Healing Outdoors: Why Location Matters


As therapy evolves, doctors, therapists, and counselors can put ideas into practice that offer new ways to approach treatment. Some of these ideas are intuitive, such as outdoor therapy. Utilizing the instinctive human relationship to interact with natural outdoor environments and integrating therapy within that environment should produce improved therapeutic results. Particularly when contrasted with the concept of sitting in a chair in an artificially lit room talking to a therapist, it becomes obvious why outdoor therapy is especially appealing for adolescent clients.

The Human-Nature Connection

For the past thirty years, healing outdoors has been a growing trend in therapy, especially for adolescents. There are various animal therapies, nature-based therapies, forest therapy, horticultural therapy, wilderness therapies, and adventure therapies, all of which involve being outdoors.

While each type of therapy has its own criteria and therapeutic process, they all depend on the human-nature connection for success. Particularly as more people have gravitated to urban settings, being in an open-air environment and being exposed to natural elements seems to offer a level of healing in and of itself. Being able to interact with the earth, with bodies of water, with plants, and sometimes with animals offers opportunities for healing that cannot be replicated in an office setting.

Advantages of Being Outdoors

Being outdoors offers emotional, psychological, and physical benefits for adolescents. More specifically, a review of research published in 2018 demonstrates that being outdoors is advantageous for those who struggle with ADHD. These principles also seem to apply to lowered rates of anxiety and depression amongst that same population.

By offering treatment outdoors, therapists can take advantage of the naturally occurring benefits of calming and relaxation to help clients begin their therapeutic process in a more comfortable setting. By allowing clients to move and interact in an outdoor setting, clients are more engaged, and therapeutic interventions are more successful as well.

Engaging the Mind and the Body

Utilizing interactive outdoor therapies allows clients to bypass the walls they put up in traditional therapeutic settings. Simply put, they forget that they are in therapy or that they are processing. Instead, they are focusing on the activity and being outdoors, which allows easier access to their memories and experiences as they are distracted.

Additionally, therapy is reinforced by the movement of the body and the physical challenges and activities of outdoor activities. They are more likely to retain and remember what they have learned because they associate it with a physical experience. Engaging the mind and the body also provides unique opportunities for trust exercises, bonding, and group activities.

Using Nature-Based Solutions

There has been a recent surge of interest in using nature-based solutions, according to a review of Nature’s Role in Outdoor Therapies: An Umbrella Review, published in 2021. Time outdoors has become much more important for individuals and families who have been overwhelmed since the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study also noted the growing link between the health of the environment and human health. Adolescents are growing increasingly aware of this link, and spending time outdoors can be particularly healing for those who are concerned about the environment. Therapy could even be based around pro-environmental activities such as cleaning wetlands or beaches or planting trees or groundcovers to prevent erosion.

Changing How We Think About Therapy

With so many advantages to outdoor therapy, it begs the question as to why we are still sitting indoors and talking to adolescents. Are we staying exclusively indoors out of convenience? So we can see more clients? Are we choosing quantity over quality? Is there a way that we could incorporate outdoor therapy into our existing programs and have the best of both worlds?

In considering the needs of the adolescents that we treat as well as the short and long-term benefits of outdoor therapy, perhaps it is time that we change the way that we think about therapy. For example, are there outdoor spaces within walking distance of your current facility? Is there room for an outdoor garden? Is there a patio large enough for outdoor yoga or other activities? Is there animal therapy available nearby?

Obviously, the more that adolescent clients can be out in nature and interacting with one another and the environment, the greater the benefits. Incorporating any outdoor therapy can improve their results. Exposing them to fresh air, nature, or the elements during the therapeutic process can improve their mental, physical, and spiritual experience. Being able to utilize the human-nature connection to promote healing increases your clients’ opportunities for success and retention of what they have learned during their therapeutic process.

Utilizing the human-nature connection and taking advantage of healing outdoors can change how we think about therapy. By taking advantage of the calming effects of nature, engaging the mind and the body, and the psychological link between the health of the earth and the health of our minds, your therapy can become more powerful and lasting. Sustain Recovery offers extended residential care to teens with addiction and mental health diagnoses. We focus on developing accountability and independence in a structured environment with staff who are passionate about helping teens to grow and heal. Our program is unique in that it offers clients the opportunity to gradually transition back home. We also help them connect with support in their community for long-term success. If you have a client that might benefit from a program like this, call our Irvine, California facility at (949) 407-9052 to learn more about what we do.