What's your outdoors? Ruth Allen on the power of Outdoor Therapy

Outdoor therapy is a thing, we're probably all doing it to some degree every time we go for a run or a climb. There’s a growing recognition that time spent outdoors is good for us - not only for physical health and exercise, but for the positive effect it has on our mind, and for people going through a process of therapy or coaching it can bring an extra dimension. I spoke to Ruth Allen, coach, counsellor, and writer to understand more about the powerful effect the outdoors can have on emotional and mental wellbeing...

"My particular interest is in solitude, silence and quietness. I’m very interested in time outdoors in quiet places and how that’s important for being able to hear what you need, and creating a sense of inner spaciousness. I talk a lot about listening and noticing what’s happening in your body and in your head. The outdoors can reveal what’s going on inside, and it’s looking for those cues. That’s the benefit of having a coach alongside you. It’s useful to have someone to help bring attention to what’s going on for you, then maybe you can go on and do it a bit more yourself."

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"There’s something very equal about walking alongside someone. It suits people who find it difficult to be in a room and talk about their feelings, which can be quite intimidating and anxiety provoking in itself. When you start to walk with somebody, nature becomes a lived metaphor for what’s going on in people’s heads. You can imagine - you’re walking with someone and you start to bring in a metaphor for them. You ask, based on what you’ve talked about, going left is following that dream of teaching, going forward you don’t know what’s ahead, and quite instinctively they find themselves walking forward. It’s very natural, it’s good for that.

Mind-body-spirit is a triad that’s been knocking around for years, there’s nothing new in that, but when you take that into a therapeutic or coaching context it reminds you that sitting in a room only tackles one or two of those elements, the body isn’t really doing very much. Being outdoors brings alive quickly what you can cover indoors to some degree, but it might take longer to get there. I find that the process of coaching outdoors has an embodied vitality to it. When you’re sitting in a room you’re shut in a closed box and it can feel a bit containing. When we’re actually walking and talking it brings it all together, that’s the potency of it. "

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"It’s not putting all the pressure on talking and the feelings. Your body gives you the messages before your mind is really there, and it gives you a reliable message. Quite often people go through the world saying ‘I’m okay I’m okay’, but their body is telling them something different. They’re having panic attacks or they’re anxious, or they can’t get up in the morning - your body is giving you the signs way before your mind is willing to get on board with that difficult message. Your body has all the knowledge it needs, and it’s bringing your body and mind and emotions in sync. Bringing that into people’s awareness gives them permission to go out and have a different type of outdoor experience that services their mental and emotional wellbeing that perhaps they didn’t have before. It doesn’t have to just be physical, it doesn’t have to be fast or high achieving.

My time is split between therapeutic work, individual coaching, and working with groups and organisations. I still work a lot with therapeutic clients in a room. For the really therapeutic stuff you’ve got to be careful about the outdoors, there are a lot of differences. People can walk past with their dogs, anything can happen, it’s quite a distracting environment. I work with people who are traumatised, survivors of abuse, suicidal, and it’s not the right time. Once they’re in a different place, maybe then it’s okay to take it outside."

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"You can go and do therapeutic work outside if you’re struggling with anxiety or mental health, or coaching if you don't really know where you’re going in life and have lost direction. That’s what I see mostly, and the outdoors seems to be a very natural fit for people with a sense of stuckness or lack of direction.

Good mental health, like physical health, has to be maintained, it has to be something that becomes part of your life. I talk about making a practice of it so the outdoors isn’t something that you go and do, it’s part of who you are. That’s not to say go and run up mountains every day, it doesn’t have to be that intensive, just go and spend time with a tree you like. What’s your outdoors? My thing is mountains, but yours might be coast, or woods, or your garden. Whatever it is, do more of that. It doesn't have to be what I do, and it doesn’t have to be badass if that’s not your thing. If a stroll along the beach is your thing, great, then you’re outdoors, who’s to say whose way is better." 

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Ruth Allen is a counsellor, coach, and writer who promotes emotional and mental wellbeing through nature, adventure, and time well-spent outdoors in the natural world. Find out more about Ruth and her work on Instagram @whitepeak_ruth.