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Where Eco-Social Work and Indigenous World Views Intersect

Eco-social work is an area of practice that is still trying to find its identity. I have only very recently ‘come out’ as an eco‑social worker and recognise there are many different approaches to incorporating eco‑therapies into practice.

My eco-social work practice has been largely influenced by my Indigenous mentors and co-workers in the Northern Territory. Spending time on country with Tiwi Elders gave me insight into their culture, spiritual connection to the land and harmonious lifestyles. For those experiencing intergenerational trauma, mental health, drug and alcohol and domestic violence issues, the women often told me “going bush is the best medicine for our people”. Essentially what the Elders were telling me is that land and connection to country is critical for social and emotional wellbeing, and must be part of a therapeutic plan for recovery. This is consistent with a 2009 Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATIS) paper, which says:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing. Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.

Lucy with Tiwi Elders, Alberta and Elaine

Part of my therapeutic work involved taking families out on camping trips away from the stresses of their community. The strong women always took a lead in traditional healing ceremonies for their children and families on these camps.

Eco-social work practice requires us to expand our thinking beyond the ‘person-in-environment’ perspective to consider the earth as an ecological whole in which humans have always belonged. Eco-psychologists might argue that people and the planet are so inextricably linked that when one becomes unwell so does the other, likewise when one is healthy so is the other. According to the biophilia hypothesis, people have an innate affiliation with nature and if we separate from nature we will suffer psychologically.

This need for nature goes beyond exploiting natural resources for human gain, but is vital for human emotional, spiritual, aesthetic and cognitive growth and development. It could be that our evolution away from forests into the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilisation is contributing to the rapidly rising rates of mental health issues we are seeing globally. Richard Louv, who uses the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe the impact of our separation, says children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, that it is having a detrimental impact on their development. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

To assist in the process of getting people to reconnect with nature for health and wellbeing, I did training in an eco-therapy called Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT). NFT is inspired by the traditional Japanese practice of shinrin yoku (forest bathing). The objective of a nature therapy walk is to give participants an opportunity to take a break from the stresses of daily life, to slow down and appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.

The key is not to cover a lot of miles, but to walk through nature with intention and just ‘be’. This mindful approach to nature connection can be likened to the Indigenous contemplative practice of Dadirri, traditionally practised while sitting on country. Miriam Rose Ungunmerr says ‘Dadirri is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us’.

Nature and Forest Therapy Walk, Nambucca Heads, NSW

On a guided group Nature Therapy walk, particular attention is paid to the practice of reciprocity. In supporting the development of human-nature relationships we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers. I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect her. People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices tend to spontaneously want to give back to nature or introduce lifestyle changes to tread more lightly on the earth. This is consistent with the Indigenous worldview that recognises the interconnectedness of all things.

In a counselling context, eco-social work can be as simple as conducting sessions outdoors or doing a ‘walk and talk’ session in nature. The relaxation effects of being in nature are immediate for our clients, regardless of what happens in the therapeutic conversation. If it is not possible to meet outside, nature can be brought indoors to enhance the healing effects. Introducing pot plants, nature landscape artwork and natural forest scents to your office all have health and wellbeing benefits.

Eco-therapists are implementing nature-based enquiries into their assessment processes using instruments such as the Sensory Awareness Inventory. Investigations into the sensory activities that give people pleasure often feature nature-based themes and provide insight into ways clients can move towards their therapeutic goals. Interventions such as sensate focusing allow clients to draw on the full range of sensory experiences to help them achieve a life of comfort, safety and joy. Using nature as a teaching or learning tool, nature-based assignments can be client or therapist-directed to help them draw on available resources and move towards change.

I believe eco-therapies will be the evidence-based focused psychological strategies of the future, as we begin to understand the interconnectedness between people and a planet under stress. Even putting aside for a moment what Indigenous people have demonstrated through their relationship with the land for thousands of years, there is evidence showing the benefits of nature and green space, to mental, physical, emotional, cultural, and spiritual health.

In bringing eco-therapy into my social work practice, I aspire to connect people back to their true nature, promote wellness and recovery from physical and mental ill health, and bring healing to those who have experienced trauma. By strengthening the human-nature connection, I am also indebted to the traditional, ancient wisdom of Indigenous cultures about the healing power of nature and our obligations to care for our planet.

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What does it mean to be a climate-conscious practitioner?

In the same way that I developed a passion for Indigenous social work and working with the most marginalised, I have also made the commitment to become a climate-conscious social worker.  But what does that mean exactly?  Well, here goes.

For me, it means acknowledging the climate emergency, that it is a human made problem and that there is a real urgency to address it.  It means knowing just enough about the climate science to be informed, but limiting my intake of climate news so that it does not lead me down a black hole of despair.  It means filling my awareness with good news environmental stories too, of which there are plenty.

It means recognising both the experience-near and distance effects of climate change, and that it impacts all of us.  One does not need to have lost their home, possessions or loved ones through a flood or fire to be feeling deeply the effects.

It means I acknowledge that uncertainty over the future of the planet is a contributing factor to the rapidly rising rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.  I recognise the need to move away from individual therapy to more collaborative models that bring people together in community.  I believe linking the lives of people through sharing stories and experiences reduces isolation, builds resilience and fosters hope. 

It means being aware that the climate-concerns clients raise with me and the emotions they are experiencing are real, and deeply felt by me too.  It means I listen actively and respectfully to their pain for the world, making space for people to explore their despair, fear, anxiety, anger, sadness and other feelings.  And allowing myself to sit with the discomfort too.

It means I do not label people with a disorder.  Eco-anxiety is not something to be cured or fixed.  Climate distress is a very healthy emotional response, as a sign of sensitivity, empathy and love for our beautiful planet.  It speaks to the values and beliefs that are important to people. 

It means acknowledging the role that Indigenous peoples played in caring for the environment before colonisation and industrialisation (and continue to do so).  It is awareness of the links between climate change and global inequality and recognising that institutional racism, injustice and economic inequality are root causes.  It is those that have been exploited and contributed the least to the problem that are now suffering the most.

It means bringing people back into relationship with the more-than-human world.  It is the loss of our connection with nature that has got us into this mess.  And so my belief is that one step towards climate healing is coming back to nature.  When we have re-established our relationship with Mother Nature, then we are more like to care for her, look out for her, respect her.

It means helping people to find ‘active hope’, that is, moving beyond paralysing feelings of helplessness to taking action.  It is only after exploring and accepting our feelings, that we can take action in a conscious and grounded way.  Whether you decide to fly less and holiday near home or become an environmentalist, it is all valued.   

It means holding my counselling sessions and groupwork in the outdoors wherever possible.  There is a wealth of scientific knowledge that nature is good for our health and wellbeing and so holding my consultations outdoors is already working magic on people before they open their mouth to speak.

It means that I actively maintain my own healthy relationship with the more-than-human world.  I walk the talk.  I do everything that I invite my clients to do.  Spending time sitting in quiet contemplation, practicing mindfulness, finding ways of tending to nature like picking up rubbish or joining Landcare.

It means I live as lightly as possible on the earth.  It is accepting the reality that I am contributing to the release of green houses gases every time I leave the house but not letting guilt or shame talk me into becoming immobilised.  It is about taking any small actions I can, because it does make a difference.

It means that I actively support causes which are addressing climate change.  I attend Climate Change marches and events where possible.  I donate $1 from each counselling session I provide to ReForest Now, a non-profit planting trees and regenerating rainforest in NSW. 

It means I am committed to ongoing professional development in the area of climate aware practice.  I am a full member of Psychology For a Safe Climate and working towards becoming a Climate Aware Practitioner.

If it is a climate-conscious mental health practitioner you are looking for, then let’s chat.

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Giving Back to Nature

Giving Back to Nature

There are lots of ways humans communicate their distress and need for help without actually using words, which can be too hard.  You might notice their mood changes and they retreat into their bedroom, they turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their feelings, start to harm or say they’re going to kill themselves.  The person is not a problem to be fixed here.  It’s a sign that there is something drastically wrong with their environment that does not allow them to thrive.   Rather than attention-seeking behaviours, I see these as cries for help to fix their environment!   In short, eradicating things like homelessness, homophobia, racism, discrimination, poverty, injustice, inequality and environmental degradation would go a long way to fixing people’s mental health issues.

Consider that the Earth also finds it difficult to speak up.  She has been trying to seek our attention for many decades now to indicate her distress.  She has been giving us warning signs that are growing much more alarming.   You know them.  The melting polar caps, the loss of biodiversity due to deforestation, escalating animal extinction rates, more frequent natural disasters and arguably now a pandemic.  The Planet is not attention-seeking here!  She is crying out for help.  We need to fix her environment, those precious spaces and places we share with her.  By doing so, our health and mental health will also benefit.

The reality of climate changes’ devastating effects was most prominent for me in the Black Summer fires of 2019-20.  Bushfires were bearing down on us in our makeshift home at the time on the outskirts of Bowraville.  The impact was devastating and people hardly had time to recover before the pandemic hit.  Some are still living without proper housing. 

After this close call, I felt a real urge to take action and I’ve been doing as much as I can to live more lightly on the earth like establishing a worm farm, buying more bulk organic goods and less plastic, and ensuring I recycled or reused everything I possibly could!  In my most despairing of moments I often feel powerless, thinking what difference can one person really make.  In my most hopeful moments, I can see that larger movements of people really can do good, the work of Greta Thunberg being an obvious example.  So I’ve decided that this year, it’s time for more broader action.

It’s time to plant trees.  Lots of them.  Using the tools that Nature has provided us already, this is one way we can take action now to draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere.  My commitment this year is to donate $1 from each counselling session to ReForest Now.

ReForest Now volunteers planting in the Upper Mongogorie, NSW.
Photo credit – Reforest Now

“ReForest Now works to restore what was once Australia’s largest expanse of subtropical rainforest, home to an incredible array of species that grew from the rich volcanic soils of Wollumbin. The Big Scrub once covered 75,000 hectares of Northern NSW (an area larger than Singapore!)  By 1900, more than 99% of this unique ecosystem had been cleared. The remaining forest occurs in small, scattered patches called “remnants”. These remnants contain 122 endangered/critically endangered species, with many more threatened.” You can read more about their inspiring work here.  And if you feel inspired to support them in any way, whether through donations or getting out there and putting plant into soil, I encourage you to do so.

We are all part of the Climate Change problem.  Think about what part you can play in being part of the solution.  We have taken so much.  It’s time to give back to nature.

Reforest Now volunteers maintain plantations. Photo credit – Reforest Now.
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7 Reasons for Choosing Me as Your Therapist

So it is just about to clock over into a new year and a new decade.  Are you filled with excitement or dread?

Perhaps it’s time to finally do something about that Anxiety that has stopped you from getting a job or going outside.  Or maybe you want to shine the spotlight on the plans Depression has had for your life, because it doesn’t fit for you anymore.  Or perhaps your life experiences or the state of planet have you believing that life will never be safe again?

If the idea of therapy, freaks you out (yeah, Anxiety can stop you from getting help too!), then here are 7 reasons why you might like to consider reaching out to me.  Unlike other counsellors, I do have a few unique features that you won’t find elsewhere, as an alternative from traditional talk therapies.

  1. I come to you. 
    If transport is an issue or the idea of meeting a stranger in an office doesn’t float your boat, no problem.  I can meet you at your home, your workplace (if there is a suitable private space), or school (so you don’t have to run around delivering kids to their appointment)
  2. You are not the problem here.  Your problem is the problem.   
    Your problem is not inside of you, but perhaps it has been coming and going for so long now, it has you convinced there must be something wrong with you.  Maybe other people also think that you need fixing.  Together we will expose the problem for what it really is – something external to you.  Something you can have control over.  Something you can change.
  3. I will meet you outside (if you like). 
    From a Western viewpoint, it’s called eco-therapy.  If you’re from an Indigenous cultural background, yarning on country is what you have always done.  And it’s a much better option for people who don’t feel comfortable eyeballing their therapist between four enclosed walls.  I meet people on beaches, riverbanks and in parks, while taking the utmost care to maintain your privacy as much as possible.  Being in nature provides a whole host of health and well-being benefits. I learned all about the healing aspects of being connected to the land from my time working in remote communities of the Northern Territory.
  4. You may not have to pay. 
    I am committed to offering therapeutic experiences to people who can least afford it.  If you have a mild to moderate mental health issue and are experiencing financial hardship, you may be eligible for 12 free sessions over 12 months through the Connect To Well-being program.  A further 10 sessions per year are available through Medicare’s Better Access, with a Mental Health Care Plan and referral from your GP.  Check your eligibility here.
  5. I am here to stay.  
    There is nothing worse than building a relationship with a therapist, then learning that they are leaving their job or moving away.  The Nambucca Valley is my home and my work space.  I am really passionate about my community and making it a great place for everyone to live, work and play.  I would be crazy to leave what is the best micro-climate in the country that makes me thrive.
  6. I will ‘Walk and Talk’.   
    Sitting still doesn’t suit everyone especially if you feel fidgety or restless.  Sometimes moving your body is part of what’s needed to help you relax or express yourself.  We can do this in private or you can join a group.  Why not try a whole day of bush walking along the coast, while working on a problem in our Narrative Walks program!
  7. I am the only Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide in the region. 
    If the stress of daily life has taken its toll, let me guide you into the forest to help you slow down and reconnect mindfully with yourself and nature.  You can book a private walk with a group of friends, colleagues or just yourself.

So what are your plans for your life in the decade to come?  Let’s work together to make it happen. Get in touch.

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Mindfulness in Nature: Meditation for those who can’t meditate

I am writing this on the banks of the Macleay River in Kempsey.  I feel a few gentle raindrops hitting the back of my neck.  I smell the manure of the resident ducks wafting in the air.  I hear the sound of the breeze whistling through pine needles.  I see ripples of sunlight and reflection dancing over the water.  I pick up a lonesome goose feather, run it across my cheek, and wince with the tickle.  The cut grass feels prickly on the backs of my legs.  This is mindfulness; what it feels like to be in the present moment, just noticing what is around me and the effect it has on my body. 

I notice that which brings the most pleasure and choose to linger in those sensations a bit longer.  Some would say we have lost the art of how to feel pleasure deeply, that somehow it is indulgent and we should move onto the next thing quickly for instant gratification.   

A sensory experience on the banks of the Macleay River, Kempsey

In my mental health counselling practice, I come across a lot of people who struggle with meditation.  They have been told to do it by well- meaning health professionals to cope with the stresses of daily life, anxiety or depression.  But they often feel they can’t do it or at least sustain it.  Some of us are just not born to sit still with our legs crossed on the floor humming a mantra.  And the simple fact is, you don’t need to.  The same kinds of relaxation and mind stilling effects can be gained by spending time in nature, mindfully and with intention.  Nature helps us to turn our brains off and just be. 

Often what brings people unstuck is the constant invasion of thoughts or feelings that arise during meditation.  The voice of anxiety or depression definitely doesn’t want you to enjoy yourself.  I know I struggled with this for many years, wondering if I was somehow doing it wrong or failing.  I gave up and came back to it later in life when stress was impacting seriously on my health.  Know that it is OK to have invading thoughts and feelings.  Rather than push them away, welcome them.  Then gently bring yourself back to the focus of your attention.

The focus of our attention does not have to be breathing, counting to ten, or repeating a mantra.  It can simply be bringing your awareness to the natural environment using all your senses.  Give yourself permission to enjoy that bird song, watch that butterfly, breathe that ocean air.

Let’s try it now.  (You may like to record the following script on your phone, with gentle pauses or have someone guide you.)

I invite you to find a spot in nature where you can sit, stand or lie down without being interrupted.  Allow yourself to just take in your surroundings and notice what is around you.
If you feel comfortable doing so, close your eyes.  If not, you can lower your eyes to the ground and gently soften your gaze.
Take a moment to tune into your body.  Notice if there is a part of you that is a bit tight or tense.  Without making judgement, just give your body what it needs to feel relaxed.  This could be a stretch, a deep breath, a wriggle or shake.
When you’re ready, bring your attention to the part of your body that is connected to the ground.  Notice how it feels just to be supported by the earth.  Notice the feeling of gravity and what it is like to be pulled gently towards the earth.
You may find that you are distracted by thoughts or feelings.  This is okay.  When you notice them, acknowledge them and let them float gently away again, like a leaf in the wind. 
Now bring your attention to your sense of touch.  Hold your hands out in front of you and notice the sensation of the air on your skin.  You may like to explore the variety of textures on the ground around you.  If there is a particular sensation of touch that feels pleasurable to you, invite it in for a minute.
Turning your attention to your hearing, notice what sounds are around you.  Notice the variety of sounds, what is furtherest away, what is closest to you and what is filling the gap in between.  You may notice the sounds are interacting with each other, like a chorus or symphony.  Exaggerate the sound of your own breathing to see if you can blend it in with this rhythm.  Perhaps there is a sound which is giving you the most pleasure.  Allow it to penetrate your being.
Breathing in through your mouth, see if there is a taste to air.  Notice the texture or quality of the air.  If you’re feeling a bit cheeky, poke out your tongue and turn your head in different directions to see what changes.  Breathing in through your nose, notice what smells are being offered.  Move your head in different directions to notice what changes.  Give yourself permission to linger longer in the smell that is giving you pleasure.
Before opening your eyes, imagine your eyes are like the sun popping over the horizon on a brand new day.  When you are ready, open your eyes slowly, low at first and gently moving skyward.  Notice what comes into your awareness.

Journalist and author, Christine Jackman practises mindfulness in nature on the Coffs Coast.

You may like to reflect on what you are noticing about this kind of mindfulness meditation?  What are you noticing in your body, in your mind, in your mood?  What are you noticing in your surroundings that you have not observed before?

To me, a mindfulness practice in nature feels like ‘coming home’ to my true nature.  It’s a way of being that has been practiced by our ancestors since time immemorial. 

For more ways of being truly present in nature for good health and wellbeing, check out my Nature Therapy e-book.  It’s free when you sign up to my newsletter.

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Sharing Two World Views of Nature’s Healing Powers

I recently had the pleasure of presenting alongside an Indigenous colleague of mine to a group of health professionals.  We are a bit of an unlikely couple.  Leonie Hunter is a salt water and desert First Nation’s woman with a history of removal in her family.  I am a middle-class Australian with a heap of White privilege.  We view the world through different lenses, but what we share is an interest in the healing power of nature for health and wellbeing. 

Texture Gathering on our Nature and Forest Therapy walk.

In our recent workshop, we had the opportunity to talk about our own worldviews and knowledge systems, with each of us having an understanding and appreciation for the other. 

Leonie presented the case for connection to country being a critical component to improving Indigenous wellbeing.  The National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing states that

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health is viewed in a holistic context, that encompasses mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing.  Crucially, it must be understood that when the harmony of these interrelations is disrupted, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ill health will persist.”

This is something Leonie knows well through her own embodied connection and the people in her family who are feeling the ongoing health effects of being displaced from their traditional lands and customs.  In our outdoor yarning circle she told many stories; what it is like to just feel the elements, gathering bush medicine to heal physical and emotional ailments, and receiving messages from the animals, birds and other beings.  Leonie was lucky enough to grow up listening to the stories of Senior Kakadu Elder Bill Neidjie, now passed. 

His words still resonate:

“Tree,
He watching you. 
You look at tree, 
He listen to you. 
He got no finger, 
He can’t speak, 
But that leaf,
He pumping, growing. 
Growing in the night, 
While you sleeping, 
You dream something. 
Tree and grass same thing. 
They grow with your body, 
With your feeling. 
If you feel sore, 
Headache, sore body, 
That means somebody killing tree or grass.  
You feel because your body in that tree or earth. 
Nobody can tell you, 
You got to feel it yourself.”

I, on the other hand, presented the evidence for nature connection for health and wellbeing from a Western scientific worldview.  There is a mountain of research supporting the benefits of green space and being in nature for physical, social, emotional and spiritual health.  My particular focus and interest is on the practice of Shinrin Yoku (or forest bathing).  The Japanese have discovered that phytonicides or the ‘aroma of the forest’ has positive physiological and psychological effects to reduce stress.  They found that a slow, relaxed forest therapy walk, lowered blood pressure, reduced cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and improved heart rate variablilty.   Phytonicides were shown to boost the level of Natural Killer cells in our body, which boost our immune system and fight disease including cancer.  Doctors now offer ‘green prescriptions’ for their patients to go walking on a Certified Forest Therapy trail. 

Science is only really just proving what Indigenous people have intuitively known since time began.  The reciprocal relationship with nature is in their DNA.  In my worldview, they call this the biophilia hypothesis.  We evolved from nature, so we are nature.

In our afternoon session at Holmes Jungle Nature Park, I had the pleasure of co-guiding a Nature and Forest Therapy walk with Leonie.   Nature and Forest Therapy (NFT) is inspired by the practice of Shinrin Yoku and developed in California by the ANFT.  Despite its Western roots, NFT allows those living in the fast-paced world of modern society an embodied experience of the healing power of ‘being’ on country. 

With the words of Bill Neidjie ringing in their ears, Leonie invited our participants to find a tree that is watching them and sit with the tree for a while to share stories.  As is so often the case, the trees always reach out to the right person.  There were two fallen trees for the person who had recently experienced a separation, a tree with two large branches growing upward showing the two possible directions in life for another, and a tree that was begging to be leant against with a message to slow down.  When given the opportunity to just ‘be’ without ‘doing’, to contemplate with our hearts not our minds, the medicine of the forest reveals itself.  Miriam Rose-Ungunmerr’s talks about this presence of sitting on country as the practice of ‘dadirri’.

I feel blessed and privileged to be working alongside people like Leonie, sharing and learning from each other, having healing conversations, developing new levels of understanding and respect.  Ecopsychology allows both worldviews to exist alongside each other at the same time, for all of it is truth.

This is my idea of Reconciliation in action.

‘Nature, Health & Wellbeing’ learning workshop, Darwin March 2019.
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Kids and Nature: Nurturing strong and healthy minds!

Many of you will be familiar with my passion for keeping children safe in their first three years of life through the Healing Our Children project, to improve their chances of growing into strong and healthy adults!  It is one thing to protect babies from violence to prevent trauma to the brain, but it is quite another to add in nurturing and nourishing activities to promote brain growth!

Author of ‘Your Brain on Nature”, Dr Alan Logan says “Your connection to nature established early in life to your experiences can actually influence your life course’s wellbeing”.  He argues that young children who are disconnected from nature experience a variety of health impacts from poor gut health and low immunity to compromised mental health.

Louv and Charles have been looking at a growing body of evidence across the world that suggests children are now spending much less time in nature-based outdoor activity and this is having a detrimental effect on their development.  Louv has gone so far as to use the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe this problem.

While some research findings have limitations, here are some of the trends worth noting.

  • Between the decades, 1980’s to 2000’s, children’s lives have become increasingly structured and media oriented, leaving less time for independent play of any kind, including unstructured play in nature. Free play is going down, screen time is going up.
  • Visits to parks, national forests and other public land is in decline and are a possible indicator of the frequency of children’s exposure to the natural world.
  • There are fewer opportunities for children to engage in the natural world, with parents containing their children to more restrictive spaces, the move towards play indoors with supervision rather than unsupervised in parks, playgrounds or streets, a dramatic decline in children’s independent mobility, parents exerting greater control over children’s play and limitations put on children’s adventurous play.
  • Nature may encourage and support children’s physical activity and help them maintain a healthy weight. The number of obese children is rising, moving into their teens they are much less physically active. Some studies have linked children’s health to green spaces in the neighbourhood.
  • Children have less knowledge about plants, animals and their environment today than their parents. One possibility is that biodiversity has decreased where children live; or children have little or no meaningful direct experience with local biodiversity.

Evidence of decreased mobility, reduced availability to natural areas, and restrictions placed by parents on children’s activities in natural areas, suggests fewer opportunities to engage in the natural world.

So what does the research say about the benefits of contact with nature for children and young people?

There are a number of studies that demonstrate children’s play outdoors reduces the impact of stressful life events and has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.  Children who experienced high levels of contact with nature report higher global self-worth and higher cognitive function increasing their ability to learn and concentrate, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.

In Australia, adolescents have talked about their desire for safe places to break away from everyday life, to restore energy levels and to make meaning from the ups and downs of life.  Between 25 and 31% of young people in Years 9 to 12 said that nature was their favourite place to find peace, quiet and freedom, feel calm, where they can think about things or where they can be themselves.  The study found nature plays an important role in maintaining stable mental health for adolescents, who live in a modern world where societal changes and pressures are rising at a rapid rate.

Primary school children’s access to nature in Melbourne primary schools has shown a number of social and mental health benefits including building resilience, improved attitudes towards school and relationships with peers and adults, greater calmness and less disruptive behaviour, growing sense of freedom and creativity, and enhanced self-confidence.

We know how good it is.  So how can we get our kids off their devices and plugging into nature?  Here are three nature connection invitations, I recently tried with some children aged 10-14 on a Guided Nature and Forest Therapy walk.  They absolutely loved them!

  1. Wish Upon a Rock

Find a rocky creek or waterway.  Invite the children to create a cairn.  For each rock they are able to stack and balance, they can make a wish, a hope or dream.  How many wishes can they balance?  Give the child time to reflect on their experience.

  1. Befriend a Tree.

Invite your child to find a tree they connect with.   Invite them to get up close and use their sense of touch to explore.  “What do you notice when you hold a leaf or two?  What do you hear when you move the leaves or run a stick against the bark?  What part of the tree has a smell?  Do you see different things when you get up close or sit further away?”  After a while, invite them to sit by themselves next to the tree and just spend some quiet time there.  “Perhaps a name for your tree might come to you.  I wonder what stories this tree might tell you while sitting there in quiet still awareness?”

  1. Paint a Rock

Using paint pens and a flat rock, write a message for the forest or for other beings in the forest to discover.  Hide your rocks in the forest.  Take a photo of them and post its location on the #NSWRocks Facebook or Instagram community page (or search your state for your local rock group).  You can join in the hunt for other kids rocks too.

Of course, it is much easier for children to feel comfortable in nature, if they have been exposed at an early age.  Taking your baby for a daily walk outside is giving them a great start to life.  You will be laying down the foundations of a strong and healthy brain.  Oh, and bringing down some of your own stress levels too, no doubt.  Here’s to happy child’s play in nature!

References:

ABC News (2016) ‘Gut health, mental wellbeing and immunity linked to outdoor play’

Charles C and Louv, R. (2009) Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know.

Selhub E and Logan A. (2012) Your Brain on Nature

Townsend M and Weerasuriya R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Beyond Blue Limited: Melbourne, Australia.

nature therapy; don't be afraid

3 Reasons Why Nature Therapy shouldn’t scare you!

There has been a long running discussion amongst Nature and Forest Therapy Guides in Australia about what to call our practice.  We have been trained in nature and forest therapy, yet many are preferring to use words like nature connection, forest bathing or shinrin yoku, because they think that people are put off by the word ‘therapy’.  Perhaps it conjures up images of sitting on a couch, while someone delves into your psyche.  Therapy is something you do when you have a mountain of problems you can’t solve on your own, right?

Instead of running away from using the word ‘therapy’ to describe our practice, I believe we have an opportunity to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes.  I argue that nature therapy is for everybody, whatever stage of life, however well functioning (or not) they may appear.

1.  There are lots of therapies that aren’t scary

Therapy is nothing to be afraid of.  If that were so, then we would also run the other direction if offered massage therapy, aromatherapy, yoga therapy and beauty therapy.  But no.  We can’t seem to get enough of these.  You can safely add nature therapy to your list of nourishing and empowering practices for your body, mind and spirit.

2.  We are not going to ‘do’ anything to you.

Nature and Forest Therapy Guides are not going to ‘do’ any therapy on you.  In fact, it is a practice which requires less ‘doing’ and more ‘being’.  If anyone is going to ‘do’ anything to you, it is the forest.  The Guide just opens the door for whatever medicine the forest has for you to discover for yourself.  The potential is there for nature to change the way you think or feel about things, if you are open to slowing down and listening.  To help you on your reflective journey, you will have the opportunity to share what you are noticing in nature, with the other participants on a Guided walk.  You can even enjoy nature therapy on your own, at your preferred pace, in your own backyard.  We believe you are the expert in your own life.  Nature is a powerful friend in discovering your true nature.  We don’t need to ‘do’ anything to you.

3.  Nature Therapy is for everyone

Therapy is an activity that is designed to have ‘therapeutic’ benefits.  ‘Therapeutic’ is defined as “having a good effect on the body or mind; contributing to a sense of well-being.”  Nature therapy is an experience that brings a huge range of scientifically proven benefits to your health and wellbeing.  That’s good for everyone, not just for people who are unwell.  I’m a big believer in disease prevention and in that vain, nature therapy should be part of everyone’s daily lifestyle, along with sensible eating and exercise.

 

Let’s normalise therapy, so everyone wants to do it.  Tell your friends ‘you’re getting your daily dose of nature therapy’.  It’s the most natural thing in the world you can do.  I mean ‘be’.

Lucy is a Certified Guide with the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy.  She offers Guided Nature Therapy Walks in the Nambucca Valley and Coffs Harbour region.

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Nature and the Imagination: Partners in Relaxation and Mindfulness

I am wondering about the power of nature imagery as a tool for relaxation.  Not everyone has access to beautiful landscapes or nature at their back door.  Access to the outdoors may be limited by mobility or circumstances.  Some of us live in cities where green space is lacking.  Recent studies show that prisoners watching nature documentaries are less aggressive and violent, so we know that one doesn’t need to actually be outside to receive the healing benefits of nature.

I am thinking about a refugee whom I support on Nauru in indefinite detention, who is unable to get outside due to chronic pain and continuing trauma.  He recalls fond memories of being a lifeguard on a beach before the detention centre was closed and all services were withdrawn from the island.  I have been trying to work with him to visualise that special beach in his mind.  This is challenging given the circumstances he finds himself, in chronic pain and confined to his room.

I think there is real value in present moment situations of chronic stress, depression or anxiety, to call upon nature as our friend to induce a state of relaxation.   To bring a sense of calm to the amygdala, activated by the sympathetic nervous system.  To reduce the negative effects of rumination on mood and wellbeing.  To open up a space to breathe while the unpleasant feelings pass.

We know that the brain cannot tell the difference between sitting in real nature or imagining a landscape in our mind.  The same physiological and psychological benefits of stress reduction are experienced in both of these situations.  So just by thinking about your favourite safe place in nature is enough to produce the required relaxation response.

Here are some simple instructions for a Tree Visualisation meditation, I gave recently at a Nature Therapy talk I did with cancer patients.  Another option is to have a basket of nature objects such as shells, stones, pine cones, leaves, feathers, gum nuts and other interesting objects.  Just holding one of these treasures in your hands with eyes closed, eliciting all the senses to engage with it, can bring forth a range of mindful responses.  Both of these activities elicit strong memories for people, of places they have been before, of experiences they have had and of traditions or rituals held precious.  I watch their faces as anxiety or fear is replaced by instant comfort and joy.

As quickly as the stress response is triggered, the brain has the power to bring a state of relaxation and calm to us.  Nature and the imagination are perfect partners to try this out for yourself!

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3 Reasons Why You Should Go Forest Bathing

First of all, you might be wondering what exactly is forest bathing?

Forest bathing is a nature connection practice inspired by the Japanese where it is called Shinrin Yoku.

It’s not about getting wet.

The idea is to fully immerse yourself in nature and to bathe all your senses (more than 12 of them!).

Put simply, it is about taking a slow mindful walk in nature, breathing in the forest air, sitting and observing, and developing an emotional connection to the forest.  It is different from hiking, where the pace is faster and you miss a lot of what is going on around you.  It is also different from a naturist walk, where you might be identifying and naming species of fauna or flora.

A Forest Bathing walk covers less than a kilometre usually over two or three hours.  Its aim is to help you slow down and take a break from the stresses of daily life, and to appreciate things that can only be noticed when moving slowly.    Some people describe it like doing meditation or mindfulness in nature.

So now that we know what it is.  Why on earth would we want to do it?

1.  Forest Bathing is Part of Our True Nature

Humans evolved out of forests.   Our species spent millions years of in development within these ecosystems.  Then our world experienced rapid industrialisation and we moved into cities.  While genetically our bodies are optimized for the forest, we are now trying to survive in the busy, stressful conditions of modern civilization.

Our separation has caused what Richard Louv terms, ‘nature deficit disorder’.  He argues that our children are spending so much less time outdoors than previous generations, it is having a detrimental impact on their development.

Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, we must remember, we are nature.

2.  Forest Bathing Promotes our Health and Wellbeing

In the Western world, rates of mental health problems are out of control.  Over 50% of people are stressed at work.  In Australia, 1 in 5 of us will go on to experience a mental illness.  Many physical illnesses and disease can also be linked to stress as an underlying cause.

The Japanese have been studying the effects of forest bathing since the 1980’s.  What they discovered was an antimicrobial organic compound called phytonicides that are given off by evergreen trees such as pines and eucalypts.  When you breathe in phytonicides, your blood pressure drops, your cortisol level (or stress hormone) reduces and heart rate variablilty improves.  Phytoncides are immune boosters which increase the natural killer cells in our body, associated with fighting cancer.

Other research has shown that being in nature:

3.  Forest Bathing Addresses Climate Change

I know, it’s a big call.  But I firmly believe that if we are more closely connected to Mother Nature, we are more likely to want to care for and protect it.  Ours is a reciprocal relationship.  When the earth is sick, so are we (see point 2).  We need healing and so does our earth.

Humans have become so separate from nature that there has been little regard to how we treat the earth.  It has been seen as a collection of resources to be exploited for our benefit.  On a guided forest bathing walk, there is particular attention paid to the practice of reciprocity.  In supporting the development of human-nature relationships, we foster the role of humans as givers, as well as receivers.

People who engage regularly in forest bathing practices, tend to spontaneously find themselves engaging in place tending on a personal level or want to get involved in environmental activism at a macro level.

So rebuilding our intimate connection to the forest again, will ultimately lead to the healing of the planet and of course, our own health too.

If one or more of these reasons has inspired you to try forest bathing, then feel free to join the Japanese where is it called “Shinrin-yoku” (森林浴), the Germans practising “Waldtherapie”, the Koreans engaging in “Sanlimyok (산림욕)” and of course, the Australians, Americans and Europeans, where we use the terms “nature and forest therapy”.

If you are in the Nambucca Valley or Coffs Coast region, you can join me on your very own private Nature therapy walk.  Or you can find other Certified guides in Australia here and elsewhere in the world here.

Happy Forest Bathing!