How Nature immersion can help the traumas of our times

I’m a big fan of Bob Doppelt’s book, Transformational Resilience, which sees individual and collective trauma as one of the biggest, most pervasive issues of our times. Doppelt defines trauma as “an experience (that) seriously undermines or shatters at least some, if not all, of an individual’s core assumptions and beliefs.” He adds “climate disruption will produce this type of trauma for many.”

I need to say that I’m sharing my views nervously. I am not a trained therapist or medic, and I’m aware that trauma is a very deep, painful, systemic issue, and that the approaches I describe might be seen as superficial. On the other hand, I have 30 years’ experience as a group facilitator drawing on Nature immersion, and can speak from my journey with my own trauma.

Although I’ve led workshops and retreats on a wide variety of topics, I have never led any specifically on trauma, as I don’t feel I have the competence. And I am wary of the idea of trauma healing: my own experience leaves me doubtful that it can be fully ‘healed’. The idea of post-traumatic growth, explored by Doppelt, Miriam Akhtar and others, resonates for me, and links to my long-standing interest in resilience. In this blog, I’d like to offer ideas on how Nature immersion could help this aim.

The term Nature immersion is one I’ve coined to describe deep, catalytic forms of engaging with Nature, which enable people to recover a sense of being part of the natural world, not a user or observer. Whilst there are ways to get a small degree of this immersion in urban settings and short sessions, its full effect is best found in larger outdoor settings, which have been ‘tuned’ to support people, and in longer programmes. The main venues I use are a 70-acre woodland retreat centre near Salisbury, and a 400-acre organic farm on Dartmoor, which both have residential capacity.

Alan Heeks with a group at Hazel Hill Wood, near Salisbury

There are many forms of trauma therapy: I have experienced some of these as a client, such as Somatic Experiencing and EMDR. What I’m interested to explore is not therapeutic approaches, which are typically one-to-one in repeated short sessions, but resilience-building processes which groups could draw on in a Nature immersion workshop, which might last a few hours to a couple of days.

To give this shape, I’m using Doppelt’s Resilience Growth model, and showing how Nature immersion methods can enhance it. This model has two prime components: firstly Presencing, “the ability to deactivate and direct our psychobiological drives”, e.g. moderating the Sympathetic Nervous System. And secondly, Purposing: “the capacity to intensify the pull of meaning, direction, and hope in our lives.”

Nature immersion and Presencing

Doppelt identifies three main ways to achieve Presencing:

  1. Ground and centre yourself by stabilising your nervous system
    He lists several ways to do this. One is tracking, i.e. detailed observations of body sensations. I have repeatedly found that people outdoors can relax out of mental chatter into physical awareness. We often start Nature immersion sessions with a mindful walk, which would enable tracking.

    His second method is grounding: noticing where your body is physically supported by something. I often invite people to sit by a tree and connect with it, which would deepen grounding.

    Doppelt also suggests a range of breath-based methods: you can easily imagine that these will be more effective in a beautiful natural setting.
  2. Remember your personal strengths, skills, resources, and social support network
    One of the basic aims of any Nature immersion process is to draw people out of their habitual mental overactivity, anxiety, and short attention span, into a state of feeling centred, calm, aware, open to new possibilities. The book Your Brain on Nature, by two doctors at Harvard Medical School, cites extensive research on the problems that hours of screen time cause us, and how the ‘fascination’ that Nature gives us is the strongest antidote. Hence this second strategy will be a lot more effective in Nature.
  3. Observe your reactions to and thoughts about the situation non-judgmentally and with compassion
    This kind of observation needs a shift of gear from our habitual, everyday habits of surviving, troubleshooting, multitasking. Such a shift happens fairly easily when you gather a group of people in a catalytic natural setting, and give them time to sync with it. The presence and support of others also helps in finding different perspectives.

Nature immersion and Purposing

Here too, Doppelt offers three main methods:

  1. Watch for new meaning and insight in life
    Residential Nature immersions are a powerful way for people to open to such ‘aha’ moments. Being outdoors, away from screens, feeling part of a larger reality (Nature, and spirit?) all help people enlarge their perspective. One process I use is a ‘micro vision quest’, where people spend an hour or two of solo time in one place in Nature, opening to whatever insights arise.
  2. Tap into the core values you want to live by in the midst of adversity
    As Doppelt observes, values are highly important in giving us resilience and some orientation in these times of constant disruption from climate change, covid and lots more. You can easily imagine that a retreat process, stepping right out of your everyday life, will help identify core values. Often an important part of doing this is to step beyond personal and survival needs, and perceive what would regenerate the community of life, human and non-human. Nature immersion processes help people to experience themselves as part of the web of a whole ecosystem, and discern their values from this viewpoint.
  3. Harvest hope for new possibilities by making choices that increase personal, social, and environmental wellbeing
    We know that hope is vital to human resilience, and we live in times where despair may look more realistic. I have found Deep Adaptation approaches help me to square this circle: as Jem Bendell says, even if stability and key parts of our society are collapsing, we can choose to meet this with love, compassion, and mutual support.

I have led several processes using Deep Adaptation, and also the Work that Reconnects from Joanna Macy, both outdoors and inside. Nature immersion deepens these methods, which are challenging because they ask us to face into the pain of the climate crisis and our emotions about it.

Nature immersion, grief, and ritual circles

Alongside Doppelt’s Structures for post-traumatic growth, I think it’s worth highlighting other approaches which are relevant to facing trauma. In the past few years, I’ve seen big growth in grief tending and similar group rituals, often drawing on the teachings of Francis Weller, as in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow. I’ve also found help from the collective rituals Joanna Macy offers, such as the Truth Mandala, which invites us to voice our grief, anger, fear, and “our hunger for what’s missing”.

Weller sees the essence of ritual as combining “containment and release”, and describes both tribal rituals in Africa, and the forms of grief ritual he facilitates. It looks like all of these rituals happen in Nature, and the deep connection with the Earth is a key element in their catalytic power. Whilst Joanna Macy does not specify the setting for most of her rituals, I have found that the Work that Reconnects, which helps face our pain for the world, and the Council of all Beings, which calls in the voices of non-human life, are much more powerful on the land, and within a Nature immersion context.

Whilst I have not led rituals focussed solely on grief, I have helped to hold a number of ritual spaces where a group of people supports each individual to voice deep, painful feelings which can include grief. The power of these processes, I believe, depends on the group already being immersed in Nature connection, and on the support of a place which has been tuned and asked to assist such a process, and to receive and transform human pain.

Nature immersion: an invitation

Whilst I have not led groups specifically addressing trauma, I have guided many on resilience and wellbeing, some with groups where trauma was undoubtedly present. Since 2018, I have worked closely with Emeritus Professor David Peters, who worked as a doctor for many years, and founded Westminster Centre for Resilience, who focus on resilience for medics.

David and I co-created Nature Resilience Immersions: we and our team have run about 20 residential programmes, for hospital doctors, GPs, and mental health professionals. Their work is inherently traumatic, and the organisational context of the NHS does a generally poor job of supporting them with this. Our groups help medics to understand and regulate the neurophysiology of stress, and to draw on Nature as an ally in post-traumatic growth.

This blog is an invitation: if you have skills and an interest in guiding post-traumatic growth, or can help to gather a group of participants of any kind who’d like to explore using Nature immersion to help this, please contact me.

You might like to join me in a training group on Nature Immersion for Climate Distress, which will include an exploration of trauma responses. It is on May 17-18 at Hazel Hill Wood, the retreat centre near Salisbury which I have worked at since 1992. Event details are on this link.