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Ecopsychology: What's that then?

What is ‘Ecopsychology?’ this is a question I get asked a lot when people seek to learn more about the how, why, and what of coaching in Nature?

Ecopsychology continues to be an emerging field, and I enjoyed this short explanation in the video by ecopsych exp here.

One of the challenges I find with Ecopsychology as an approach is that it often has a lot of academic language that might lead you to be more confused and disconnected from it and your understanding of it.

#Ecopsychology seems to have evolved as a term in the early 90's Theodore Roszak and psychologists/environmentalists like Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner are sourced as those who developed the early thoughts and approaches on this.

But like the dis-connection with nature, much of the movement/modality can tend to disconnect people in the very way we - as practitioners- describe it.

With that in mind, I thought I would write this to hopefully give a little more explanation with the aim of using down-to-earth examples and language and my own personal viewpoint of why I value Ecopsychology within my own coaching and facilitation. With some reasons why you might value ecopsychology as a change-work approach for your individual or team coaching needs. 

So I thought I would just highlight some of this in my own words and experiences. To expand a little more.

As a little pre-frame I am typically working with people and teams who have some issue or goal around mental health, confidence, communication or trauma. People and teams come to me - in the woods in North Yorkshire- with a focus on personal development, leadership and workplace culture goals, career change or life habit goals or to find strategies to handle the stressors and strains of modern day life. (Emotional Regulation is at the core of what I do) 

I set up my 'traditional' coaching business in 2017 and in 2019 - having run a few sessions in Nature and explored a few courses on nature-based approaches; founded Where The Mind Grows - a break off of my other company - offering sessions in and alongside Nature for people and teams. Throughout the time from then to now, I have explored a range of nature-based approaches to support my more 'traditional' modalities of coaching/mindset and change-work.

Having my own experience of the benefits of being part of nature (and the impact of the separation from it at a crossroads in my life). I became fascinated with the benefits this had on everything from mental health, confidence, communication and community.

These approaches have also supported me to navigate and understand - better- my part to play both personally and as a business founder, in our human efforts for our planet. In a world facing poly-crisis.

So now you know a little more about me. Here we go...

Ecopsychology re-connects the wilderness world to our own human world, this is usually done through some form of nature-connected activity such as coaching walks and talks, sessions in woods, ecotherapy activities such as gardening and horticulture,  expedition and adventure or ‘play and movement’ in Nature. 

For me, the ecopsychology element of my coaching approach has a range of elements to its impact. Which I observe and experience when working with teams or individual clients in the woods:

Interaction in and with the natural environment: This will often be referred to as Nature Connection and draws on principles of research such as those identified by the the University of Derby’s five ways of Nature Connectedness. I see this experienced, by people, through their language and movements/interactions in and within Nature. Through sensory connections, such as touching, smelling, noticing something in our environment, tasting something like a berry. Pausing and listening to sounds such as bird song, the wind in the trees or the sound of water. In these moments people -often visibly- experience shifts in their body and mind. This speaks to aspects of mindfulness and being present. Which can be extremely helpful to someone, in a world that keeps our mind regularly in that fight or flight, higher-than-neutral stress response that leads to 'what if' worrying and stressful rumination of past experiences. Taking the individual away from ‘life stuff’ and supporting them to be very aware, conscious or explorative of their natural surroundings. Minimising distractions and creating space form them to explore the topics and goals they bring to the session.  

The neuroscience of Nature (This is where I love to 'geek out') This element draws on academic research such as Attention Restoration Theory and the Biophilic Response. It shows how, that initial time given to nature connection, helps us ‘very busy, full of stuff humans’ to change the way we think and feel. Nature resources us. Both bits of research highlight how our body's biological response to a natural environment (the way we feel and the chemicals we create/produce in our brain in response to this) benefit from time in Nature. As our body responds to a natural setting it also reduces stress hormones and can lead us to feel more relaxed, curious, inspired, and at peace. As many of the people I have worked with have communicated; ‘more themselves’. This shift has psychological benefits too. We don’t have to consciously understand or intend this response for ourselves;  for it to happen [one less thing to think about if you're coming to a session stressed or over-whelmed]. Consciously facilitating this very short space of time, even the busiest of minds, soon soften and calm amidst the trees [this usually happens anything between five and twenty minutes from the session starting]. The biophilic response is a theory that - through the natural principle of humans as part of nature- suggests we will find beauty and intrigue in nature and this will boost our mood. I call this the ‘oooh what's this? OR ‘look at this!’’ moments in Nature OR the ‘Oh Wow!’ response to something natural. Everything from Nature's colours to sounds, to a sense of its physical space, can help us to shift from the common ‘high stress’ response we experience as ‘modern day humans’ to a sense of tranquillity and wholeness.


