a new sense of purpose, and for the first time, I felt strongly that I wanted someone beside me in this process of completing my dissertation; previously I had felt capable and able to work with a small degree of support.
These emotions parallel emotions that come up for others, and myself, in ecotherapy (Clinebell, 1996), a fringe field, that is somewhat isolated, especially in New Zealand where it is mostly unknown. In addition, the feeling of wanting support reminds me of how we cannot go it alone in working with environmental change; we will manage better with a support network of others who have similar intentions (Macy, 1995). In any endeavour that is alternative, it is likely that we will feel alone at times, thinking that we are different from others which could lead to alienation. Amidst these feelings was the realisation that I needed to reach out, to be understood by others in order to feel less different or isolated. Although in the beginning this was difficult, through talking I began to see what was happening by seeing the link between my writing process, and the project of ecotherapy. This felt very helpful as I felt relieved to make sense of my painful state rather than feeling overcome by a strange, negative state.
This links in with my second point, that ecotherapy interventions do not need to be complicated; they can be very simple. Often when people are faced with the challenge of how to address the environmental crisis they can end up feeling overwhelmed, and thinking there is nothing that they could possibly do to help (Macy, 1995; Rust, 2008). They might think that their actions need to address everything (fixing the whole environment), and that this needs to be well informed and perfect (Lappé, 2011). This overwhelm, feeling as if they do not know enough to act, and the sense of powerlessness, often leads to inactivity (Lappé, 2011). “If I can’t do something that I am certain will really make a positive difference, then I might as well do nothing” would be the thought process if it were made conscious. However, often this decision is not well thought out or rational, and instead is an avoidance of painful feelings (Lappé, 2011; Macy, 1995; Roszak et al., 1995; Rust, 2008).
My ecotherapy intervention in the face of difficult, overwhelming feelings was very simple, a walk along a beautiful beach. When feeling overwhelmed, it is useful to do something simple to process that overwhelm, such as going for a walk in nature, even if you are not sure that it will help, trust in the hope that it will be helpful in some way. Through listening to that hope and believing in the intuition of what might be helpful, I reached a place of feeling more empowered. This small act of trusting myself, helped me to get to a place of feeling more trusting in general, and feeling more able to look at “what’s in front of me, and what can I do about what’s in front of me?” rather than feeling a pressure to fix everything and make it perfect. This simple walk led to reconnecting with nature and myself, and opening up some space, where previously there was none. It also transformed my state of mind, and my sense of wellbeing, and I am very glad that I that did this rather than staying indoors and trying to work through my feelings of overwhelm. This example illustrates the power of moving in a beautiful natural environment, a simple ecotherapy intervention.
This leads onto my next point, the healing power of the natural world. There are many benefits to spending time in greenspace or having a green view (see: page 6), why not integrate these into your therapy practice? Do this in a style that feels authentic, such as a one-off session where you both go outside to discover this healing power. If this is completely new to your client, you can guide them through it, sharing your own experiences where time in nature helped you to feel better. Every time we go outside, there is a sense of discovery as everything changes from moment to moment – even if we do this every day. Take a chance and experiment with going outside and trust that this sense of discovery or surprise can happen repeatedly, for both client and therapist. It is important not to assume that clients have already been exposed to nature’s healing, even if we think it is common sense, nor that a client does not need this in sessions, even if they have done it before. Keep a fresh, open, not-knowing mind whilst experimenting. Given this natural healing resource is so simple and accessible for many of us in New Zealand, I think it is a pity that therapy is so removed from the natural world.
My final point is about the importance of the therapeutic space. People want to spend time in a beautiful room and their energy and sense of wellbeing is greater than in an ugly room (Maslow & Mintz, 1956; Mintz, 1956). In addition, bringing in elements of nature into the room will provoke conversations about nature, a client could express their thoughts and feelings towards a plant that needs watering, or a flower that has just opened up; the possibilities are endless. These small details contribute to both the possibility of nature being brought up by a client in therapy, and to creating a space that is welcoming and energising. To illustrate this, during my walk on the beach, it was the small details that I noticed, rather than the overarching landscape that contributed my increase in wellbeing; standing on a rock while the water pooled in around me, creating rock pools. This experience increased my happiness and contentment, through appreciating the beauty of the waves and rocks, a little part of the whole; I slowly became more in touch with my feelings. The sensory experience and being in a beautiful place was important to this process. By appreciating the beauty of the landscape, I was able to experience the loss of it, this was important for processing my grief, sadness, and anger about this loss, and specifically for cultivating my motivation for pro-environmental behaviour (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009a; Macy & Johnstone, 2012; Rust, 2012; Totton, 2011).
To conclude, I desperately hope that we can address our current environmental crisis. When I hear another story of a creature that is on the brink of extinction, or already extinct, and how we are likely to lose much of Antarctica within the next twenty years, I feel devastated. I know that this is because of the actions of humans, of living as if what we do does not matter, even if we are killing the creatures we share this planet with. I want to belong to a profession, a group of people, who care about this, and show this care through their actions, and by talking and thinking about this, rather than a group that appears to be turning away, denying the relevance of what is in front of us.
I have been fortunate enough to have been raised spending a lot of time in New Zealand forests and the high-country of the South Island. When I spend time around Lake Tekapo, or in the beech forests, I feel completely at home and in love; I feel in awe of the beauty of our country. I want to enable others to experience these feelings, in whichever setting speaks to them and to their heart, by ensuring that these places are looked after. Ecotherapy, for me, is about helping people to find this love and sense of connection with this great earth. Please, find the places that bring tears to your eyes, that touch your heart, and where you feel at peace, allow these places to bring forth your love for this world, and let this love show you how to protect and care for this earth.
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