I’m sitting here trying to focus on writing, but my eyes are being drawn to the bright blue sky and the sunshine flickering off the trees. I feel a pull to be out there, experiencing the steady warmth of the sunshine. I stand up and open a window, a compromise that brings the relief of cool air but also the noise of the ongoing building work on campus. I notice that I feel caught between the call to be outside and the demands of the service.

This momentary experience brings into stark relief the main theme of this article – the experience of developing and facilitating ‘Being Outdoors’ workshops in a university context, which often elicits the relentlessness of doing more and more for staff and students with increasingly limited resources.

Before I dive more fully into this article, I invite you, the reader, to take a moment to connect with yourself and nature wherever you are. Notice how your feet make contact with the earth (even if this is through layers of material/concrete) and take some breaths. Look around your environment and sense your connection with nature. I see plants, stones, images of animals/trees within my room. I’m blessed with a pear tree outside my window and now, over the noise of building work, I notice the clack of a magpie and the chirp of a smaller bird vying for attention. My breath deepens and I lengthen my spine. I’m aware as I write this that I work on a beautiful campus where I have immediate and obvious access to nature. This wasn’t always the case. In my previous university service, I worked in a cupboard-like room with no windows, artificial light and a temperamental heating system. My salvation was the car park where there was a patch of green and a few trees. This experiment therefore may bring up feelings of absence and disconnection as well as, or instead of, connection. I invite you to just notice what happens and identify what you’re aware of as you stop and focus on your moment-by-moment experience.

This experiment is a flavour of some of what I offer within the ‘Being Outdoors’ workshops that I facilitate at the University of Nottingham Counselling Service (UCS). The aim of this article is to demystify some of what I offer and share my experience as the practitioner responsible for developing and running the sessions. By profiling the work, I’d like to sow the seeds for further connection and critical dialogue about this type of work in higher education. I begin by giving some wider context to this work before moving on to share what I do within UCS, highlighting some of my experiences as well as some issues for consideration.

Ecotherapy and ‘Being Outdoors’ in the university context

As I sit here thinking about outdoors work in the university context, a memory floats to the surface. I’m sitting on top of a very large boulder in Bolehill Park, Sheffield, looking across the valley. As I recall this experience, I connect with a sense of expansiveness. I used to go there to get some respite from the stresses of my PhD, to process my feelings through writing, and now, I recognise, to enable embodied self-regulation.1 I didn’t do this in any formal way and I didn’t recognise this as therapeutic at the time. Nevertheless, it was one of the things that got me through a testing time. I tried, but wasn’t ready, to access a service like the one I now work in. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and numerous universities later, I find my previous life as a geographer coalescing with my praxis (integration and embodiment of theory and practice) as a relational Gestalt psychotherapist. There are links, honest.

As a feminist geographer, I was interested in the lived, embodied experiencing of my research participants: how they were influenced by their environment, and the meanings they made of this in relation to their lived and multiple subjectivities. Moreover, I focused on issues of power and how I, as a researcher using qualitative participatory research methods and methodologies, influenced and was a part of the process.2-4 This background eventually led to and influenced my decision to train as a Gestalt psychotherapist, with its focus on field theory, holism, embodied awareness, phenomenology and dialogue. After some career diversions, I’m now back working in a university context, a different person from who I was when I was a postgraduate student and new member of staff in my 20s. I have done a lot of therapeutic work to become an embodied practitioner-researcher, my embodied responsiveness now an important aspect of my praxis.5 I discovered the therapeutic modality that I needed for my own personal growth, and I now find myself back in a context that is heavily weighted towards cognition, pressure and performance. I meet with people on a daily basis (staff and students) who are overwhelmed by pressures and expectations, alongside complex current and historical life circumstances. As a practitioner, I often feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. Not because of the complexity of what people bring, or their desire for connection to process their experiences, but because there is not enough of me or my colleagues to go around, especially given the much-publicised crisis in university mental health.

My journey towards ecotherapy, and in particular ‘Being Outdoors’ sessions on campus, is a synthesis, therefore, of the personal and professional experience described above. My aim is to utilise an amazing resource that staff and students always have access to – the campus. Through the workshops, I aim to support participants to recognise how nature might offer environmental support to foster connection and embodied regulation in a context that is often high pressured, stressful and dysregulating (in trauma literature, moving outside our window of tolerance). I would like to contextualise this within the literature below before addressing more specifically what I offer.

In the last few years, there has been a proliferation in research and writing about the benefits of ecotherapy and the general physical and mental health benefits of spending time outside in the natural environment.6-14 Bringing nature indoors to the therapy room is also recognised as being beneficial, as are the benefits of such an approach in schools.15,16 Yet within the higher education sector, ecotherapy seems rare, or at least people aren’t writing or talking about it, although there has been some recent media interest in how university teams are taking students outside to improve their wellbeing.17,18 Unfortunately, these articles, while promoting contact with nature as a wellbeing practice, do not capture the complexity of the work or the substantive benefits for students and staff with more significant and enduring emotional and mental health difficulties.

