What is Wilderness Therapy?

Dec 5, 2020 | Mental Wellbeing | 0 comments

What is Wilderness Therapy? When we first discovered ipse wilderness this was our first question. In this article Julia Gillick, founder of ipse wilderness explains everything you need to know about wilderness therapy.


So, what is wilderness therapy?

Wilderness therapy is one branch of ecotherapy, which also includes activities such as horticultural, equine and adventure therapy, as well as the booming practice of taking traditional counselling outdoors. Essentially, all these practices recognise the curative effects of time spent communally, restfully and proactively in nature.

Wilderness therapy is a huge enterprise in the USA and a burgeoning industry in the UK. There is a vast range of different sorts of practice, and different styles of facilitation to explore. 

Wilderness therapy is an inspiring and dynamic form of eco-therapy which recognises that there is an added benefit to time spent immersed in remote and rugged nature, engaging actively with its challenges and structures. At ‘ipse wilderness’, I lead groups on therapeutic multi-day walking-talking journeys in the wilderness spaces of the UK.

Walking & talking as therapy?

Talking therapy for mental health is well-established. Whether so labelled or not, for centuries people have known that to speak to a competent and empathetic person about what is troubling us can be a huge relief and an unburdening. Walking therapy for mental health is also well-established, if mostly recognised intrinsically rather than officially. We all recognise that a bit of a walk is good for us.

Increasingly, we acknowledge that it’s not just the physical movement which is good for our fitness, but something about the process which feels good for our ‘soul’ too. Whether we pop out for a breath of fresh air, to clear the air or to blow away the cobwebs, the words we use to describe a walk reveal that we know it to be working not just on the body but on the mind.

Mankind has always walked and talked; it’s what separates us from other mammals. And I expect since our earliest days we have found the spaciousness of a long walk, and the ease of a side-by-side movement conducive to a certain kind of talk; a sharing, listening, unburdening, wondering, imagining, what-if-ing sort of process. Nothing could be more natural than taking a turn about the garden/block/park, arm in arm with a good pal, setting the world to rights.

Many people deliberately choose a walk as the setting for a big or difficult conversation. Psychologically, open skies and wide spaces can bring an expansive quality to time spent in nature, which encourages creativity and freedom of expression. I know from personal experience that conversations had outdoors, especially whilst walking, can be more free-wheeling and wide-ranging than those conducted indoors.

A good walk is a way of broaching the elephant in the room, by getting out of the room. In the words of John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

I am so convinced by the benefits of walking and talking therapy for mental health that with ‘ipse wilderness’ I am committed to melding the two concepts even more closely together. On our journeys, we not only walk and talk; we take our inspiration for the topic of our talking from the landscape through which we are walking. Each trip is themed according to its location; on a journey around an island, we examine self-identity. On an undulating walk, we examine our attitudes to the ups and downs of life. On a coastal trip, we seek to explore how we feel about change. Thus, we are using nature as a mirror to the psyche.

How does it work?

The walking-talking journeys I facilitate are guided wilderness retreats which combine the benefits of walking and talking therapies. In addition to the overarching theme of each journey, we also use specific aspects of the landscape to invite reflection on particular topics. This is done through extracting natural metaphors from the landscape and turning them into invitations for participants to talk about a specific topic.

For example, a set of stepping stones, a field boundary or a rock formation are used to inspire reflections on risk-taking, boundary setting and attitudes to challenges. At a fallen tree, there is an invitation to go out on a limb and say something brave. Coming upon a chasm, there is time to explore whilst considering the shape carved within our psyche by our childhood experiences.

So as well as talking about how we feel, we are doing so in a place which is rich in metaphorical connections to that emotion. This creates a resonance which not only brings into the open one’s emotions and thought processes, but also creates meaning from the landscape, bringing nature powerfully into relevance and helping to deliver its curative gifts.

Walking along a clifftop speaking of our feelings of exposure is doubly effective; we are getting the chance to share our inner world, and we are potentially finding out more about that inner world, by bringing it to the outside and making it concrete. On ipse wilderness journeys, we aim to physically inhabit and actively explore the metaphors we use to describe our feelings, and thereby to unlock realisations which help to make real life changes.

