An innovative approach to using nature as therapy
Beth Collier is a a nature based psychotherapist, who use’s London’s parks and woods as a therapy room.
This is Beth’s story about how she discovered the power of combining psychotherapy with nature, and the positive impact it has on the children and adults that she works with.
Beth grew up in rural in Suffolk on a small holding and spent most of her childhood outdoors playing and exploring.
She enjoyed learning about the world around her, and has a very vivid memory of being about 10 and looking out over the horizon as far as the eye could see, until the earth curved looking over Fenland, fields and forest.
Beth had the idea for combining therapy and nature after working indoors with an 11 year old boy.
Full of anger, he was growing up in challenging circumstances on an inner city estate with a mother who neglected him and bullied him.
For a boy at risk of gang involvement, presenting as an adult, the materials available for therapy did not seem age appropriate. Either too young or insufficiently engaging, it was difficult for Beth to offer him something that would allow him to be his true age and express his vulnerability.
Beth started to wonder what the work might be like if they were outdoors where his energy could have other outlets.
This brought home her memory of the horizon and her personal experiences of nature as a release and support system.
Sadly, Beth didn’t get to work outside with this boy, but it did lead to her taking two other groups of children facing similar issues out into parks and woods in London.
The transformation was self-evident.
In a matter of seconds, children labelled as naughty and disruptive were suddenly curious and explorative.
They were observers, they were demonstrating wonderful leadership skills and behaving in a way that became very easy to praise.
A very different scenario to being kept indoors with pent up energy, repeatedly told off by adults.
Beth observed that it is the environment at fault rather than the child.
Coming from challenging backgrounds, living in cramped confined spaces, many children completely lack the freedom to play in green spaces.
This deprives children of a sense of self in relation to the natural world, harming their natural development and emotional health.
Simply by being allowed to be in a space where they have freedom, their energy can be naturally channelled into fun activities and adventure that feels good.
Beth’s work is underpinned by attachment theory and the importance of having a secure base.
Just as you can have an attachment style to people, you can also have an attachment style to nature.
If you have grown up without connection to nature, then it is probable that you might have an insecure attachment style with nature.
But that can be transformed – a transition can be made from insecure and anxious, perhaps ambivalent or avoidant, to feeling secure and being able to embrace an intimate relationship with nature.
What does intimacy with nature mean?
One metaphor for intimacy with nature, is that it is like going to work on the tube.
You see the same faces every day but these people are strangers, so you don’t interact with them.
Similarly when walking through the trees in the park in nature, you don’t need to know those trees names to enjoy nature and enjoy the benefit.
However, if you do know the names of the people on the tube, it breaks down the barriers and forms a connection.
In the same way, the more that you know about what you are seeing around you in nature, the more it breaks down barriers, and nature becomes more like a friend because your understanding has increased.
Beth describes nature as a co-counsellor, a co-teacher.
Research has shown that looking at pictures of nature can be enough improve our emotional wellbeing, let alone when you add in a sensory experience to actually being in nature.
Nature reduces cortisone which is the hormone responsible for us feeling stressed.
Spending time in nature improves our memory and induces meditative feelings.
It activates the area of our brain that is associated with love, stability and empathy, whereas being in urban areas relates to a part of our brain that is associated with fear and stress.
There is evidence that a 90 minute walk in nature helps to reduce rumination (negative self talk).
Spending time in nature reduces depression, anxiety and stress.
Thinking back to the child in the tower block again, how important it is for them to have access to the green space?
Following her positive experiences working with young people in natural settings, Beth started to question why she wasn’t delivering more of this kind of work.
She decided to be true to her authentic self, and offer all her adult clients the option to work outdoors in nature.
She started to explore how to open up opportunities for more young people to access nature, and set up Wild in the City.
Wild in the City helps people living in urban areas have a stronger connection with people and nature, through nature based psychotherapy, courses and community events.
The focus is on emotional health, wellbeing and having a sense of belonging.
Bushcraft and traditional skills show how nature can be meaningful within our daily lives, and help us to reflect on what it means to live rather than survive, to co-operate with others, and to be able to live comfortably within our surroundings.
Bushcraft offers a type of eco therapy, it is a way of being outdoors and looking after our wellbeing, almost as a by-product that when you’re enjoying an activity and giving it your full attention, it is very meditative, like an active mindfulness.
An added bonus is that these activities offer gentle to vigorous physical exertion, like a woodland gym. Sitting quietly burns 90 calories, while felling a tree burns 370 calories.
Wild in the City demonstrates how spending time in nature has a powerful impact on our physical and emotional wellbeing.
The outcome is the ability to develop more positive relationships with other people and with nature.