How nature allied psychotherapy can help with eating disorder recovery

Disconnection from nature is starting to be recognised as a form of trauma; the kind of thing that can have a significant impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

While our ancestors and indigenous populations were inextricably linked with nature, our modern, technology-driven world makes it all too easy for this to diminish. We’re gradually becoming cut off from the sense of connection, belonging, and the health benefits that nature provides.

In this post, Nicole Worrica, Senior Psychotherapist with Altum Health, explains how ‘nature allied psychotherapy’ helps to re-establish this connection, and explores the many benefits it brings, especially for those living with an eating disorder.

What is nature allied psychotherapy?

Nature allied psychotherapy, established by Beth Collier at the Nature Therapy School is a therapeutic practice that uses the skills of our ancestors to nurture a closer relationship with nature. It supports you to heal, tune into yourself, and improve emotional health and wellbeing.

In many ways, allied nature sessions are similar to more traditional therapeutic sessions, except that nature is included as the third element in the relationship, you’re outside, resting or moving where your feet may lead you, and in conversation with your therapist.

Sessions are typically weekly and continue all year round, throughout the seasons.

The benefits of nature allied psychotherapy

The effect of being in nature is to bring you into the here and now, allowing you to regulate emotional stress, and helping you to distance yourself from painful thoughts and sensations.

By having weekly sessions, nature allied psychotherapy can help you to lay down new neural pathways, by creating repetitive, habitual embodied moments of peace, much like the effects of meditation.

I also encourage my clients to pause in the moment and savour the regulatory effects of nature. It actually lowers your heart rate and can facilitate a feeling of being ‘at ease’.

These regulatory effects are especially helpful for those living with an eating disorder, who may battle with a controlling and critical inner voice, coupled with embodied experiences of feeling trapped and preoccupied by thoughts of food, weight, and shape.

Another benefit of this type of therapy is that nature is always available to us. You can access its healing properties in-between sessions, and long after therapy has ended. In fact, many people form a positive attachment with a particular location, recalling visual or auditory moments simply by returning to a specific spot, even in the absence of their therapist.

For both the client, and the therapist, being outside allows us to use more of our senses in our sessions. With the senses more engaged, as they are out in the open, certain smells or sounds might help to bring emotions to the surface. This is ok, in fact it’s healthy, you’re likely to be recovering your emotional range, which you may have needed to repress to survive.

When this happens during a session in nature, I’ve noticed that the natural environment helps to regulate those emotions and dissipate them much more quickly compared with what happens in a clinical setting. And, you might even feel excited to get out into nature again within a few days to continue that healing experience.

Synchronicity often occurs during nature allied psychotherapy too, with nature helping to ‘play out’ a client’s experience. For example, a client might be talking about not knowing which direction to take (in life) and at the same time, we might come to a physical crossroads on our path. This presents the opportunity for us to physically explore, together, what might happen if we took the path to the left, or what might happen if we continued straight ahead.

What does nature allied psychotherapy look like in practice?

To give my nature allied psychotherapy sessions structure, I always meet my clients at an agreed point, usually a specific tree, this forms the start and end point of the session.

Some of my clients aren’t used to being out in nature. It might feel unfamiliar, so sessions start with me checking in with how they’re feeling, and inviting them to open up to their curiosity. Gently, they begin to adapt to their natural surroundings.

How does nature allied psychotherapy help those living with an eating disorder?

People living with an eating disorder often experience feelings of shame, guilt, and fear, and may find it challenging to open up and discuss these issues in a clinical setting. But, it may feel easier for them to explore thoughts and emotions while surrounded by the natural world, and walking side by side instead of face to face.

By holding therapy sessions outside, clients often feel a heightened sense of calm and relaxation. This helps to reduce the intensity of the stressful sensations which sometimes come up in therapy, or in between sessions.

Nature as a healer

Research has shown that spending time in nature has a positive impact on mental health, offering the opportunity for both healing and renewal. This is particularly beneficial for those living with an eating disorder, as these conditions are both emotionally and physically exhausting.

Being surrounded by greenery and fresh air will:

  • Boost your mood
  • Increase your energy levels
  • Reduce feelings of depression and anxiety
  • Give perspective by helping you feel more grounded and connected to something larger than yourself.

People who live in a city often have raised cortisol levels compared with those living in the countryside, as we grapple with travel, noise levels, pollution and the general speed of city living. At times you may even feel as though you are constantly operating in the survival modes of flight, fight or freeze due to urban stressors.

In contrast, spending time in nature lowers cortisol levels, allowing us to feel fully alive and in the present.

If you’re struggling with an eating disorder it’s likely that those feelings of shame, guilt, and fear are causing painful swings between feeling hyper-aroused and disconnected. During our sessions, we might pause, to allow you to listen to the birdsong or the feel of the wind on your face; a valuable coping mechanism and welcome respite from the stress and chaos of intense emotions.

Integrating nature into psychotherapy is particularly important for those living with an eating disorder as it helps you connect with physical sensations, cultivating the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. I often hear from clients how nature has restored their sense of feeling connected and helped them tune into themselves better.

We recently wrote about the challenges that technology can bring to anyone with an eating disorder. One thing we didn’t cover was how modern technology can lead to a disconnect to our relationship with nature. Technology may discourage us from connecting with our surroundings leading to a more sedentary and isolated existence. Excessive scrolling leads to comparison and may confirm feelings of low self-worth leaving you frozen and isolated in a vicious cycle of punitive self-criticism.

Conversely, when out in nature, you connect with your body in a different way. Being in nature helps to unlock the stress that’s held within your skin, bones, and nervous system. It gives you the opportunity to pause and reflect on the awesomeness of nature.

Nature as a teacher

Nature is a powerful teacher that offers valuable lessons and insights for those living with an eating disorder.

By spending time in natural settings, we’re reminded of the cycles of growth, death, and renewal that are an inherent part of life. In a way, nature acts as a mirror for our own struggles and challenges. For example, there’s clear evidence of resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, as trees and plants adapt and thrive despite human interference.

These lessons from nature are particularly valuable for those living with an eating disorder, who may feel trapped in a cycle of negative self-talk and self-destructive behaviours; there is renewal in nature.

In summary

By cultivating a connection with nature, we have the opportunity to tap into the healing power of the natural world and learn a number of valuable lessons.

Spending time in nature can teach you about resilience, growth, struggle, and transformation while finding the inspiration to overcome challenges.

It also offers you stillness, a respite from your busy life, the opportunity for greater insight, self-awareness, and support during difficult times through its natural regulatory qualities.

If you or someone you know is suffering with an eating disorder, and would like to learn more about how our nature allied therapy sessions could help, please book a free consultation today.

Wishing you well,

Nicole Worrica

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