Offering Therapy Outdoors
June 21, 2017
This summer, I’m breaking out of the boundaries of traditional psychotherapy in my private practice offices in San Francisco and Berkeley. I’m bringing clients to the Great Outdoors – right here in the East Bay Regional Parks of Oakland and Berkeley, accessible within an hour of downtown San Francisco.
Nature and Mental Health
It’s common sense that spending time outdoors can improve health and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. The pace of urban life keeps us busy and distracted. And while electronic devices and social networks may add some value and connection to our lives, they also contribute to our distraction from the here and now. Getting outdoors provides an obvious opportunity to slow down, get a little distance from our daily distractions, remember the beauty of the natural order, broaden our perspective, and connect with what really matters in our lives.
A growing body of research confirms what we know intuitively. Here are a few references.*
- A Stanford study showed that a walk in nature – as compared to a walk near heavy traffic – reduced neural activity associated with repetitive thought focused on negative emotions. 
- A study from Michigan and the UK showed that people who recently experienced stressful life events saw a mood boost after outdoor group walks. 
- Many medical doctors are prescribing time in nature as a remedy for anxiety and depression, as well as other medical benefits such as lowered blood pressure and improved immune system functioning. [3, 4]
- Other studies have demonstrated the mental health benefits of outdoor therapy to fight depression and improve well-being. 
I grew up in East Tennessee, in a rural community nestled into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The land was barely touched by industrialization, and I spent long afternoons with neighborhood friends playing in the woods surrounding our homes. Close by, we had access to lakes and rivers, mountains and valleys. I have vivid memories of four distinct seasons – dogwood trees blossoming in the spring; blazing heat and afternoon thunderstorms in the summer; bright orange and red leaves falling to the ground as the air turned crisp and cool in the autumn; and winter blizzards, when the world grew quiet and neighbors were stranded together for weeks at a time. My connection with nature was strong.
The beauty of the natural world stood in sharp contrast to the hostility I faced for being gay. I'm fortunate to have a loving and supportive family, but the religious fundamentalism and conservative politics in my hometown didn’t foster much tolerance for any kind of difference. I moved to California in 2006 for the promise of a better life. I found the community, respect, and opportunities I hoped for here. But I’ve always had the feeling that I was pushed out of my homeland, that homophobia made me unwelcome in the mountains where I was born and raised.
I hear similar stories from many of my gay friends and clients who have come to the Bay Area from all over the world. It’s just one of the many ways that social power and oppression are intertwined with our damaged relationship with the earth. Environmental racism and classism is another example: low-income communities and communities of color often lack access to healthy food and clean water. They take the brunt of industrial pollution and resource exploitation. Mountaintop removal in Appalachia. Industrialization in Richmond, California. Poisoned water in Flint, Michigan. Hijacking sacred ground at Standing Rock. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – an iceberg that is quickly melting while we humans heat the planet up and tear each other down.
California offered me refuge: community, respect, love, education, and an opportunity to build a career helping other people. California also helped me to rediscover my connection with the natural world through hiking, camping, and kayaking. My husband and I have developed our knowledge and passion about birds through classes with the Golden Gate Audubon Society. My connection with nature is stronger than ever. It has helped me to find myself, sustain my balance and well-being, deepen my relationship with family and friends, and feel truly at home in California. I want to give back by helping other people deepen their connection with and appreciation for the natural world.
Therapy in the Great Outdoors
These are some of the reasons that I enrolled in an ecotherapy certificate program with The Earthbody Institute this summer. With the support of Ariana Candell and eight other colleagues around the world, I studied the philosophical, clinical, legal, and ethical issues involved in doing outdoor therapy safely. Now I feel prepared and excited to announce that I’m expanding my practice by offering outdoor therapy sessions to individuals and couples in the East Bay Regional Parks.
I’ve already started taking clients outdoors, and it’s been an incredible experience. Being outdoors changes the way we relate to each other, and it provides a context for cultivating mindfulness, broadening our perspective, and getting in touch with what matters most in our lives. It’s not for everyone, of course. It does require a moderate level of physical activity, exposure to open spaces, and occasionally crossing paths with other people and dogs. But working out of Redwood Regional Park and Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, I will make every effort to be flexible and accommodating to anyone who is interested in outdoor therapy – even if you have physical limitations or challenges.
Outdoor therapy sessions occur in the context of a deep therapeutic relationship that we begin building indoors. Please contact me for a free 15-minute consultation if you’re interested in learning more, and follow me on Facebook for information about upcoming groups and workshops.
Kip Williams is a Marriage & Family Therapist (#93170) with offices in San Francisco and Oakland. He is currently working on his PhD in Psychology (with a specialization in Consciousness, Spirituality, and Integrative Health) at Saybrook University, and he completed a certificate in Ecotherapy (Level 1) with The Earthbody Institute in the spring of 2017.
Thank you to Ariana Candell for her passion and support, for references to the research included in this post, and for helping therapists like me to think – and act – outside of the box. If you are interested in learning more about ecotherapy, please consider joining Ariana for an upcoming training at The Earthbody Institute.
- “Stanford researchers find mental health prescription: Nature” (June 30, 2015)
- "Walking off depression and beating stress outdoors? Nature group walks linked to improved mental health” (September 23, 2014)
- “Why your GP may be recommending a dose of the great outdoors in 2016” (December 27, 2015)
- “Do you need a nature prescription?” (No date)
- “Benefits of ecotherapy: Being in nature fights depression, improves mental health and well-being” (October 26, 2013)
*I encourage you to use critical thinking when evaluating research. Any particular study might be limited by its scope or methodological challenges. None of this research should be considered conclusive or definitive, but it does point toward the medical and psychological benefits of nature-based therapy.