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Nature Based Therapy – Bringing Nature Into Practice

Nature Based Therapy (NBT) is an emerging field in both complimentary therapies and holistic health treatment which has been incorporated into the practice of many medical and mental health professions. Occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurses, social workers and psychologists have used NBT practices as a complementary means of treating a variety of physical, emotional, and cognitive disorders.

Nature Based Therapy uses nature as a tool to promote health and is based on the therapeutic use of sensory experiences which incorporates nature based mindfulness, journaling, creative arts, holistic counselling, nature based diet, Indigenous philosophy, holistic health education and self-care into clinical settings that greatly benefit clients.

There is a growing amount of evidence-based research that suggests Nature Based Therapy has proven to be beneficial treatment modality for anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health disorders.

Nature is a powerful healing resource that can be used to restore well-being. Since the time of industrialization, humans have lost their connection to their natural surroundings. Nature Based Therapy also understands that the state of the natural environment is close to our internal psychological state and therefore connects ecology with psychology.

By enabling people to reconnect with nature and experience its beauty, a sense of belongingness emerges, and life becomes more meaningful.

I founded Nature Based Therapy on the success that I was having with the people that I was working with when I saw that their healing was connecting to their relationship with the natural world.

I have been working in the field of mental health and drug and alcohol for 20 years.  What I noticed is that the people I worked with appeared to open up and talk more from the heart when they were outside of the clinical setting.  Sitting in a room surrounded by white walls asking questions around how someone was feeling often left them feeling stuck.  I became aware that they would often try and ‘think’ about how they were ‘feeling’ rather than ‘tune-in’ to how they were feeling. 

I have worked in various roles and settings that have allowed me to take clients outside of the four white walls known as our counselling rooms.  The first experience of this was back in 2003 when I was employed as a drug and alcohol counsellor at a residential rehabilitation centre.  We were located on a pine plantation which had an abundance of nature and wildlife surrounding us.  I introduced to the program a morning bush walk which allowed participants to start moving in the morning.  What I noticed was without asking questions people just started talking.  There were no prompts, no agenda and certainly no expectations.  Conversations flowed and people started to talk about how they were feeling. 

Another example of how I experienced the benefits of bringing nature into practice was when I was working as a drug and alcohol counsellor at an Aboriginal community health service.  We had a plot at a nearby community garden and a lake next door with a walking track around it.  I sensed at times that some clients felt uncomfortable opening up when we were doing initial assessments at the beginning of the therapeutic relationship.  I invited them to come for a walk and just spend some time sitting outside at the lake witnessing nature at work.  People seemed to connect and started relating their life to what they were observing …

… this may have reflected in the person feeling lonely in life and witnessing a duck alone on the lake.  When the person looked deeper into what they were observing they noticed that the duck was in fact not alone.  The duck appeared to co-exist in an eco-system and was interdependent upon this eco-system.  The client started to think about their own eco-system (family, community, nature) and the importance of having healthy relationships.  The client started to talk about their relationships and how they were having an impact on their mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.  This conversation may not have opened up had we stayed within the four white walls.

The community garden was another space that allowed a client to open up and gain a deeper perspective about himself and life.  This person was interested in native bush foods, so I invited him up to the plot at the community garden and we spent a session planting some seeds.  The client appeared to enjoy getting his hands in the dirt and talk about his connection to culture through land and Indigenous foods.  Whist he was planting we discussed him setting some goals and the importance of being patient and doing things at the right time and being in the right place.  We talked about the importance of having healthy soil to plant seeds and to nourish the seed through watering it and having enough exposure to light.  This led onto a conversation about his own personal environment (living conditions, relationships), diet, access to sunshine and looking after himself in general.  He started to talk about what he wanted to do with his life and what things nourished him that would enable him to achieve his goals.

However, Nature Based Therapy is not just about taking people outdoors to nature to be able to do therapeutic work.  Our therapeutic processes also use nature as a metaphor and includes biophilic design in bringing nature into indoor practice.  One resource we use is the nature reflection cards where we have 36 images of nature on cards and lay them out.  We ask a person to choose the card that they intuitively feel drawn to and then we ask them to discuss the meaning of the card to them and why these chose it.  Throughout my counselling practice and through facilitating workshops at conferences, I have seen profound outcomes.  People have opened up about particular events that have happened to them and emotions that they have suppressed through this process.  The image of nature that they chose resonated with them in a way that they were about to talk about themselves through the reflection of nature.  You see, we are not separate from the natural world.  We are nature.  Albert Einstein once stated, ‘Look deep into nature and you will understand yourself better’.  And, we do not have to sit within four while walls.  We can bring indoor plants, nature images, fruit bowls and water features into our waiting and counselling rooms! Nature is a wonderful tool to empower the people you are working with to be able to improve their self-awareness, develop resilience and find their own innate strengths to improve their health and wellbeing.  It is also a wonderful resource for our own self-care as health professionals!

Written by content contributor, Kit Kline.

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