February 23, 2017

Q&A: Ecotherapy presenter P. Hasbach

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that direct exposure to nature is good for our psychological, emotional, and physical health.
  • Patricia Hasbach, PhD, LPC

A growing body of evidence demonstrates that direct exposure to nature is good for our psychological, emotional, and physical health. Yet the focus of most traditional therapies stops at the urban boundary. 

We spoke with Patricia Hasbach, PhD, LPC, licensed psychotherapist, consultant, author, and college educator, about her pioneering work in the field of ecotherapy, the concept of ‘rewilding’, and her upcoming workshop, Prescribing Nature: Incorporating Ecotherapy Methods into Your Clinical Practice taking place on Friday April 28th at Lewis & Clark Graduate School.

“We have produced some amazing technological innovations that few of us would be willing to relinquish. But many of us wonder “Are we out of balance?” Ecopsychology and rewilding are shining a light on these concerns.”

You are recognized as a pioneer in ecotherapy. What led you to focus your work in this area?

I have always had a strong affinity to nature, finding joy in time spent outdoors as well as solace during life’s inevitable challenging periods.  In the early part of my career I worked with patients who were recovering from a cardiac event.  We would address the social and emotional aspects of their recovery, which often included managing stress and anxiety. I would meet new patients in the cardiac rehab center at the hospital, and I began to invite them out into the courtyard that was adjacent to the rehab center.

During those outings I noticed how their anxiety eased and their pace slowed as we walked the paths of the yard stopping sometimes to observe a butterfly or bird, or comment on a newly planted shrub. Something different was happening in these first meetings than when I met new patients at the office. So when I first learned about the field of ecopsychology – in 1996 shortly after the anthology by Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner was published – I was immediately drawn to it.

Today, I see my own work as a bridge between more traditional therapeutic practice and the emerging practices of ecotherapy.

What are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in this field since you began, and what do you think is on the horizon?

I’ve seen the field of ecopsychology and the practice of ecotherapy grow and mature so much over the last 20 years. It’s very exciting to see ecopsychology—and the related fields of environmental psychology and conservation psychology—impacting the larger discipline of psychology.  As we become more aware of the impact of human behavior on our environment and more aware of the importance of direct contact with the natural world for our well-being, it follows that we need to address the human-nature relationship in a direct and meaningful way.

In terms of the future of the field, I see the growing body of evidence on the benefits of direct contact with nature informing not only the practice of ecotherapy, but also influencing education through place-based education initiatives and outdoor classrooms and school gardens; influencing the built environment through design of health care facilities, workplace design, and city planning; and influencing how we address the psychological and social issues related to climate change.

Your upcoming workshop at Lewis & Clark will emphasize broadening and deepening the practice of psychotherapy by extending the psychotherapeutic context to include the natural world. What are some of the most significant implications for practitioners and clients when nature is incorporated into therapeutic work?

The practice of therapy has generally stopped at the urban boundary and been confined to the indoor office space. Therapy traditionally focuses on intrapsychic processes and human-to-human relationships.  Ecotherapy expands the boundary of therapeutic space to include the natural world, and it expands the context of care to include the human – nature relationship.

By expanding the scope of treatment to include the human-nature relationship, we invite clients to acknowledge their relationship with the natural world or their feelings of disconnection from it. By broadening the lens with which we view the client, clinicians open new possibilities for deepening therapy by inviting clients to tap their own innate wisdom and strength, by including nature as a partner in the therapeutic process, and by making use of nature imagery and nature metaphor to enrich the therapeutic dialogue.

You co-edited a book called The Rediscovery of the Wild and gave a keynote address entitled Rewilding for Human Flourishing. What is rewilding, and how is it applicable in clinical practice?

Nearby nature (a park, our garden, etc.) is important because we can access it easily and garner immediate benefits from interacting with it. The other part is wild nature.  As a species, we came of age in a natural world far wilder than today’s world, and much of the need for wildness still exists within us.

Rewilding calls us to carefully examine how we think about “wildness” – individually and as a culture – for how we think about it will greatly influence how we relate to it.  It will influence how we experience a relationship with it – wildness in the world and wildness within ourselves. For people to flourish – to experience our full potential as human beings- much of that wildness needs to be re-discovered, re-engaged, and fully lived.

You frequently publish and speak about ecotherapy and rewilding in venues that reach both the general public as well as the academic and clinical communities.  Why do you think ecopsychology and rewilding appeal to so many people?

Both ecopsychology and rewilding speak to the innate affinity humans have for life, and for the dynamic energy of a life force embodied in each of us and all living beings. We most often experience this life force when we are engaged in reciprocal relationship with nature. In recent decades, we have found ourselves increasingly removed from the natural world. Recent studies show that kids in the U.S. spend an average of 7.5 hours each day interacting with a screen, and only 4-7 minutes each day in outdoor free play.  We have produced some amazing technological innovations that few of us would be willing to relinquish.  But many of us wonder “Are we out of balance?”  Ecopsychology and rewilding are shining a light on these concerns.

What are some ways that you incorporate nature or ecotherapy methods into your own life?

I’m a Master Gardener, so gardening plays a huge role in my well-being. I can get lost for hours in my gardens and greenhouse. I live in a semi-wild, rural environment on the banks of the McKenzie River in the foothills of the Cascades. I stay mindful of the sights and sounds and smells and feel of my home place.  I also make a point of moving out into wilder environs on occasion – to experience the canonical wild – and to feel the vulnerability, the humility, and the aliveness that comes.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the field of ecopsychology or your upcoming workshop?

This experiential workshop is a wonderful opportunity for clinicians to come together and share their rich experiences of working with people over time. They will hear new ideas and gain new skills that encourage a mindful and systematic approach to incorporating nature-based practices into their clinical work.