Relating with and to stuff in Nature - Another element, that ecopsychology brings to life, is how people can find meaning in the natural world. We might do this through metaphor, symbolism, recalling and relating experiences and memories. This can be called Nature Relatedness too. Some extreme examples of this involve the 'anthropomorphising' of nature - to show or treat a natural being, as if it were human. I do try my best to stay away from this element where possible, as it shifts back into the egocentrism that puts humans at the top of the perspective chain. Instead, I aim to support people to find creative and connected metaphors to issues or goals instead - seeing nature as the inspiration for change and opportunity. For example a client may relate the shape or features of a tree to the way they are experiencing a particular challenge or have been shaped by a life experience or trauma. They may talk about the weather or season as a way to describe their issue, a goal/intention or a way to explore a change strategy. They may use naturally themed idioms ‘every cloud’ or ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ for example as a way of personal expression to help communicate understanding. Language is very powerful across both coaching approaches and Ecopsychology. Nature-relatedness techniques can also encourage curious inquiry about planet and people issues. I invite gentle challenges when it comes to nature metaphors being used as negative, dangerous, or unruly. This brings with it an opportunity to explore the story of collective [western] separation and how our industrial past saw humans see nature as OTHER which led us to fear, distrust, or disconnect from the Natural world. I believe Ecopsychology has a place in redefining this language and retelling our story with one of hope for our future selves, starting now... Why does something like the word ‘wild’ need to have negative connotations, particularly within the narrative of female energy and form? This approach supports us in challenging the narrative of being apart from nature, which has subtly woven its way into our everyday language and holds us in a place - away from- ourselves as nature.

Learning from Nature - ecopsychology also invites us to observe and understand ways that nature is ‘doing’ and ‘being’ in its way of creating life This might be at the level of a connected ecosystem (a group of animals/plants) or within an individual natural species. (Check out AskNature.Org for examples and inspiration to learn from nature).   You may hear people, in this space, highlight the fact that Nature has 3.8 Billion years of evolution - I do this myself. With this explanation comes opportunities to learn from a range of adaptive techniques. These strategies can be useful for common ‘human’ issues like resilience, communication, working together, managing change, and prioritising strategies for health and well-being. Emerging from this are fields like Biomimicry and Regenerative Leadership that see Nature as something we can learn from (not just be in or look at).  Biomimicry originally focused on product design and innovation - for example, Velcro is famously developed through the observation of plants and insects ‘hooking’ mechanisms.

Biomimicry has gone on approaches to be used in Organisation Design and Regenerative Leadership and business approaches. Inviting us to learn and adapt from effective strategies in Nature. The ecopsychology element of this approach is best demonstrated, in coaching, when a client brings an issue or goal they feel stuck on. We may observe and consider how this strategy is handled in Nature and what it would look and feel like to apply a similar -or the same- approach to our own solutions. Unlike nature-relatedness, you may be adopting the ACTUAL technique or strategy or finding a 'human' equivalent. Rather than simply seeing it as metaphorical imagery. Commonly [in sessions] themes like boundaries, resilience, well-being habits, and communication come up as areas where we can observe and adopt useful strategies from Nature. You’d be amazed how impactful a discussion about a plant prioritising its basic needs can be, when exploring workplace well-being. And how many people admit - as humans- they are overlooking simple habits for health such as hydration, movement, rest, light, or a nutritious diet? ( Non-Negotiables in the wilder world!) 

The Deeper Stuff - I might be tempted to call this the ‘magic’ part of #Ecopsychology. The moment in which - as a coach/facilitator in the woods with clients- I step back and my skill set here is to stay quiet, allow time and connection and support the client in their own interaction and processing amongst and part of nature. This unspoken element of ecopsychology can feel quite different, from an 'every-day coaching approach'. It requires the coach to truly decentralise ‘ego’ (which we all should be doing anyway in the coaching space). To step away from guru/lead or ‘one up’ positions in the client/coaching space dynamic (which we should also be doing in this position too). Inviting and understanding that - in those moments- Nature is the co-facilitator with the Client. Through this silence, the client is directly connected to and with their world, they are their very own navigator and the world around them is supporting emotional, psychological, and physiological shifts and learning. You could say, in these moments the edge between humans and the wild is melted and moulded. In other words, the human and the natural surrounds are interacting at a level that doesn’t (necessarily) require any words, but supports significant personal development and shapes change. In this aspect, my role as coach/facilitator may be to help encourage the stillness and connection, form a de-brief or reflection of the experience to help the individual make sense of these moments in the here and now or support the client to let it be, and allow for the internal processing and change-work to take place in its own time (a solo walk back to their car at the end of the session is one way I support this last part when its needed). Tangible examples of deep ecology have included clients being drawn to an area of the woods, sitting in silence amongst bluebells, engaging in play and memory processing like making daisy chains and dens, hugging a tree, allowing sensory experiences such as watching clouds or immersing parts of self in water. I very rarely can ‘predict’ the how and what of this. It is an element of artistry and change-work between you and your natural surroundings in which the two of you decide together and my role is to observe and facilitate this, ensuring what we are doing is practically safe within your means. This part of #ecopsyshcology often come with visible emotional shifts which a client may at times, find tricky to articulate. Allowing the change to take place.

