Tag Archives: ecopsychology

When Ecotherapy Isn’t a Good Fit

So you’re interested in seeing an ecotherapist. You’ve done the research to find a practitioner in your area, you’ve made payment arrangements, and you’re eagerly awaiting your first session with someone you hope will help you use nature to heal what ails you mentally and/or emotionally.

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Book Review: Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming
Paul Hawken (editor)
Penguin Books, 2017
234 pages

My last couple of articles here have dealt with allowing ourselves to grieve for losses in nature, and discussing trauma and resilience in the time of climate change. I wanted to round out the trifecta with a more concrete set of solutions, and these come in the form of one of the best books I’ve read this year.

97% of scientists who are actually studying climate change (as opposed to making armchair claims) have found enough evidence to be convinced that climate change is anthropogenic–caused by humans. And the rate of climate change is so rapid on a geological scale that it’s set to seriously disrupt every system on the planet, from ocean currents to animal migrations to weather patterns. As I’ve mentioned before, this impending scene of doom–which we’re already seeing the first signs of–has a lot of people scared, anxious, angry, even hopelessly nihilistic. Much of that is because we don’t feel empowered to actually do anything, especially when government officials and corporations both seem hell-bent on continuing the trend in the name of money.

This book, then, is a serious antidote to that.

Resilience in the Face of Climate Change

In my last article, I talked about how we need to create space to grieve for environmental losses. No loss is greater than that of the entire planet, and while we’re not likely to have the Earth obliterated by the Death Star any time soon, several times throughout its history it has experienced mass extinctions and devastating climate shifts. Our species has existed for the past couple hundred thousand years in a relatively stable period, save for a few ice ages. But as adaptable as we are, it remains to be seen whether we’d survive the sort of extreme climate shift that preceded something as great as the Permian Extinction, which killed off over half of all species.

No one knows for certain how bad our current anthropogenic climate change will be, and whether we’ll be able to reverse our trajectory in enough time to avoid the worst. But as the only known species that can be aware of our future, we have the burden of knowing in just how many ways something can go very, very wrong. And then we get to thinking about it, and worrying over it, and anxiety sets in, and that will do a number on just about anyone’s mental and emotional health.

In fact, climate change is possibly one of the most urgent and critical topics for ecopsychology to address. Yes, it is good for us to work toward reconnecting people with the rest of nature. But we also need to address our feelings toward nature, to include those less pleasant ones like the worry and fear.

Everyone’s method for doing so is different. But one of the key factors that everyone can draw from is resilience.

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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’ĂȘtre–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.

Read more here.

 

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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