Grieving for Nature Lost

One of the prevailing themes of growing up and growing older is loss. We lose family members, we lose friends, we lose partners. These losses often lead to grief, and grief is an emotion that we still don’t have even an adequate, let alone superb, support structure for in this society. Look at how we portray funerals in movies, TV and other media: people standing around solemnly at a gravesite while the priest reads off Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”.) In real life, we maybe get a day or two off of work to go to said funeral, and then we’re expected to suck it up and get back to our duties. Everything in our modern cultural script about loss says that we have to be stoic and let any emotional expression be strictly private.

And that’s just for grieving the loss of our fellow human beings. It’s only been in the past few years that it’s become more acceptable to openly mourn for the loss of a pet (and that, no doubt, is partly heralded by greeting card companies capitalizing on an occasion to make more money.) Maybe a few hippies and crunchy-granola types are expected to hold memorials for venerable urban trees that are cut down to make way for development.

But nowhere is there a widespread space where we can openly grieve for the loss of nature. I learned this acutely when I was in my early teens, and the open lot of trees and fields behind my home was bulldozed to make way for yet more houses on 1/2 acre parcels of fescue. I was completely devastated; as a badly bullied child I had found my safety and solace in nature, and this loss was legitimately traumatic. I spent the next few years being increasingly isolated and skirting the edges of depression, and no one, not even myself, seemed to know what the problem really was. I had been, figuratively and literally, uprooted.

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How is Nature Good For You? Let Me Count the Ways

One thing you’ll see a lot on this site–in fact, its raison d’être–is the idea that nature is good for you. And indeed many people will report that they feel better after a weekend camping, or at least a few hours spent wandering a lovely green park. But what’s actually going on in your mind and body when you get outside? Here are just a few of the beneficial effects you may be experiencing:

  • A decrease in blood flow to parts of the brain that fuel rumination. Rumination is what happens when you can’t get your mind to stop chewing on something negative or worrisome, and is particularly common in people experiencing depression. (Source.)
  • A 20% increase in memory performance, attention, and other improvements in cognitive function. It’s also connected to a lowered rate of ADHD in children, and lowered symptoms in people with ADHD. (Source, source, source, source.)

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Book Review: The Voice of the Earth by Theodore Roszak

The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology
Theodore Roszak
Simon & Schuster, 1992
368 pages

Ecopsychology as a named concept is now a quarter of a century old, so I decided to go spelunking into some of the foundational texts. This is the book that started it all.

When I was first learning about ecopsychology, my instructor, Dr. Thomas Doherty, described how there are three generations of ecopsychology. The first, coming out of the initial few years of its development, has a decidedly countercultural feel to it. It’s full of criticisms of society as a whole, and something of an aversion to formal research. (Later generations have been more open to studies, as the peer-reviewed journal Ecopsychology demonstrates.)

After re-reading this book, I’m unsurprised by how anti-authoritarian early ecopsychology was. Roszak’s book is a long letter to Western society on how we’ve distanced ourselves from nature and how this has had a devastating impact not just on the planet itself, but on our psyches. It’s far from being simply an accusatory jeremiad, though, for the author draws on a variety of disciplines from philosophy to religion to support his assertions, culminating in a brief but concise description of a potential solution: ecopsychology.

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Unconditional Positive Regard and Ecopsychology

“The central hypothesis of this approach can be briefly stated. It is that the individual has within him or her self vast resources for self-understanding, for altering her or his self-concept, attitudes, and self-directed behavior—and that these resources can be tapped if only a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided,” –Carl Rogers, on unconditional positive regard

The graduate-level counseling program that I got my Master’s degree through at Lewis & Clark College has a very humanistic foundation. Humanistic psychology was developed by Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, and several other pioneering psychologists in the mid-20th century. After decades of being dominated by the Victorian biases of Freud’s psychoanalysis and Skinner’s cold behaviorism*, the field of psychology was in dire need of some warmth and humanity.

There are several key tenets to humanistic psychology, including the idea that people are inherently good, that we are whole, complex people and we should strive to develop our best selves, and that a therapist’s role is to be supportive in these efforts while offering constructive tools the client can use. Also important is the concept of unconditional positive regard, in which a therapist wholly accepts a person as they are, and does not judge them no matter their mistakes or flaws. By offering this place of complete support, the client has the opportunity to see that they always have the potential to become better regardless of their past or present circumstances.

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The Restorative Powers of Quiet

When we think about the restorative properties of nature, we usually think of presences: the presence of greenery, the presence of birdsongs, the presence of physical exertion, etc. What may be surprising is the absences within nature. One of the most notable is the absence of noise. Constant loud noise is rare in non-human nature; there may be short periods of a few days or weeks where large breeding colonies of birds make a ton of noise for much of the day and/or night, but these are the exception rather than the rule. And even in these mass gatherings, the animals are generally able to get away from the commotion to hunt for food for their young.

What many people experience, particularly in crowded urban areas, is an unnatural level of constant noise during most or all of a typical twenty-four hour period. Our brains are only wired to filter out so much noise for so long before fatigue sets in; we may think that we’re dealing with it alright because we don’t often notice it consciously. This is a case of self-defense.

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Ecotherapy and Accessibility

If you’ve spent much time studying ecopsychology, you’ll find that the majority of people involved in it tend to be white, middle class, college-educated and generally able-bodied. (Yes, I fit that pretty well myself.) And the people who most often seek out ecotherapy as clients frequently come from that demographic as well.

If ecopsychology is really going to succeed as a pathway to helping people be more in touch with nature, then ecopsychologists need to find ways to offer our knowledge and skills beyond the usual suspects, so to speak. There are a few factors in particular that I’d like to go over in brief; one article is far from sufficient to hold all the solutions, but I can at least get you, my dear readers, thinking more about the situation at hand.

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Five Minute Ecotherapy

I’ll admit that I personally love immersing myself in wilderness areas for days at a time. However, not everyone has the time, finances, ability or desire to do such a thing, and even I only get to do multi-day escapes into the woods once or twice a year at best. Dealing with stressors and other factors detrimental to my mental health and well-being is a daily effort, and so I can’t wait until these precious escapes into deep nature.

So what to do in the meantime? If all I have to spare is five minutes, I can still indulge in a micro-break, which is often enough time to let myself rest a bit and allow some of the stress I’m feeling to drain out of me. Research has supported time and again that taking breaks at work actually boosts productivity (take that, every micromanaging manager I ever had!) And the benefits of even brief periods of exposure to nature can be remarkable.

These are meant to be brief de-stressors in the moment. They’re not a substitute for longer therapy sessions, medications or other mental health care, but they can certainly help if you’re having a bad moment, or just need a chance to breathe.

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Book Review: The Nature Fix by Florence Williams

The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative
Florence Williams
W.W. Norton & Company, 2017
280 pages

Research on why nature is good for us is hardly monopolized by ecopsychology; everyone from neurobiologists to social scientists have been weighing in on the subject for decades with a variety of quantitative and qualitative studies. Some of them seem to be near-repeats of each other; there are multiple studies, for example, showing that we respond better to real nature than to facsimiles like film or plasma screens with live feeds of the outdoors. Other studies go in very different directions; Korean researchers have been putting a great deal of emphasis on the overall sensory experience of nature, leading to surprising results with aromatherapy.

All these studies can feel a little overwhelming, especially for those who don’t want to slog through academic jargon or translate statistics into plain English. Enter The Nature Fix. In it, journalist Florence Williams explores the latest research on the intersection of nature and therapy and explains why it’s important for the everyday person to have access to this information. It’s a wonderfully inviting book, written in Williams’ friendly, humorous, and more than occasionally irreverent tone. (You can’t beat the straight-to-the-point title, either.)

Read more here.

Your First Ecotherapy Session

So you’ve read about ecotherapy and you think it may be a good fit–what’s next?

Your first step, of course, is going to be to find an ecotherapist. You can check the Find an Ecotherapist page here at Watershed Ecotherapy; I’m always adding new practitioners* so check back periodically if there’s no one from your area listed yet. There are more general therapist directories through Psychology Today and You can also search for “[your city or your state] ecopsychology” or “[your city or your state] ecotherapy” and see if anyone shows up in the results. Many areas also have a directory of therapists that you can find by searching for “[your city or your state] therapists”; some of these practitioners may mention ecopsychology as one of their specialties, or be open to exploring it with you. As of yet I don’t know of any ecotherapists who offer services over phone or internet.

So let’s say you’ve found an ecotherapist you would like to work with, they have availability in their schedule, and they take your insurance or their out of pocket costs are affordable enough for you. Your first session is very important, because it’s where the two of you will first get to know each other a little bit. Keep in mind that the therapist-client relationship is just that: a relationship. It can take time to develop trust and depth, so don’t go in expecting a perfect rapport to form by the end of that first session.

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You Don’t Have to Be an Ecotherapist to Practice Ecotherapy

So what is an ecotherapist? Someone who practices ecotherapy, obviously.

Well, maybe. Let’s get a little more nuanced here. There’s the simple definition, but then there’s also the identity end of things. See, “ecotherapist” can denote being something of a specialist, in the same way someone can be an art therapist. Mental health practitioners often use these specialized terms to help potential clients understand what sort of therapeutic practices they offer. And, yes, it can be a valuable marketing tool, especially for private practitioners. Let’s face it–while ecotherapy can be good for a whole spectrum of people, it often tends to attract a particular nature-loving demographic. Preaching to the choir, as it were.

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