Being a Good Citizen - Much of ecopsychology speaks of the relationship building between humans and planetary crisis. The session time in nature,  re-connecting, learning, or reforming personal relationships with nature. Is a part of change work that is also important to climate and regenerative movements. I believe we all need space for re-learning and unlearning before/alongside we can affect the ‘doing’ of movements like sustainability, regeneration, and system change. There is value in gaining this re-rooted sense of ourselves as part of this change. The shift in ways of life and business, that ecopsychology speaks to,  can also be known as ‘pro-environmental behaviours’ e.g how we change the way we live, act and our beliefs. To support actions, that minimise our negative impact on the planet. For the 'everyday human' this might be changes in what we purchase, who we bank with, our political affiliations or in the way we seek awareness of societal or global health and system issues. People often begin volunteering or contributing to community initiatives too. What's also pretty cool about all this is that it, often, lends itself to a greater balance and calmer pace of life, or at least the intentions towards seeking this. In these shifting experiences, resources like the Inner Development Goals can help us understand the qualities and behaviours that emerge from a deeper connection with nature and the wild. I also love that this element, of the ecopsychology approach, it is a natural shift, empowered by inner decisions and it accompanies hearty change work for the person, inviting in a ‘more human’ version of ourselves with clients growing in kindness, compassion, self-expression, self-care practices and self-acceptance too. (as individuals and teams!)

Indigenous Wisdom - Here in the UK our connection is often quite disconnected with indigenous wisdom and practices. Many of us are less aware of local/national traditions, culture and heritage which would sit within our own indigenous cultures. Further afield to this - geographically- we can consider global communities who have (long before ecopsychology was evolved)- practiced the interconnection of nature/human worlds as a non-negotiable way of life. With many seeing the Western separation as 'out of the ordinary'. It's important that we don’t careless appropriate or foolishly perpetuate colonialised ways, when speaking to and of indigenous wisdom and practice, in ecopsychology. Something I find is a delicate path to explore and one of deep reflection and sometimes fear when speaking learning how to bring this into my own coaching work. I also realise, it is essential that this doesn’t get overlooked in the approach of eco-psychological modalities here in the West. These indigenous cultures are after all integral authors of these natural principles. The emergence of many nature-inspired past -times and experiences, that have made their way to the UK; foraging, wild swimming, rites of passage expeditions, and plant medicine retreats have an integral place in de-mystifying the impact of nature benefits and ecopsychology and deepening our connection ‘back to self’ (back to nature) but I am very aware that in ‘mainstreaming’ these elements and experiences, care can be taken to provide the stories behind their reasoning and impact. Not to lose these important elements and lessons, in reimagining ourselves as nature.

Some of the common coaching techniques, themselves, derive from traditional practices and are where I find this wisdom can sit most naturally in my own practice. Story Telling, Fire Side Circles for Teams (Gathering/Holding space), seeing Nature as a well-informed expert to our sessions, allowing time and space to be a part of nature and not just ‘in’ it or rushing into the ‘doing’ of a coaching practice or activity. Beyond that the curiosity to learn and know nature - plant and Fungi ID and seeing, hearing and understanding the other wildlife, that roams and lives amongst the sessions in the woods.

Simple yet impactful in this modalities ability to change and shift life and cultures. 

So as you can see Ecopsychology is multi-faceted and has elements of spirituality, neuroscience, psychology, and therapeutic benefits - amongst others. 

There is not one way of doing or being part of Nature, it comes with time, habits and beliefs.

It has histories and herstories that are important to communicate to those experiencing the benefits and creating their own shifts in narrative. 

It is experiential - by that I mean - it works through us being in, with and part of nature, the natural world and the wild. Wholesome and inter-connected in so many ways.

It is also a mirror - It reflects back to us both the challenges and potentials of ourselves and our world. Offering a way that is both unique to the individual, and uniting. Creating a sense of purpose, connection and meaning that transcends the needs for modern-day language. [Often] becoming deeply impactful in the way it shapes our lives - and hopefully our communities, businesses and futures too.

If you would like to explore more about our work in the woods at where the mind grows. You can visit #Subscribe to our weekly newsletter for more nature-inspired thoughts and sharing.

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