Have you ever been out on the trail and found yourself inexorably drawn towards a particular tree, plant or flower? Whether you want to look at it, touch or smell it, some hidden part of you feels that it has something to offer you, even if you don’t understand exactly what. According to integrative psychotherapist Stefan Batorijs, the reason for this may lie in your genes.
“We’ve all been hunter-gatherers in past lives, and that’s still inside us, so we have this instinctive knowledge and wisdom within us to do with plants,” explains Batorijs, founder of the Ecotherapy Project and mountain leader. This understanding of our ancestral relationship with nature forms the foundation of his work as an ecotherapist.
Ecotherapy is an increasingly popular form of counseling that uses physical interaction with nature as a tool for healing. Now, the idea of nature time as therapy probably isn’t news to you as a Colorado resident. You probably practice it every day, inhaling the scent of pine on a sunrise hike, listening to the sound of rushing water as you run alongside a creek or feeling the breeze in your face as you ride your mountain bike downhill. But, however much joy you derive from your time in nature, it’s common to also feel a sense of disenfranchisement around the health of the planet, and many of us seek out talk therapy as a result. Here, Batorijs explains that heading outdoors for ecotherapy can be really beneficial, because it actually requires you to build a more reciprocal relationship with nature than you might currently be enjoying on your daily hikes. As in, you don’t just come to nature for healing; you give something back.
“The origins of the word ecotherapy mean to take care of our home, which means taking care of the earth, so what I try to encourage is a reciprocal relationship, so that when people come out into nature, there’s a give-and-take between people and nature,” he adds.
Stepping into the role of becoming a steward of nature is something that helps many people to feel more empowered and cope with the stress of climate change — something that 84% of people said they were at least moderately concerned about in a 2021 survey of 10,000 people across the globe.
“It’s not just about nature being a resource for people’s mental health, but it’s also about educating people to then want to protect nature,” explains Batorijs. “I think we’re becoming increasingly aware of the destruction that we’re causing to the planet. More and more people are being affected negatively by climate change and how we as a species are impacting the environment.”
Of course, you can start with the obvious — taking part in conservation efforts such as local trail cleanups, examining your recycling practices or working with a local wildlife trust. Taking the bull by the proverbial horns and engaging in activities like these positively impacts your natural surroundings, and it can also help you overcome any sense of helplessness you may be experiencing around the health of the planet.
“A lot of people feel disempowered, but I really feel very passionately that by going out and creating a reciprocal relationship then we feel that we’re doing our little bit to try and restore the balance,” says Batorijs.
If you want to take things a step further, he encourages working with a trained ecotherapist and developing a more spiritual relationship with nature. Such a relationship can include reading a poem aloud to nature, bringing food and drink to share with the forest or taking your meditation or yoga practice outdoors.
“It’s really powerful to feel connected to the land and the forest and feel that we’re giving something back, because just by sitting with the forest and becoming sensitive to it, it’s helping us to understand our impact on the environment.”
Though it may take time for us to soothe the strain we’ve put on our planet these past couple of centuries, individual transformation can happen quite quickly with this type of work; according to Batorijs, it ordinarily takes just a few sessions for his clients to form a better sense of their place within the grand scheme of things. At the same time, some things that have been bothering them no longer seem of any consequence and so-called “short-term” mental health issues are quickly resolved.
“People tend to get in touch with their true selves. Through this process of working together in nature, people access a part of themselves that has a strong sense of authenticity and of their own identity that has a place outside of the constructs of culture and society. By working in nature, people feel that they’re being heard and they have a place there,” believes Batorijs.
And of course, you do have a place here. It’s your home.