otrbristol | 14th December 2021

OTR Nature Works 1:1 Therapy: What we do and why

OTR working in partnership with nature

Olivia, a therapist in OTR’s Nature Works team, has written this blog reflecting on the benefits of working outdoors with young people. We hope you find it insightful!

For two and a half years OTR’s Nature Works has offered 1:1 therapy all year round in parklands, allotments and wild areas across Bristol. This summer, the project expanded and during the warmer months four therapists worked outdoors. Feedback from the project suggested this way of working is both good for young people and therapists. Young people reported 100% increase in wellbeing; therapists said they had fewer appointment cancellations and found that working in and with nature was good for their wellbeing, and felt they were better able to support their clients with the intensity of what is brought to sessions. Here I will explore some of the benefits of offering young people and OTR staff the opportunity to have therapeutic support in and with nature. 

Power levelling and finding ways of working with our diverse communities

At Nature Works we attract those young people who would not consider coming into a building because they say it can be intimidating to seek mental health support in a more formal setting. Young people often report that it is more relaxing to have therapy in nature and they prefer walking alongside a therapist, where intermittent eye contact is permissible. Meeting young people in nature also helps to de-medicalise mental health support.

Meeting young people on the land of their choice and the impact of this on the therapeutic work

At OTR’s Nature Works, we are able to offer young people a choice of locations across the city.

This provides the opportunity for young people to find wellbeing in land that is familiar to them and full of memories that can be called upon in the therapeutic work. Alternately, new places in the city are sought where a secure attachment to the land and nature may be developed. 

This year a young person felt unable to attend their first session of therapy because it was overwhelming for them to travel across the city in a location that was unfamiliar to them. We moved the therapy to their local park which they had played in through childhood and where they felt safe. The good memories associated with this land helped hold them through the intensity of feelings that came up during the work.

For other young people it is important to build a relationship with new land. Purdown became the secure base for a young person who had spent most of his teenage years inside his home feeling very low. The young person was able to take in the goodness and beauty of the wild flowers and woodland where they created artwork from found objects. Trust in the therapeutic relationship was built though our joint wonder at the animals, flowers and trees we jointly encountered.

Neuroscientist Semir Zeki discovered that when we experience beauty we activate the same neural pathways that light up when we are in love. The beauty of nature in some of us can stimulate serotonin and dopamine, the brain chemicals that make us feel good. 

Attachment to nature and developing a sense of belonging to the land

Working in partnership with nature means that when sessions with the therapist have ended, the relationship with nature may continue. A young person who emigrated to the UK found comfort in the landscape where therapy took place. They visited Blaze Castle between sessions and introduced their brother to the land. During sessions they recorded the sounds of nature we found there to help them sleep during periods of anxiety.

Metaphors and mirrors in nature

Nature provides so many reflections for ourselves and in the work I have noticed the timing of her communication with the client is impeccable. During a sunny August afternoon a young person was exploring their suicidal ideation on an allotment in South Bristol. For the young person the feelings came out of nowhere and overwhelmed them. At that moment seemingly out of the blue there was a torrential downpour and during the 10 meter dash to the polytunnel we were both drenched. For the first and only time of working on the allotment our shelter leaked. Together we reflected on the parallel of the young person’s experience and what had happened in the session. At the end of our therapeutic work together the young person said that they felt that I had not only listened to her but nature had as well. As part of their self-care they developed the practice of visiting a local wild area. Many of the young people I work alongside find comfort in feeling the vastness of nature in relation to themselves. 

Therapy in nature for trauma

The physicality of outdoors working is also useful for processing trauma. Joan Schapiro discovered that bilateral movements, such as walking while we are processing experiences helps us to file those memories correctly so that we no longer experience these looping in our thoughts or having flashbacks. The natural environment can also provide us with ways of coming back into our body when we are dissociated. In the late Autumn of this year I worked with a young person who became dissociated after revealing that he had thoughts about ending his life. Next to us was an icy stream. With support and the help of nature the young person was able to come back into his body by dipping their hand into the stream and feeling the temperature change, listening to the bird song and feeling the texture of the tree bark.

Working with young people who express their feelings through physicality

For some young people the physicality of working outdoors is important to the sessions. This is particularly relevant for young people who find it easier to express their feelings through their body rather than words. A young person who had recently started secondary school came to therapy because he was regularly excluded from school. Behind this behaviour was the loss of his close connection to his father. Through therapy in nature he was able to express his anger through his physicality. During one session he hauled a large branch uphill and as the feelings were worked through he was able to let go of the log and at the top of the hill he crawled into a hollow tree where he allowed himself to be held.

Talking about climate change anxiety and eco distress 

In a recent survey of 10,000 young people from 10 different countries including the UK, 80% of respondents said they were worried about climate change, 45% said this affected their ability to function well day to day and nearly half (48%) said they have been dismissed or ignored by other people when they try to talk about climate change. 

OTR staff from different projects have begun meeting on a regular basis to think about how we are promoting the voices of young climate change activists and supporting young people experiencing climate change distress. We are also exploring partnerships with other organisations who work, or want to work in this area.

Nature Works is able to offer young people both groups and 1:1 therapy for young people to explore their connection to nature and share the experiences of climate change distress. 

Nature Works fosters a sense of community where it is possible to meet others with a passion for nature. This is done through nature based activities cooking over a fire and talking circles. 

 The group is also for young people who may not currently have a deep connection to nature but who are ready to explore this. One perspective, offered by Charles Eisenstein in The more beautiful world our hearts know is possible is that helping people fall in love with our environment is an effective route to protecting the natural world and developing a reciprocal relationship rather than focusing on carbon emissions alone which can become punitive and divisive. 

We are in the process of consulting young activists to understand if a bespoke group is needed to support these young people with activism burn out, feelings of powerlessness, climate change grief and helping them to explore self care.

OTR staff who provide 1:1 work with young people are being supported to understand climate change distress and how to work alongside young people expressing this. Supporting more of our staff to understand this emergent field is in the pipeline. Last spring a young climate change activist sought one to one therapy to talk about the impact of this on her mental health which include feelings of despair and disenfranchisement from their place in society because of the response to this emergency by people in power. For myself, the experience of working alongside this young person was a rapid education in understanding the impact of climate change on the younger generation and enabled me to begin my journey of considering the different perspectives between our generations and think about how we bridge this divide.

At Nature Works we are looking into partnership work with other organisations to offer 1:1 therapy in warm indoor spaces in natural areas.