And, to use another metaphor, we are ‘moving through’ that landscape, processing the emotion as we go. The central metaphor is of course that of the journey; we are reaching for something, active in our process, with the expectation of arriving somewhere different by the end. This is the theory on which my practice of wilderness therapy founded.

I take groups of people who begin as strangers and end up deeply connected. I work with women, families, young people, couples, corporate clients and mixed-gender groups. I use counselling skills, co-listening structures, meditative practices and sharing circles to enable participants to open up and speak their truth with honesty and integrity. We walk together over 3 or 4 days as a ‘tribe’, with shared accommodation and shared meals, building trust and community.

Over the course of each day’s walk, there are between 6-10 invitations; moments where we stop to notice a landscape feature, unpack its metaphors, and float a topic for consideration. We walk on, with participants pairing up to discuss the topic in a structured dialogue.

I select poems, literary readings and some ceremonial practices to elevate the experience and inspire deep and creative thought. Each evening we gather to reflect on the day and process the experience. The aim is to empower people to walk the talk; enacting change in their lives back in the real world. We create sustainable meanings for an empowered life out of challenging wilderness experiences in nature.

What is Wilderness Therapy? – Nature’s wisdom

As well as the intense psychological work, there are some more subtle background effects of time spent in nature, all of which contribute to the power and impact of the process. Firstly, the natural world is non-judgmental and endlessly patient. It is a space which waits, allows and inspires perspective. In the outdoors, we cannot help but place ourselves into a hierarchy, a pattern.

Our minds stretch upwards and out, to the horizon, the weather, the sky, and our eyes focus downwards, zooming in to tiny details; an unfurling fern, a tiny creature, a pretty stone. Placing ourselves within a pattern is a fundamental human desire; it tells us that we exist within a framework, reminding us that there are things both bigger and smaller than us. By feeling our place within the system of things, we feel connected, above and below.

As Mary Oliver writes in ‘Wild Geese’:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things

Furthermore, the wilderness environment is refreshingly honest. It gives concrete, blind, immediate feedback. The rain does not have favourites; the forest cares not for your race, sex or creed; the rock does not mind if you climb it or not; the river will flow around your fingers. When we look around us on the bare structures of the earth, we are forced to be honest with ourselves.

The wilderness is utterly unapologetic, unashamed, and blatant. It inspires authenticity and ridicules pretence. Nature wears its heart on its sleeve, and encourages us to do the same.

As Wordsworth wrote; “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.”

What are the benefits?

Scientific research into ecotherapy is growing rapidly, and new findings are frequently reported. GPs in Scotland are now able to prescribe a ‘green cure’, signposting patients to wilderness therapy organisations, and the recognition of the well-being impacts of wilderness therapy is becoming more widespread. Commonly recognised benefits include: increased endorphins, reduced stress, lowered anxiety, improved concentration, increased creative thinking and more rapid recovery from illness.

Hundreds of people have benefited from participating in ‘ipse wilderness’ journeys since our beginnings in 2017.

I am enormously proud to share some comments from previous participants:

“Just amazing, so well thought-through. The activities connected our surroundings to our feelings. Made me feel like I was being held by a higher power.”

“A walking talking adventure into the wilderness, allowing a unique opportunity to use the natural landscape as a mirror to your soul; to unlock, discover and re-energise.”

“I felt so ALIVE and connected to both myself and the others in a bond of mutual understanding of the struggles and the celebrations of the journey. I went home with a sense of invincibility, resilience and strength I didn’t know I had and felt capable of taking on the world.”

“Inspiring, nourishing, empowering, sacred, invigorating, challenging and WILD!”

“My expectations were completely surpassed. I never imagined it to be such an emotional journey, but I feel I have opened up so much of myself and learnt so much. I actually feel awakened.”




More about Ipse Wilderness

You too can journey inside, outside with ipse wilderness on day and multi-day walking journeys throughout the UK.




Enjoyed What is Wilderness Therapy? Why not read What is Forest Bathing HERE


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