‘Being Outdoors’ at the University of Nottingham

One of the things that drew me to the University of Nottingham was the location of UCS at University Park, which has Green Flag status (the benchmark for quality green spaces). Yet what I noticed on the day of my interview and in subsequent months, is that while the green campus is a selling point for the university, it is mainly used simply as an attractive environment to traverse. There are opportunities to stop, sit, play chess, take in the environment, even walk a labyrinth for meditation, but anecdotally most people appear to be moving quickly from one space to another, focusing on their phone, plugged in to their headphones and/or socialising with friends/ colleagues.19 There is nothing wrong with any of this, yet I was struck by an opportunity to encourage a different use of space.

Prior to starting in my role at the University of Nottingham, I had worked with an ex-colleague to offer individual ecotherapy sessions for clients. When I arrived at Nottingham, I was keen to build on this experience, but I found myself isolated in my interest to develop such an initiative. I notice the apprehension even now that I felt at the start when suggesting this ‘new’ way of working to my roombased colleagues. As with anything new, I had to persevere and push myself to offer something different. I had the encouragement of my new head of service, which helped in combatting my fears of being experienced as weird, ‘out there’ and unboundaried. I began to pilot ‘Being Outdoors’ workshops as a contribution to our extensive workshop and therapeutic group programme. Over the past 18 months, the content, length of time and participants have changed and adapted in response to my experiences of facilitation and feedback from participants.

‘Being Outdoors’ sessions are based around the seasons and I run them as close to the autumn/spring equinoxes and summer/winter solstices as possible. This way, participants can explore their experience of the campus across the seasons and can attend multiple sessions. Sessions are now open to all – staff, undergraduate and postgraduate students. I have a maximum of 12 participants per session. I experimented initially with separate sessions for different groups, but found that it is primarily postgraduate students, staff and international students, rather than undergraduates, who take up sessions. I have shortened sessions to one hour 15 minutes rather than two hours 15 minutes, as this is a more manageable timescale for the working day. Having shortened the sessions, I have reduced the amount of content I offer and shifted the emphasis from ecotherapy exercises to eco-mindfulness practice.6 This is a subtle but important distinction when working with participants in a one-off capacity. To support and manage their emotional safety, I focus exercises on building connection, grounding, containment and resilience rather than exploring individual narratives, metaphors and meanings, which I might do when working in an ongoing capacity.

Confidentiality and anonymity cannot be guaranteed because we are working outdoors, but sessions are run early in the afternoon to maximise light, provide consistency and take place at a time when that area of campus is not too busy. The location is near the service, so we don’t have to spend too much time walking, and it is tucked away to provide as much privacy as possible. The space offers a good mix of different types of trees and planting (some wild and some more manicured) as well as water and a variety of animals and insects.

The title of the workshop is meaningful because it reflects what I am trying to create, which is an opportunity to be outside, accept participants’ experience as it is in that moment and be open to what arises. I aim for these sessions to be an antidote to the pressure of doing in the university context. During the sessions, therefore, I offer opportunities to connect with self/other and nature. Sessions begin in the service, where I do a brief health and safety introduction and use a consent form to identify any health risks. I ask for phones to be on silent and put away. I then do a short ‘here and now’ meditation practice within the service to enable participants to bring themselves into the experience, slow down and begin to pay attention to their sensory and moment-by-moment experience. I use this to support them to notice differences in their experience as they transition across the boundary between inside and out. As we move outside, I ask participants not to talk and to pay attention to their sensory experience as we move slowly to our first stop. While outdoors, I include a variety of exercises that support participants to connect with and reflect on their experiences of nature as well as others’ experiences, noticing their similarities and differences. An example might be supporting participants to notice a tree that they are drawn towards and go and spend some time with that tree, noticing their embodied sensory experience. I then ask them to meet back with the group and take another participant to their tree and share their experience, noticing what happens. We then feed back our experiences and share as much or as little as we want in the larger group. I might follow this with an opportunity to embody that tree through meditation. I offer this as an example as it gives participants a variety of different ways to engage with the process and means they can experiment with what suits them. In this exercise, some participants notice that they prefer the focus to be on their external experience rather than their internal landscape. It offers practical experiences of opportunities they can take into their daily life to mitigate against the pressures they are facing, and to use to regulate themselves at times of (dis)stress. It also offers an opportunity for participants to share the familiarity of some experiences; for instance, participants often share the struggle in slowing their mind chatter, and this provides an opportunity to normalise and accept this as an experience as well as to teach strategies that might support the slowing down of this process.8

