The recent 3-D blockbuster Avatar filled theaters for weeks. Transfixed in part by the vivid beauty of a stunning natural environment and by a race of people living in deep attunement with their planet and its wild creatures, many moviegoers paid and waited repeatedly in long lines to watch the movie multiple times. From the standpoint of ecotherapy, or applied ecopsychology, this reaction to the movie is exactly what we might expect from a society of people with the “foundational attachment” wounds common to our culture. This article offers an overview of this emerging branch of psychotherapy and suggests ways that we can implement some of its theories and practices into our work. From an ecopsychological perspective, much of our psychological distress and dysfunction can be traced to our sense of alienation from the rest of nature. Steven Foster and Meredith Little called this “The Big Lie”, that humans are separate from nature (Foster & Little, 1998). Erick Fromm (in The Heart of Man, 1964), coined the term biophilia to describe humans’ innate love of other life forms. Many earthbased cultures understood that a person who did not have a deep sense of reverence for and connection to nature was not psychologically well and that this attitude was dangerous to individuals and the society as a whole. Historically, it took psychology many decades to recognize the pivotal importance of our early attachment patterns. Similarly, it was many decades before the field recognized the powerful influence of family systems and cultural influences on human development and functioning. It is time for the field of psychology to broadly embrace the wisdom of ecopsychology and take rapid, thorough steps to implement ecotherapeutic approaches.
I use the term “foundational attachment” to describe our sense of place, comfort and connection to living here on this planet and feeling at home in one’s own bioregion. As with human attachment, our foundational attachment can be anything from solid and resilient to highly erratic or disrupted. Foundational attachment is regarded to be a dynamic in the psyche parallel to human attachment. Healthy foundational attachment buffers people in times of crisis or when human attachment wounds are activated and provides us with a sense of safety and belonging that we cannot get in any other way. One of the signs of healthy foundational attachment is the presence of strong biophilic responses, or a love of other life forms and parts of the natural world (Wilson, 1984).
What is Ecotherapy?
Ecotherapy is body-oriented therapy, at least in some way. Our bodies are the most tangible evidence to our ever-active minds that we are a part of nature, that we are animals supported by the elements and other organisms of this planet. But, what is the significance of that psychologically? What does it mean to say that our psyches (and not just are bodies) are a part of nature? And how could we actually use the answers to these questions to our clients’ benefit? Buzzell & Chalquist (2009) categorize ecotherapy into 5 approaches: Horticultural Therapy; Animal-Assisted Therapy; Wilderness Work; Nature Reconnection; and Responding to Eco-grief. Each of these sub-fields has its own history, strengths and an array of approaches and trained practitioners.
Research on the Efficacy of Ecotherapy
A nice synopsis of research on the efficacy of ecotherapy may be found in the popular anthology Ecotherapy (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009). As is well recognized, wilderness therapy is one of the most effective interventions with delinquent, addicted and struggling teens. But there’s lots of other research supporting the value of ecotherapy. Animal-assisted therapy has been shown to reduce agitation & aggression in Alzheimer’s patients and also to be very effective with a variety of children and teen clients. Numerous clinicians have reported that guided imagery is more effective when nature images are included in the visualization. Richard Louv’s seminal work Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (2005), chronicles how a lack of play time in wild nature is adversely affecting our kids’ development and contributing to all manner of social, mental and medical difficulties. However, many therapists have yet to see how this might pertain to their own work, largely practiced in indoor settings.
Clinical Applications & Case Examples
My own practice of ecotherapy has primarily been in the categories of Wilderness Work, Nature Reconnection and some Animal-Assisted Therapy. There have been some amazing and lasting results.
Nature Reconnection- Working with youth
With many troubled teens, ecotherapy can greatly help them to learn impulse control and emotional self-regulation. The immediacy, opportunities for taking personal responsibility and room for high energy self-expression make nature a great venue for working with youth. In some cases, directly addressing foundational attachment wounds leads to a sense of tranquility and equanimity previously unknown to the client. In other cases, it can be a key element in helping a client release addictions, both by replacing psychological functions of the addiction with healthy behaviors and by working with underlying wounding.
