Whether it’s the sight of ants on a log, the sound of birdsong, the smell of nearby blossoms, or the feel of bare feet on the earth, nature brings us back into our senses. And that can make a big difference in mental health.
Indianapolis-based therapist Dr. Lynn Hynes—Lynn to her clients—has seen firsthand how nature heals. She brings her background in ecopsychology into her work.
She says, “It’s about opening yourself up to contact with the natural world—the willingness to connect with the great web of life that surrounds us and penetrates us and binds us all together.”
Lynn offers “rewilding” experiences to help small groups expand their relationship with nature—and get more in touch with themselves through the natural world.
Even in one-on-one work with clients, she incorporates nature as a healing support. She starts by asking what a client already does to get into nature. If that is a gap in the client’s life, she encourages them to start where they are—by getting outdoors in some small way.
“The simple practice of walking barefoot on the earth and bringing awareness to that sensual contact can really be lifechanging for people,” she says.
She teaches her clients to try a “sit spot.” This is a basic practice of finding a place to sit outdoors in nature. The trick is not to move, talk, or—hardest of all for some—check the smartphone screen. For a half hour or so, the focus is only on how the five senses engage with their spot in the natural world.
Coming into intimate relationship with the land like this is something indigenous cultures have done for millennia, she notes. Making space for these practices in the wild are especially important in a technological, fast-paced world.
“Particularly for people who are stuck, depressed or having anxiety, it’s really important to get out, to get sunlight, to feel that there’s something bigger than us.”
From the sit spot, Lynn sometimes moves clients into other ways of living more in harmony with the earth. That can look like rekindling ancestral skills, from animal tracking to plant medicine to friction-fire.
It can also be as basic as an outdoor therapy session. Lynn hits a local trail with some clients, particularly those who have quarantined until recently. “If we build even these little tiny encounters with Mother Earth,” she says, “people find they can trust that relationship with the earth, and it deepens trust with themselves. They begin to build confidence and more self-esteem.”
“The medicine for depression may be found by simply getting outside, getting fresh air, getting sun on (the) face,” she says. Some people come to her in such a shut-down state that they only want to be in a dark room. So it can be a huge leap to simply go outside and find rejuvenation through nature.
“What nature does is keep us in the moment,” she says. “Over time, what I notice is that for people who adopt some of these practices, their anxiety begins to fade.”
For one 41-year-old client, these practices opened up a whole new chapter of life. She was riddled with anxiety when she first came for counseling. On Lynn’s encouragement she sat in her back yard with her bare feet on the ground. Later she began exploring the woods and discovered a love of hiking.
As she calmed her anxiety and expanded her world, the client eventually decided to move to Colorado to be close to the mountains. Now she is expanding beyond hiking to learn earth-based skills, such as building a basic shelter from natural materials. “She was barely verbal when I met her,” Lynn says. “It’s almost as if nature taught her to trust herself.”
Lynn sees this work as part of larger planetary healing. Since the Industrial Revolution, much of modern society has divorced itself from nature. “We have caused such a cruel separation of human beings from the natural world,” Lynn says. That disconnection has led us to where we are today, she points out, with multiple society problems and environmental degradation as a result.
“The idea that we’re not separate—we are part of nature—that’s a big deal to understand. When people can see that they’re absolutely linked, not disconnected but one and the same, it’s a profound knowing.”
“And once we view nature as a sacred thing, we treat nature very differently.”
Connect with Dr. Lynn Hynes at her website.