Ecopsychology: What it is and Why it Matters – Part 3

ecopsychology

This is the third installment of a 3-part series on the topic of ecopsychology. In the first post, I introduced the idea of ecopsychology and explained what it entails. In the second post, I illustrated why it is important for environmentalists to draw on ecopsychological ideas in their work. In this third and final post, I argue that psychologists too need to take the wider environment into consideration when seeking to conceptualize their clients’ difficulties and assist in their clients’ healing (i.e., ecotherapy).

As noted by Theodore Roszak (1995),

When we think of psychotherapy, we think of human relations on the smallest and most personal scale…therapy is private and introspective; it deals in the hidden life–fears, desires, guilty secrets perhaps too deeply buried to be known to the individual (p. 2).

This narrow view of psychotherapy, however, is actually quite nascent.  It stems from the field of modern psychology, a discipline birthed just over a hundred years ago.

For the vast majority of human history (something like 40,000 years), however, the psyche was understood in a much more holistic way. When our ancestors (and  many indigenous individuals today) needed ‘psychological help’ they did not go in search of a psychologist or psychiatrist; instead they looked to shamans–healers who understood that human health stems from a balanced and right relationship with all living things.

Psychologist and Shamanistic healer Leslie Gray (1995) notes that “shamanism attempts to restore power to them [clients] by putting them back in harmony with life” and argues that ecopsychology actually has its roots in shamanistic principles (p. 174).

I think there are at least two ways that shamanistic/ecopsychological thought can speak to the work of ‘modern’ therapists.

First, rather than conceptualizing a client’s problems as entirely personal, therapists should consider that her or his issues might also be rooted in our culture’s dysfunctional relationship with the planet. As mentioned in the second post of this series on ecopsychology, many different thinkers have suggested that those living in the West are addicted to consuming the earth’s resources. Not only is this parasitic on our planet, it might also be doing a number on our psyches.

For thousands of years, shamans intuited that in order for a person–even an entire society–to be healthy, they had to be in living in right relationship with the wider, natural world. In this way, if a society is out of sync with the natural rhythms of the planet, its citizens, too, will be out of sync with their souls.

Psychiatric social worker Terrance O’Connor (1995) raises a very interesting point: “By helping people adapt to a destructive society, are we doing more harm than good?” (p. 150).

Second, therapists should encourage their clients to reconnect with nature to facilitate their healing process. One of the amazing things about having experiences in the natural world is that they allow you to gain a new perspective on your life and your problems. People often report that spending time in nature allows them to get away from their life stressors and preoccupations and connect with something greater than themselves.

For many, however, these types of experiences are becoming more and more rare. Our modern lives are now rooted in the urban jungle, and we seem endlessly distracted by (and addicted to?) our technological devices. Getting outside, and connecting with the wider natural world, is critical then if we are to balance our modern, urban lifestyles with our wild, ‘animal’ bodies.

To conclude, psychotherapists would do well to consider a person’s relationship with the wider natural world when conceptualizing her or his problems and assisting in his or her healing process. Perhaps an (unintended) side effect of such an approach to psychotherapy will be the formation of more ecologically conscious and concerned humans–as well as a healthier planet.

A win-win, if you ask me.