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  • Free Therapy that No One is Talking About: How to Use OAPIs to make Nature your Therapist

    Here’s a bit of my story, the journey that brought me to this topic of nature as a healer…

    I was brought up by an adventure-loving single-mother and an involved extended family of outdoor enthusiasts. We often went camping and weekends were always occupied with an outdoor activity. I was the black sheep, the Millennial who was always chastised for wanting to play my Gameboy instead of trekking the four-hour hike up to some awe-inspiring lookout. My family members are big fans of type-1 fun, activities that require considerable effort and are most enjoyed at the finish line. I am more of a type-2-fun woman; I love the thrill of risk and competition considerably more than the painstaking grind of physical struggle. My childhood was full of playful, outdoor activities and adventures, and my mental health plummeted when I turned away from this lifestyle, morphing into a teen trapped behind a screen.

    Now, I am 31 years old, and I spend most of my days working on my computer. I have come to appreciate and look forward to the time I spend in nature, whether it is an introspective hike with my dog, philosophical stargazing with my friends or exhilarating white-water-canoeing with my partner and stepsons. I also recognize, from experience, the challenges of committing time and effort amid a busy adult life to leave room for this involved form of play. Mental health is a continuous struggle in my life, especially through the isolation-inducing Covid-19 pandemic, and I know that, when I dedicate time to them, playful adventures in nature enhance my overall wellness and decrease the power of stress, anxiety, and depression in my life. When I engage in these activities strategically, they also support me on my personal healing journey towards self- awareness and acceptance.

    I have had negative experiences as a client in therapy, but I am not convinced that nature, play or adventure can singularly be the self-help, solve-all for North America’s current mental health crisis. I find myself wondering: How can we marry these topics of therapy, play, nature, and adventure? Can they be blended into a wellness model that extends beyond the difficult to access adventure/wilderness therapies, with their time, money and skill requirements? I wondered if outdoor-adventure-play could be an avenue for smaller interventions, or psychotherapy homework, when working with adult clients.

    This is what sparked my deep dive into my own style of nature-based therapy: Outdoor-Adventure-Play Interventions, or OAPIs for short. I embarked on my Master’s thesis with gusto and came out a bit withered from the effort but much wiser too.

    Personal experience has led me to believe in the benefits of both vigorous and less-active outdoor leisure and the pull of eudemonic motives (belonging, accomplishment) beyond the more commonly cited hedonistic motives (thrill-seeking). For this reason, I define OAP as any playful adventure in a natural environment, in order to capture a diverse and accessible experience that is not relegated to an extreme demographic of adrenaline seekers or hedonists seeking to conquer nature. These parameters are useful, but not rigid, since excursions are not the only format that can create therapy from adventure. When we broaden our understanding of adventure and creatively employ it for therapeutic purposes, it becomes a versatile mechanism for change that could simply involve a person in their own backyard, without all the expensive adventure gear.

    Adventure is an ambiguous term, but I describe it as a novel or uncertain activity involving kinaesthetic awareness and the voluntary seeking of physical and mental challenges. Adventure is distinct from play because it involves some element of novelty or the unknown. I believe this makes it a valuable tool for therapeutic self-discovery. Since the external environment for OAP is nature, risk is inherent. This means that the adventure mechanism for this model does not need to be extreme (like rock-climbing or white-water paddling), and could be aligned with the boundaries, abilities, and interests of the person.

    So with all that said, what is an OAPI?

    OAPIs are useful constructs for proactive and playful approaches to the current mental health crisis.

    The formula?

    Intention>Activity>Reflection.

    It’s simple as that!

    Therapy is expensive, but nature is an undervalued and underutilized healer who offers experiential self-restoration for free! By using OAPIs, we can turn relaxing or existential experiences in the outdoors into actual therapeutic processes. 

    The key is to begin with a personal intention, to do whatever activity you are called to do, and then make the growth concrete by reflecting on it with a notebook, friend, or therapist.

    I see mental health as a cyclical journey of diminishing distressing symptoms, as well as increasing feelings of wholeness, authenticity and belonging. I truly believe that we can partner with nature to achieve holistic health and to support us on our journey to reaching our potential in the world.

    Follow my Instagram account,

    @that.wandering.therapist

    to watch as I employ OAPIs to my own life! 🙂

    *** If you are interested in reading my Masters Thesis, a 100-page document on this topic, then reach out to me ([email protected]) and I will send it over at no cost. I’m happy to share what I learned with the world!