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When Wilderness Therapy & Art Therapy Come Together


Lying in the grass, feeling clover tickle the back of your neck, studying the shifting shapes of the clouds and calling out what you see. A cool wind sweeps over the group. Giggles become contagious as one participant shouts out "That one looks like a hot dog!"

The power of being outdoors is evident. Findings from a wilderness therapy study at University of Essex showed that self-esteem increased 15% in program participants, and wellbeing by 52%. There was also a 30% increase in average resilience scores. More research with bigger groups will soon be under way, but scientists believe that this result is promising.

To highlight the endorphin rush produced by such immersion in nature, many art therapists invite clients to paint or draw something in their environment. It helps to provide a tangible totem to remind them of the sense of peace that washed over them in this place. But often in group therapy settings, the peaceful mindset leads to a generosity: clients can be observed trading or gifting their art to each other as a way to remember the friends they made through the experience.

“What people spoke about was a sense of belonging, a sense of community that they’d got from the project,” remarked Kirsty Shanks, who led the research at U of E. The project was multifaceted and included many therapy groups, various interactive projects and community-building games. The main benefit, however, was simply the access to nature.

As summer approaches in the northern hemisphere, remember to expand what you think of as therapeutic: go outside, take a walk with your therapist, paint what you see from the sidewalk, or take some time to get out of the city and stargaze for an hour at night.


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