Ecopsychology and its application, ecotherapy, is an emerging relational approach to psychotherapy that increases the capacity of therapists to facilitate well-being in clients.
With the therapeutic relationship at the heart of what facilitates change in psychotherapy, Ecotherapy is one way of accessing that relationship to self, other and the world. Taking its lead from indigenous healing systems and informed by systems theory, along with many other disciplines such as social ecology, Jungian theory, Buddhism, and neuroscience, Ecopsychology specifically examines our relationship to nature - as both ecological environment and common ground of experience. It presumes that well-being depends on having satisfying mutual relationships.
In an era of displacement, dis-connection and lack of belonging, experiencing ourselves in and as a part of nature as the common ground can provide a sense of safety, identity and belonging. Bringing ecological insight to psychotherapeutic practice, Ecopsychology is a return to prioritising values rather than usefulness, appreciating that experience is inherently valuable rather than exclusively pursuing growth and behavioural change without addressing what is meaningful.
Practising therapists having been noticing an escalation of grief and despair in response to ecological crisis over recent years. In response, Ecopsychology proposes that environmental disconnection is an aspect of many existing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. It suggests a view of the self as an emerging, dynamic process inseparable from a matrix of relationships.
Ecotherapy creates a therapeutic context for deeply exploring, cultivating and re-establishing these relationships not only between humans but between the human and more-than-human world. Horticultural therapy, wilderness excursions and animal assisted therapy are some examples of Ecotherapy type activities. Using a simple toolkit of guiding images and natured-based metaphors to help a client express how they are in relationship to themselves and the world is also an example of Ecotherapy as is bringing in items from the natural world to the therapy room.
Ecotherapies use nature as a therapeutic container to nurture self-knowledge and self-acceptance. The therapist’s role is to use nature as an ally to support a new reparative experience of feelings, thoughts and actions that had previously been disallowed in the client’s early attachment experience. This facilitates a renewed relationship or new attunement opportunity with what makes us feel safe.
Ecotherapy can be particularly beneficial to those experiencing burnout in their working lives, for example environmental activists or those working in government agencies. It is also suitable for clients who feel alone, isolated and alienated, struggling to feel a sense of their place in the world. Often men and adolescents who might enjoy a more active approach to the therapeutic encounter enjoy Ecotherapy.
Encountering the more-than-human world through Ecotherapy allows a client to transform fear-based defensive living, which pathologises personal pain through addressing only the intrapsychic or interpersonal, into contact-based courageous living that legitimises our interrelatedness and context. As such, it is well suited to include in therapeutic groups for a range of symptoms such as OCD, PTSD and sleep disorders.