“Tony”, 16, and his family came into therapy after he’d had several very angry outbursts with his mother. He’d been away in treatment and at a therapeutic boarding school for marijuana dependence in the prior year and was beginning to show signs of recidivism. Having had positive nature experiences in the past, he was cautiously open to the idea of ecotherapy. We agreed on the format of some office sessions interspersed with half-day ecotherapy outings.
Tony arrived to our second ecotherapy session with his hood pulled down low over his head, jeans sagging and a surly attitude. He responded to my initial efforts at connection with silence, short grunts and keeping his eyes down on the ground. This is status quo for him, according to his family. We began to walk up the trail, with Tony following and remaining similarly uncommunicative. Stopping by a creek a minute down the trail, Tony looked up for a moment and brightened. A little further up the trail, he eagerly said “Stop! Don’t Move. There’s a huge bird up there.” We stood transfixed as a flock of wild turkeys clucked and foraged ahead of us. The ice was broken. Soon thereafter it began to rain softly, which kept up much of the rest of the day. Our 4-hour ramble included visits to waterfalls, solo time, silently attuning with nature and open-ended conversation as we talked about everything from girlfriends to family to curfew to his ongoing drug testing. The land where we walked and the therapeutic relationship were both becoming a safe venue in which he could share and explore the many elements of his life. There were numerous opportunities to help him pause and be aware of his inner state and the world around him. He saw that at times he could tolerate the frustration and discomfort that often lead him to impulsive actions that he later regrets. Despite the wet weather, Tony left the day enthusiastic and eager for the next outing. His father reported that he was uncharacteristically talkative on the way home and in a great mood. His treatment plan going forward includes drug-testing and group and family therapy, along with monthly ecotherapeutic outings.
Indoor Applications of Ecotherapy
In the 21st century, we would no longer think an intake was complete without gathering information about a client’s family history and cultural background. But decades ago, this was not regular practice. A thorough assessment and intake process needs to include an exploration of a client’s relationship with the natural world. This background gives the therapist diagnostic information and indicates possible key resources to deepen and invigorate therapy.
Linda Buzzell gives a great overview of an ecotherapeutic intake approach (Buzzell & Chalquist, 2009). Common ecotherapeutic intake questions include:
- What is the role of nature in your life- now? As a child? Favorite places? Animals? Gardens? Solo or with others?
- What is the nature of your relationship with the Great Mystery?
- What do you know about where your food comes from? Have you ever visited there?
There are a nearly endless number of ways to use natural objects & imagery in the office. Here’s a few ideas: Creative arts or ritual with natural objects, either found by the client or provided by the therapist. Sand tray work is perfect for this. Or, Use the innate qualities of natural objects to enhance the therapeutic task at hand: E.g., ground anxiety by holding a rock, touching the earth, large trees, etc. Open or release stuck psychic places with the rain, flowing water, wind, the ocean. Rekindle deadened aspects or work with depression with sunshine, warmth, light, stars.
Most of all be creative- weave natural objects and imagination into any other kinds of therapeutic work. And have fun! Working with nature, even in the office, will bring you more in touch with the enlivening effects of tuning in to the beauty, mystery and power of this web of life that holds us all.
About the Author
Dave Talamo, MFT, Certified Hakomi Therapist works with teens, adults and families in private practice in San Rafael and west Marin. He is founder of Wilderness Reflections and the Institute for Somatic Ecotherapy, offering ecotherapy sessions, training in ecopsycholgy for healing arts practitioners and wilderness rites of passage journeys to teens and adults. Get more information at www.WildernessReflections.com
- Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Fromm, Erich (1964). The Heart of Man. Harper & Row.
- Kahn, Peter; Kellert, Stephen (2002). Children and nature: psychological, sociocultural, and evolutionary investigation.. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA..
- Buzzell & Chalquist (2009). Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA.
- Plotkin, Bill (2008). Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World. New World Library, Novato, CA.
- Louv, Richard. (2005). Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC.