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One of the recent projects I am excited about is a training series we’re creating for the Therapy and Family Foundations teams at Crossnore. Since August, I have had the opportunity to share a Master of Social Work intern, Meghan Lever, with the Prevention Services team. Meghan has put significant work into this project. And together we’ve been able to come up with some really exciting content.

In my career, I have loved relying on my work and educational background in the outdoor experiential education field, while working in the child welfare world. And often in a therapeutic context. The outdoor experiential education field knows how to move and do and connect in really powerful and meaningful ways. But sometimes it misses some of the theory or understanding of why what we’re doing is making an impact. Meanwhile, the social work world knows the why and the theory really well. But it can get stuck when it comes to being embodied and engaged. Using the outdoors for healing is not a new practice or concept by any stretch. But our ability to explain why it’s healing is catching up to where we are in practice.

Our training for the Crossnore therapists is going to be highly practice-focused. But it will also include a few really important concepts. Thinks like Attention Restoration Theory, Greenspace and Blue space, and Ecological identity.

Attention Restoration Theory

You know how much more focused and rejuvenated you feel after you’ve spent time outside? Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that our fatigue decreases and ability to concentrate may increase when we spend time in, or looking at nature. Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly why being in nature helps to restore our attention. There are some ideas that it’s because in nature there are fractal patterns. Our brains can process these more easily than the patterns we are exposed to in our built environment. According to ART, the natural environment must have four things to be restorative: extent (immersion); being away (escape); effortless fascination; and compatibility (you have to want to be there).

Green/Blue Space

Source: eea.europa.eu

I was first introduced to the idea of green and blue space while in graduate school. The concept is fairly simple in its naming. Green space consists of natural areas dominated by greenery. And blue space consists of areas where water is present. These concepts are often incorporated into fields like city and urban planning. But they also have utility when it comes to considering where nature-based therapies can take place. In practice, you might find blue space at a local park with a pond, fountain, or river. Moving water is best, particularly because of the added sensory components.

Ecological Identity

This concept is important for therapists to understand about themselves. But it also aids in understanding the ecological identities for their clients and families. Ecological identity is the manner and depth in which one connects to and engages with the natural environment. Equipped with this concept, clinicians can emphasize safe and collaborative sessions. Generally, there are three categories of ecological identity: averse, receptive and connected.

  1. Averse – this person has very limited experiences, or a potentially negative relationship with nature. This could look like lack of safety, or feeling out of place, and could even present nervous system activation. While some people just aren’t that into nature, it’s important to recognize that the survival response that others experience outdoors is genuine.
  2. Receptive – this person has a neutral to positive stance towards nature, but may have limited experiences. Here, nature may be seen as separate from self. And/or that nature is only something meant for the sake of utility. Therapists can be gentle and hopeful here, to avoid pushing a client towards an averse style.
  3. Connected – this person has a strong connection with nature, and sees the human-nature connection as inextricable. A connected identity does not have to be the goal, but it can be.

If you’re trying to think through your own ecological identity, these questions may help determine where you land:

  • What is your favorite way to connect with nature?
  • What were your favorite places in nature when you were a child/adolescent/adult?
  • How do you feel (physically and emotionally) when you are in nature?
  • What activities do you enjoy doing outdoors?
  • What natural spaces or beings do you feel most connected to?
  • How do you show care or compassion for nature?

(Harper et al 2019)

Modes of Experiencing Nature

Let’s take the concept of ecological identity one step further. There’s also the type of interaction with nature, which breaks down into direct, indirect, and vicarious. This chart comes from the book Nature-Based Therapy. It can help consider the vast ways that nature-based therapy can be incorporated into a therapeutic context – even if it doesn’t include direct contact!

(Harper et al 2019)

Try the Awe Walk

Source: earth.com

The Awe Walk can be a really helpful practice of grounding and tending to your nervous system, using direct nature interaction. The practice of the awe walk is not aimed at creating profound, vast, and novel experiences. Rather it aims to create moments of awe and wonder in the everyday. 

Here’s how to do it:

  • Decide where you are going to do this practice. On your first try it can be helpful to go somewhere you haven’t been, or take a route you don’t usually take.
  • Start your walk by taking some time to feel centered by feeling the ground beneath your feet, the temperature of the air on your cheeks. Take a few moments to tune into your breath.
  • As you feel settled in your walking pace, shift your awareness to what is around you. Focus on things that are vast, complex, unexpected, unexplainable, or that surprise and delight you. Try to imagine that this is the first time you have ever seen the landscape around you. Let your attention be open to awe. Is it a wide landscape? The tiny patterns of light and shadow? The quick flight patterns of birds, or the slow passing of the clouds? 
  • Try choosing something you see and imagine you are seeing it for the first time. Really examine and appreciate it, look for movement, patterns, textures etc.  [For kids you might ask them, “If someone from another planet showed up right now, what do you think they would be amazed by or curious about?”]
  • Continue your walk for as long as you like, taking in the opportunity for awe all around you.

Therapist Resources

If you’re someone who is attempting to incorporate more nature-based approaches into your therapeutic work, we offer these recommendations:

  • Plan: Come with a plan and the flexibility to abandon all prior preparation. Part of having a plan is sharing the plan. Take time to frame the expectations, intentions, or purpose with your clients.
  • Personal Toolkit: Your collection of skills and knowledge is available to you, even if this is a new context. While the hope is that these experiences aren’t simply doing therapy outside, your clinical and relational skill set is valuable and accessible.
  • Contextual Awareness: Expand your awareness to not only the individuals you are working with and their affective and physical states, but also the world around you. This means taking into consideration the environmental conditions, rethinking and addressing confidentiality, and increased awareness of pacing and time. 
  • Self-Awareness: This method of engagement may require a different version of yourself than how you show up in your typical setting. We are being asked to show up in a changing environment that we will no doubt have our own connections or reactions with. Consider the environments that will honor your own ecological identity in a way that allows for you to be authentic, model healthy behaviors, and be in a physiological state that lends to the desired co-regulation. 
  • Ask questions: The reflection process is key to growth. Don’t know where to start? Try these:
    • What did you notice?
    • What happened during this experience?
    • Why do you think this happened?
    • What made you respond in this manner?
    • Did this work for you? Did it get you what you wanted or needed?
    • Does this kind of thing happen at home/school/work? Why do you think it happens there?
    • How does that work for you elsewhere?
    • What would you have liked to do differently knowing what you know now?
    • How might what happened be important?
    • What should we do with this new experience?
    • How is this like your life?

The Broader Field (Field, get it?)

Fortunately, there are numerous practitioners and scholars at this intersection of social work and the outdoors. They’re primarily looking at nature-based and experiential approaches to therapy. Adventure therapy is a multi-sensory intervention that does not rely exclusively on cognitive processes, but includes the client’s active engagement. In adventure therapy, the client and the practitioner get up off the couch! In the past several years, the Association for Experiential Education introduced the Certified Clinical Adventure Therapist (CCAT) and Certified Therapeutic Adventure Specialist (CTAS) Certifications.

I feel so grateful to now be able to equip clinicians at Crossnore with these skills, and connect them to a broader field of practice.