Happy Trails?

By Beth Howard
Shape Magazine September 1996

Feeling our of sorts? You may simply be out of touch — with nature. Check out the new, fresh air psychotherapy

Everyone knows a walk in the woods is good for the soul. Now psychologists are latching on to this bit of ancient wisdom. Fans of the latest mental health trend—"ecopsychology," based on the recognition that our relationship to nature affects our mental well-being—blame environmental woes and urban confinement for their patients' psychic wounds. They believe we are so inherently connected to the natural world, its cycles and ecosystem, that when we lose touch with it, or see it being destroyed, we may become unhappy, depressed and anxious. Their goal is to help clients reconnect their severed ties to nature.

"We're not living sustainably on this Earth," says Sarah Conn, Ph.D., who teaches a course in ecopsychology at the Cambridge Hospital, Harvard Medical School. "It's stressing the systems within us as well as the systems we live in."

In practice, ecotherapy means urging patients off the couch and onto the trail— or at least into the backyard. Many psychologists are prescribing activities that involve nature, from gardening to getting behind an environmental cause. Also popular: three-day to month-long wilderness treks led by a psychologist or wilderness specialist that provide physical challenges while emphasizing the spiritual perks of nature. (Think Outward Bound meets Women Who Run With the Wolves). Usually they involve hiking and camping in groups, but some let participants go solo for several days of serious soul-searching.

Participants' senses are keener, their perceptions sharper, in the wild, says Robert Greenway, a professor of psychology at Sonoma State University who has taken 1,500 people on such pilgrimages. "Their self-concepts get expansive. They feel an intimacy with their bodies and their instincts," he says. Without the distractions of modern life, people come face to face with their feelings and explore basic issues in their lives. It can be frightening and difficult. The psychologists are on hand to help.

But before you sign up, says Steven Harper, M.S., a psychologist and wilderness guide for the Esalen Institute, find out what support the organization offers and whether it practices low-impact wilderness skills. And keep in mind that you can never know exactly what to expect—both from nature and yourself. "The minute you step off the pavement, you're going out of what is known," Harper says. "The reason to do it is for the simple sake of being and feeling more alive."

~ Beth Howard