Nature-Based Therapy and Trauma

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By: Jenny Laverdure, M.S., EKU Clinical Psychology doctoral candidate

As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact trauma, particularly complex trauma, has on individual physical and mental health. This has led to increased research on treatments for disorders such as PTSD.  In the field of psychology, this research has focused heavily on the use of evidence-based treatments such as prolonged exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT) in psychotherapy. Both are well-researched and have strong treatment outcomes for many individuals with trauma. However, because trauma can be due to a broad variety of factors, there has been a new movement towards examining what would be called “bottom-up” treatments. These treatments can include things like yoga, tai chi, and drumming. As part of this movement to look at alternative treatments for disorders such as PTSD, there has been increased focus on nature-based therapy (NBT) or nature-based interventions (NBI). NBT is a broad area and can incorporate types of interventions such as forest-bathing, animal-assisted therapy (AAT), adventure therapy, and horticulture therapy.

NBT has been around in some capacity since WWII, when veterans returning from war with “shell shock” were first treated using gardening, which later spurred the movement for horticulture therapy. Overwhelming, qualitative research from Europe, Asia, and emerging U.S. studies have shown that nature has a large impact on our physical and mental health and several positive outcomes have been noted. These outcomes include decreases in cortisol levels, anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms, as well as increases in concepts like self-esteem and self-efficacy, sense of control, quality of life, and increased resilience. NBT has been conducted on individuals, groups, adults, and children with a variety of mental health disorders ranging from psychotic disorders (such as Schizophrenia) to more affective disorders (such as anxiety and depression) to health disorders such as cancer, obesity, and diabetes. 

NBT is well-suited for the treatment of trauma for several reasons.  NBT can help clients:

  • Develop a sense of connection
  • Provide a sense of safety
  • Reduce stigma in attending therapy
  • Foster a sense of mindfulness and being present
  • Promote sensory stimulation and body awareness for individuals who are not in tune with their bodies
  • Reawaken a sense of curiosity
  • Foster an awareness of being part of something larger or something bigger than self 

From a clinician standpoint, it can help reduce the power dynamics in a room by providing a neutral and safe space, can help facilitate cultural practices, can foster growth and reduce avoidance due to the experiential nature of NBI. NBT is also very flexible and can be used with a variety of other traditional therapeutic approaches. 

The importance of treating trauma disorders has been well-established, and while we know it can take a toll on the physical and mental health of individuals, it also increases the financial impact on society as a whole.  With the causes of trauma being so varied and the stigma and barriers around traditional mental health treatment being high, it is important to continue exploring additional science driven ways to treat trauma. 

Jennifer Laverdure is a Clinical Psychology doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at Eastern Kentucky University.

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