What is Eco-psychotherapy?

Please note: This article follows on from an earlier article entitled: “What is eco-psychology?”

I suggest that you read that first if you haven’t already.

What is eco-psychotherapy?

The word eco-psychotherapy is made up of two parts: eco and psychotherapy. In order to understand what eco-psychotherapy is it can help to understand where each of these words comes from.

The meaning of eco

In an earlier article I outlined the etymology of the prefix eco- and concluded that:

In contemporary usage we might say that the prefix ‘eco’ speaks to the relation of living things to their environments. More broadly, the ecological perspective is one which recognises that human beings are embedded within a larger ecological system. In colloquial terms we refer to that system as ‘the natural world’ or more simply ‘nature’.

Psychotherapy is a specific practice aimed at improving mental health and well-being.

Psychotherapy is a specific practice aimed at improving mental health and well-being.

The meaning of psychotherapy

The word psychotherapy derives from the words psyche - originally meaning “soul” - and therapeia - meaning “healing”. Thus etymologically speaking, “psychotherapy” means healing the soul, though some psychotherapists would be more comfortable with a something like healing the mind.

Combining this with our definition of eco above, we might say that eco-psychotherapy is concerned with relationship between a healthy mind and the natural world. This is a good start, but of course psychotherapy does not just refer to any attempt to heal the mind. Instead, it is a very specific way of going about trying to heal the mind.

For the purposes of this article we can say that psychotherapy is a practice derived from the work of Sigmund Freud in which one person sits with another and talks with them in an effort to help or heal. Over the last one hundred and twenty years a great many theorists and practitioners have developed new ways of doing psychotherapy, and new theories to support that practice.  Contemporary psychotherapy training typically involves learning both the theory and practice that underlies being with another person in a way that is helpful or healing.

Psychotherapy and the ecological perspective

So what happens when we bring together the practice of psychotherapy and the ecological perspective? Well, we’re still working that out. On the one hand eco-psychotherapists are exploring the very practical question of how psychotherapists might incorporate the healing power of nature into psychotherapy. This includes everything from having plants in the consulting room to taking psychotherapy outside. On the other hand, we are wrestling with the question theoretically, and recognising that a truly ecological perspective throws up some serious challenges for traditional psychotherapy, and may change what psychotherapy looks like altogether.

Western theories of individual psychology have largely ignored our relationship to nature.

Western theories of individual psychology have largely ignored our relationship to nature.

The ecological challenge

I have previously observed that the natural world from which human beings emerged - and of which we are a part - is conspicuously absent from Western psychology. The tendency is to look at brains, individuals in isolation, social groups, etc. in order to work out what makes us tick.

Psychotherapy too tends to actively cut-off from the natural world. Most psychotherapy takes place in a comfortably furnished, air-conditioned, private room with four solid walls. The therapy room itself is likely nestled within a building somewhere in town or city from which most of “nature” has been banished.

The birth of the field of eco-psychotherapy gives us a good opportunity to reflect upon all of this. It encourages us to examine some of the underlying assumptions of traditional psychotherapy, and to re-examine the broad impact that traditional psychotherapy has on individuals, society, and the planet. We might also ask why it is that the natural world is not integral to the theory and practice of mental wellbeing, and what role it might play in the future.

Is eco-psychotherapy the same as other nature-based work? 

In the lead up to a recent course I ran on eco-psychotherapy a prospective participant called me and suggested that what we were doing was really just “glorified camping”.  This made me chuckle, and while I was clear that we were doing something more profound than - and very different to - camping, her comment highlighted for me the importance of differentiating eco-psychotherapy from other practices and experiences.

How is eco-psychotherapy different to other ECO-THERAPies? 

It is clear that in many fields of human endeavour we are waking up to a more ecological perspective - one that recognises our embedded-ness in, and reciprocity with, the rest of nature.  What is more, there are a growing number of practices that draw upon the recognition that it is healthy and healing for humans to spend time with - and connect to - nature. 

These practices include things like:

  • Vision Quests

  • Adventure therapy

  • Nature-based meditation and mindfulness

  • Soulcraft practices (from Bill Plotkin)

  • Bird-watching

  • Forest bathing

  • Nature sit-spots

Eco-psychotherapy is a very specific type of eco-therapy.

Eco-psychotherapy is a very specific type of eco-therapy.

Nature connection activities are a growing industry.

Nature connection activities are a growing industry.

Broadly speaking we might say that these practices are forms of eco-therapy.  That is, they draw on the healing power of the human-nature connection. What I hope to show here is that while eco-psychotherapy also draws on the healing power of nature, it is markedly different to these other practices in that it also seeks to stay true to the practice of psychotherapy. 

Staying true to psychotherapy

Psychotherapy itself is a complex practice that has evolved over time and is informed by many great practitioners including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Anna Freud, Donald Winnicott, Melanie Klein, Carl Rogers, Irvin Yalom and countless others.

If our eco-psychotherapy practice strays too far from the lineage and practice of psychotherapy as it has come down to us, our nature-based activities simply become a form of nature-connection or eco-therapy, and cannot rightly be called eco-psychotherapy.

I hope this helps to make it clear that eco-psychotherapy is not simply about the healing power of nature. Instead it is a new form or psychotherapy that invites the natural world into the therapeutic relationship, or alternatively, places the therapeutic relationship in the context of the natural world. It is at the intersection of the therapeutic relationship and the human-nature relationship that all sorts of interesting and profound things start to happen. This is the terrain of eco-psychotherapy.

psychotherapy FROM an ecological perspective

One interesting perspective on what might differentiate eco-psychotherapy from traditional psychotherapy is put forward by Theodore Roszak in his book, “The Voice of the Earth”:

“Other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society. Eco-psychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the person and the natural environment.”

Taking psychotherapy outdoors

Eco-psychotherapy is a young field and as such there is not yet a great deal written about it.  In practical terms we might say that eco-psychotherapy begins when we take the psychotherapy session out of its traditional context of a private room, and into nature – be it a park, forest, or other wilderness area.

While this may sound simple enough, it raises a great many questions for anyone trained in psychotherapy, such as:

Taking psychotherapy outdoors brings both challenges and opportunities for the therapist.

Taking psychotherapy outdoors brings both challenges and opportunities for the therapist.

  • Why would you do that?

  • What about confidentiality?

  • What about insurance?

  • What about the safety provided by the therapeutic container?

  • Doesn’t that undermine the singular power of the therapeutic relationship?

  • What about distractions?

  • Isn’t that just an expensive walk in the park?

These are all good questions, and I hope to share what I have learned about the practice of eco-psychotherapy in upcoming articles.  For now I will simply say that my explorations into eco-psychotherapy with my students and clients suggest to me that – when done in a manner that holds true to the principles of good psychotherapy - it has profound therapeutic potential that in some ways goes well beyond that of traditional psychotherapy. Furthermore, I feel that it can address some of the criticisms that are justifiably levelled at mainstream psychotherapy.

In a future article I will share more about what happens in an eco-psychotherapy session, and start to explore some of these opportunities and challenges in more detail. Thanks for reading.

If you are interested in undertaking eco-psychotherapy, please get in touch.