What is Outdoor Therapy? How does it work?
Outdoor therapy is a non-traditional modality that invites clients to take a nature-based approach to their mental health treatment. It disrupts the traditional (and sometimes stuffy) dynamic of “talk therapy” by letting the client and counselor relate to one another in a less formal environment. For example, it feels friendlier to walk side-by-side, fix our gazes on the path or trees instead of each other, enjoy more natural and prolonged silences, and occasionally run from bees together.
It works not only because of the healthy boost of depression-beating endorphins that walking outdoors produces, but also because it helps us build a stronger therapeutic bond. That bond is the primary healing factor in most mental health treatments.
What does a typical outdoor therapy session entail? How to clients respond?
I am an animal-assisted therapist, so most of my outdoor sessions are inspired by our therapy dog, Benji. When I notice that clients appear to be “stuck” during our talk therapy session, I invite them to join me and Benji on a walk. I explain the therapeutic value of walking, especially for people who experience depression or anxiety, and let them decide.
There are pros and cons to doing our sessions outside. We can’t control the weather, the presence of other walkers, or the number of “p-mails” Benji wants to leave, but the pros usually outweigh the cons. My clients have always responded positively, typically rating their symptoms on a 1-10 scale several points lower at the end of the walk compared to when we started.
What are the benefits of outdoor therapy when compared to traditional forms of therapy?
Mental benefits of outdoor therapy include improved mood (clients use words like “calm”, “peaceful”, and “relaxed”), deeper insights and clearer thinking (clients will become “unstuck” or have sudden breakthroughs during our walks), and the ability to identify more creative solutions to the problems that brought them to therapy.
How can outdoor therapy be particularly useful during COVID?
Outdoor therapy has given many of my clients peace of mind since the start of the pandemic. The ability to move so much of our work and life online in the past two years has saved lives, and for that, the mental health community is grateful. However, it has also caused a significant spike in depression and anxiety, especially for people who are already vulnerable to mental health concerns. Humans are social creatures and we need each other to thrive.
For my clients, knowing that they have the option to mask up and meet me and Benji out on the trail has helped them maintain their baseline wellness during this tough time. Walking during session also helps people maintain momentum and continue practicing self-care routines between sessions. Thank you for bringing this important topic to your readers!
Participating in outdoor therapy or even spending a few minutes outdoors can be a great morale-booster! In fact, we are always encouraging our clients and readers to spend at least five minutes outside each day – exercise is essential to the self-care routine!
Getting into a routine can be half the battle, but we can help with that! Subscribe to our weekly self-care newsletter and download your free self-care guide that is packed with journal entries, self care activities, and more! Go to www.selfcaretips.org/freeguide to get yours and give yourself permission to put yourself first.