Taking therapy outdoors

How many therapists work with clients outdoors? What particular difficulties arise? Is it suitable for all clients? How effective is it compared with staying in the consulting room? What other questions on this subject would you like to consider? I'm considering doing my MSc research project on therapist's experience of working with clients outdoors and would welcome your thoughts. We had a very stimulating session on this subject at the recent gathering and I'm keen to continue the conversation.

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  • Seems like loads of people do. Good!

    Although I'm trained as a counsellor I generally work as a group facilitator in the fields of poetry, storymaking,holistic writing, inner mystery traditions and ecopsychology, and a great deal of my groupwork takes place outdoors. If someone approaches me for mentoring sessions (I don't advertise counselling) we very often work outdoors, sometimes sitting, often walking.

    I also collaborate with animals as co-facilitators, so to speak (this summer I'm offering a day working with horses on Exmoor, for instance).

    For myself, the dimension and depth added by working outdoors is immeasurable.

    I should add that one of the reasons people come my way is because of the outdoor focus (www.thewildways.co.uk); as I say I don't see/bill myself primarily as a therapist, although undoubtedly therapy happens, so I can't say whether there are clients for whom it wouldn't be suitable. I can say that of the 100s I've worked with now, everyone seems to have had a deep experience working outdoors.


  • I am a person centred counsellor working outside but i do have one client who i see inside and outside. I work with children, couples and adults in various locations around west cornwall. I see people up hills looking out to the sea, on the beach or in the woods. At the moment my favourite place to meet people is in the woods next to a stream.  i have been working outside counselling for nearly 4 years and  before that inside for three years and done a few talks about the differences and benefits/difficulties of working outside.

    An analogy i found for counselling outside that made sense to me as i have small children was,comparing the pain of therapy to labour pains. With my first child i was induced and had artifical hormones to start my labour, the pain was sudden, a shock and so painful i could hardly bare it but with my second child my labour came on naturally and was intense but was like waves building and then subsiding giving me the space to prepare for the next. This difference between the artifical and the natural pain was so signicant as a therapist i noticed my clients too seemed more at ease with their emotional pain and the space between us was more probably because  we share our sessions with so many other beings.  I remember the agency i worked for when training put us in a box room with no natural light and often when i finished a session i would walk out of the room feeling so drained and wired there was an intensity of feeling that now i work outside doesnt seem to happen. That is not to say that the clients i see don't feel very difficult feelings and process deeply its just it seems to be almost less noticable,

    if that makes sense. I think also i am more at ease outside too and more relaxed and this too affects our work. I notice that my clients tend to change with the seasons too spring and autumn seem to be great times of transition.

    There are difficulties too, the practicalities of going to different locations, the weather, i only have a very big umbrella the cold has been tricky and the biggest of them all is privacy. I meet people in woods and on beaches that are open to the public but i choose places carefully that are not busy.  Also i have bumped into people i know and my clients have too we discuss these possibilities before hand in our contract and to anyone else we look like two people sitting down on a walk.

    Hope this helps, any research on this subject has got to be good

    Fi

    • Thanks Fi, this is interesting. I'm doing a three day psychotherpay outdoors cpd course at the moment with Beth Collier and all the points you raise have come up there. I'm moving to Devon soon and plan to work outdoors there at least some of the time.

      You write:

      "the space between us was more probably because  we share our sessions with so many other beings". Can you say more on that? I understand that clients seem more at ease with their emotional pain, but I'm not sure what your saying about the space between us. I'm particularly interested in this - my research was focused ion the theraputic relationship.

      Cheers!
      Adrian

  • I can offer personal testimony to the benefits of receiving counselling outdoors. This was the evolution of a long term therapeutic relationship, which lasted two years.

    We gravitated spontaneously towards this, deciding to meet one day in the local Abbey grounds which contain vast areas of wild plants, a minimally maintained orchard and herb garden. Also a large pond. So we would generally choose our space for that particular session, and stay in one spot.

    This turned into a four season arrangement as we would sit in a convenient shelter if needed and both of us were able to tolerate *cold* and a little light drizzle.

