Taking therapy outdoors – a counsellor’s perspective

Five things to consider when working outdoors with clients

Are you a psychotherapist or counsellor in private practice? Are you considering working outdoors with clients? It might seem a natural thing to do currently given the difficulties we face in offering counselling to clients. Read on to learn more about what you need to consider when taking therapy outdoors. 

  1. Your own relationship with nature and the outdoors

One of the most important things to consider is your own relationship to nature. How does nature support you? What is going on psychologically for you when you go outdoors? How do you connect with the outdoors and the natural environment and what does that mean for you? What is nature doing for you?

Understanding how nature supports us on a personal level is key to this work. Knowing how a landscape or outdoor experience affects us psychologically and emotionally is important.  A useful exercise to explore this is to commit to making regular time to go outdoors to reflect on the experience and to develop an inner dialogue with your outdoor experience. Noting these reflections in a journal or online blog can help this process become a creative and immersive experience.

  1. Is it safe?

What if something happens? How do you stop other people approaching you in a session? How you do you know the walk is safe? These are also some of the common practical questions I get asked about outdoor work. It is important to have considered these areas before going outdoors with a client. Have a variety of routes and terrains that you have risk assessed and do this in all weathers and seasons. Dynamically assess these routes when out with a client and make the decision to change a path if necessary. Health and safety considerations need to be an essential part of the preparations for going outdoors. To feel completely confident, investigate outdoor therapy training where safety is part of the course.

There are now many therapy journal articles and an increasing number of nature therapy books that give you plenty of advice about safety, risk assessments and safe working protocols you can read up on but getting appropriate and, if possible, experiential training is one of the best ways to ensure you are working safely and ethically with a client.

  1. What about confidentiality?

It is important that a client feels safe when working outdoors. They will potentially be bringing sensitive issues and may not have spoken about these to anyone before, so to be doing this in an outdoor setting might be daunting for them. I work on public footpaths and canal-side paths and remind clients that we may meet other people as soon as we go out so they are aware and can begin to manage their own process.

As with an indoor setting it is important that you create the ‘therapeutic frame’ with your client. Approach confidentiality at the very beginning of working with a client and contract at the outset what you both want, to ensure that you are working safely and confidentially.

Contract for what happens if you meet a dogwalker or ‘bump’ into someone you or they know then work out a plan together of what you will do if this happens. Also let them know that you might lower your voice or alert them to when someone might be within hearing distance. Let them know there are quieter spaces and contract to move into this area, so they feel safe. Negotiating this all has the effect of putting the client at ease and can give them a degree of control in the the process and will have positive therapeutic benefits.

  1. How do you manage the time?

It is very easy in an indoor setting to have a clock strategically placed while a client is in session so that you can see the time. This is not so easy outdoors, so the time needs to be managed more explicitly. I used to have my phone on a timer and would have the unpleasant sensation of the buzzer going off in my pocket until switched it off which would abruptly interrupt the moment. So, I now let clients know when we reach a certain point that I will check my watch for the time. Initially I thought this might rupture the relationship or affect the potency of the work, but it doesn’t seem to have that effect. Sometimes it brings us neatly back into the ‘here and now’. Again, the client has some agency in the process which can be a positive experience for some people.

  1. When is it inappropriate to take a client outdoors?

An outdoor session may not be the most appropriate space for some clients. It can be an overwhelming and overstimulating experience for someone who is suffering from acute anxiety or trauma. It is important in the initial assessment – whether that is online or on the phone – that you explore some of their history and what has brought them to counselling so that you can gauge their responses and assess whether an outdoor session is right for them and, most importantly, explain why not. And the client too, may opt for either in or out for a session which brings further agency to their counselling experience.

These are just some of the practical elements of working outdoors with clients. There are many other things to consider before going outdoors with clients. It’s important to have a level of understanding of how to contain the work with clients,  how to connect psychologically to the outer and inner landscapes, and to bring embodiment, liminality and transpersonal element in to your with clients.

Consider having outdoor therapy sessions yourself to experience it or join an outdoor peer supervision group. Having worked outside with people for almost 15 years, I believe it is essential to find appropriate training and supervision to ensure you are working ethically, psychologically, and physically safe with clients. When you do make the decision to go outdoors with clients a whole new experience will emerge for you, one that is profoundly meaningful and potentially transformational for you as well as your clients.