I am not saying that these workshops are going to alleviate the (dis)stresses of (university) life. In running them, however, I want to give participants an opportunity to take part in something different on campus and to experience embodied strategies that can be transferred and developed in their daily life to offer some relief. Nature is always available in different forms, unlike appointments or practitioners at our service. Its capacity to create a regulating opportunity when people aren’t available, is limitless. I think of nature therefore as an underused and unrecognised transitional object that has the potential to provide safe soothing for some people in times of distress.21 Nature also offers a resource in the development of phase one trauma treatment and can therefore provide participants coping with more complex mental health conditions an opportunity to build their self-regulating skills and resilience.1,21

I use different exercises, depending on my assessment of participants’ needs and how they present and respond through the workshop. I would, however, suggest that, if you know in advance that you are going to be working with a complex client group, this work is done within the framework of ongoing groupwork, or a mixture of individual therapy and workshops akin to ‘dialectical behavioural therapy’ in order to manage risk and safety.22 At the end of sessions, I offer an opportunity for participants to explore how they can incorporate their experience into their life in small ways, such as spending time outside at lunch, greening their work space, having a picture on their phone to remind them to breathe, and pausing and checking on their embodied experience. While these workshops are concerned with how nature can support us within a university context, it is also about engaging with our embodied experience in a context heavily weighted towards cognition and disembodiment. I allow administrative time at the end of each workshop so that if a participant does need extra support, or some safety issue is raised during the session, I can provide some containment.

Concluding comments

I notice that trying to explain what I do in words here felt like a struggle. I began to feel lethargic, to lose focus and concentration. I realised quite early on that I was feeling like this, but it took a while for me to acknowledge that I needed to shift my focus and do something different. I wanted to persevere and finish writing, using the space I have outside term time. I printed off what I had written and went outside for an hour. I’m aware that not everyone has a supportive context where leaving their desk/office is possible, and it took me a while to give myself permission to go outside and change my working context. I hear all the time about people’s reluctance to move from desks, to go outside, to pay attention to embodied experiences. I went outside with this unfinished article: I moved, noticed the muggy breeze, listened to the sounds of nature and walked the labyrinth. By the time I came back in, I had written the conclusion in note form and had another couple of realisations that I wouldn’t have got at my desk. The combination of nature and movement freed me up so that I am now writing quickly and creatively, and I feel more energised. Through this process, I realised again that the pressure of attainment, perfectionism and procrastination inhibits me so that more effort is required to get the task done and I am less creative. It’s impossible when we’re feeling that much internal and/or external pressure to flourish. It’s often doing something simple that helps break the cycle. I often hear myself saying, ‘It’s not rocket science’, but in a situation of pressure and expectations, I certainly find it difficult to do things differently and practise what I know supports me.

I realise as I conclude this article, that my energy lifts when I reflect on being outdoors with participants and seeing their engagement and reflection on the process. The same issues are pertinent in outdoor work as in room-based work: awareness of boundaries; confidentiality; start/end time; containment; safety. What I have found challenging is introducing a different way of working in a university context where the emphasis is primarily on cognition and disembodied ways of being. I persevered in trying to offer sessions specifically for undergraduate students, but had to cancel sessions, either because not enough people came, despite having signed up, or they turned up in numbers which made holding a safe, contained group impossible. I feel disappointed because when I ran one session with three undergraduates, it received excellent feedback; but numbers were too low, and this is increasingly difficult to justify in a resourcelimited service. While sessions are open to all, I am now targeting staff and postgraduates as I think this will help build momentum and hopefully filter interest across the university. I have also decided, because of numbers, that some of the sessions will run outside of term time so that more staff may choose to attend. Ideally, I would like the sessions to run during term time as this is when staff need some respite, but currently not enough have the space and time to attend. I’ve learnt, then, through the initial stages of the pilot to know the context in which I’m working, to offer something that fits with where participants are. But what I realised, as I was at the centre of the labyrinth, is that this is just the start. I have done enough so that ‘Being Outdoors’ is now going to be incorporated in our ‘Breathe Here Now’ programme and is now accepted into the main body of our work within the service. Furthermore, I have a new colleague who is excited about developing the programme with me and who brings fresh energy and enthusiasm. I hope that we will be able to consolidate and develop this work, build a profile for it, both within the University of Nottingham and outside in other higher education contexts.

As I finish, I notice a dragonfly circling outside my window. It lifts my spirits and I feel hopeful that this article has offered some insight into how outdoor work can be offered in a university context and that it might start a critical and supportive dialogue about eco-practice in higher education.

Kathryn Morris-Roberts, PhD, is a UKCP relational Gestalt psychotherapist working at the University of Nottingham Counselling Service, where she offers individual and group psychotherapy as well as a variety of workshops, including ‘Being Outdoors’. She also works independently as an equine-assisted psychotherapist, outdoor and embodied creativity workshop facilitator and artist. www.kathrynmorrisroberts.co.uk  


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