    The benefits were as a client:

    • the addition of the quality of spaciousness (we had been using small consulting rooms)
    • a setting that was mutually preferrable to client and counseller
    • variety of places to sit, according to prevailing mood (ie more open/more enclosed)
    • the intangible benefit of taking in Nature through the senses and contacting the elements directly
    • seeing the sky seemed important
    • or gazing into a reflective body of water
    • somehow it seemed easier to take natural pauses in talking
    • adding to sense memories of time together as I continue to look back and in appreciation
    • on a practical level - it is cheaper!!
    • It felt good to meet at the same place and time for the regularity and structure

    For me the only slightly awkward part would be concluding the sessions as we tended to walk out together, which necessitated a chit chat, which I wasnt always comfortable with. I would have preferred for either of us to walk away first.

    Hope that is a help; I would recommend the outside over the inside one thousand fold! I think it would be helpful to discuss with clients the degree of wildnerness/urbanity, as for me the container of the Abbey grounds felt helpful.

    • Thanks Jennifer Hunter. My research is done and dusted now - wel, that phase anyway! What you say refelcts some of what I heard form therapists but there was more from them about synchonicity and transference.

  • I want to train to be an outdoor/adventure therapist working with young people and vulnerable adults. Could anyone tell me if counselling or psychotherapy would be the best route?

    • Hi Lyndsey, I have worked with young people and vulnerable adults using sensory awareness development, not offering counselling, but offering the space for people to enter into their own growth and changes. Therapy tends to offer guidance to a particular outcome, sensory awareness development is something we can all benefit from. Art is an excellent way of allowing growth to take place without therapeutic analysis (left hemisphere stuff), and the experiences can be more long lasting. www.wildintelligence.co.uk

    • Counselling/psychotherapy seems the obvous way to go. I can't think of another route really. No ecotherapy courses for those without a therapy grounding as yet so I suggest you do a Diploma first.

  • Hello Adrian,

    I am an arts psychotherapist. I work outside using metaphors in nature instead of in an art image.I work indoors too and there is a definite change in the intersubjective space when working outdoors.

    Michèle

  • Hi Adrian, interesting topic.

     

    Personally I think the outdoors (and the untamed outdoors at that) is a fantastic environment for therapy. In fact I think of Nature as co-therapist (and indeed, as the lead therapist - my role being more about mediating/facilitating the theraputic relationship between client and Nature and ensuring physical safety).

     

    Difficulties? I think there are lots IF you come at it from a consulting room mindset and try to recreate the consulting room in a green space with no walls or ceiling. For my own workI come at from another direction: I find remote venues such as highland shooting lodges to use as a base camp and then facilitate the clients doing individual and group work before going out and wild camping, then coming back into base camp and reflecting and reintegrating. This requires an additional set of skills more akin to a Mountain Leader & a project manager but it's not rocket science. I should point out that I'm running short intense, immersive retreats, usually over 5 days, that have a specific focus for each client, I'm not attempting to see a client weekly for several years. But in a way that's just another aspect of this 'coming at it from a different direction'.

    I've found this approach very effective and very popular - albeit with a fairly self-selecting group of clients. You can read more about my approach at www.wildearth.org.uk See also www.ancienthealingways.co.uk and www.animas.org for how others do similar Nature-based work.

    Is it suitable for all? No, my particular approach requires clients to be able to walk a mile or so carrying a rucksack. It requires them to be psychologically robust enough to spend days and nights alone in nature (albeit with an unobtrusive set of safety measures and support being just a whistle away). My oldest client to date was a 69 year old. Different levels of fitness and bravery are accomodated by helping them select suitable solo camping spots within a predefined (and very carefully chosen) area with natural topographical boundaries. Location is everything!

     

    I've taken a total of 30 clients out in this way over the last 4 years, in small groups of typically 6 or 7.  All have reported a positive experience and attributed that to the preparation, 'the glen' as the lead therapist is usually known (shorthand for the valley, the mountains, the river, the wildlife, the light, the weather, the solitude), and adequate facilitation.

     

    Anyway that's just my very personal 2 cent's worth. I'd be keen to hear what other people are doing, what works and what they find challenging. I have a sense that we are all at the beginning of a much greater use of/accomodation with Nature that can only benefit our clients.

    Cheers, Dave

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