Reimaging London’s Emotional Well-being, What if We Made London a National City Park?, Greater London National Park Conference, Southbank Centre, 24 February 2015
Hi my name’s Beth Collier. I’m a nature based psychotherapist and founder of Wild in the City! Wild in the City! is a therapeutic organisation working to support well-being through connection to nature. The services we offer are designed to help make nature a meaningful part of Londoner’s lives by normalising contact with her during our everyday lives.
Today I’m going to be speaking about emotional health and well-being, reimagining the benefits of London as a National City Park. The picture is of Happy Valley in Croydon, its a beautiful 250 acre chalk grassland site, aptly named for us to be looking at as we talk about well-being.
I’ll start by talking about my work as a therapist.
Psychotherapy, or Counselling, provides an opportunity to reflect on past and present experiences and explore how they influence our patterns of feeling, thinking and behaviour. This self awareness allows us to gain deeper insight into concerns and make more conscious choices which gives us greater control over our future.
Traditionally psychotherapy takes place inside within the four walls of a physical room. During Nature-based psychotherapy parks and woods become the therapy room.
Nature plays big part in the work, becoming a co-counsellor. Nature offers powerful metaphors and mirrors for exploring our inner emotional world. The natural and changing state of outdoor settings helps us feel more connected to something beyond ourselves and engages our senses.
When I ask people what its been like to have counselling in nature, the vast majority say it feels more real, liberating, calming, supportive and emotions feel much more accessible.
As a practitioner I’ve seen that people work through issues more quickly and at a deeper level.
‘The Professor’ Case Study
I’m going to tell you a bit about a male client I worked with. He was in his late 30’s and came to see me because he’d been told to, he’d been told that he had an anger problem. As is often the case with anger, it became clear there was a fear at the root of it.
He desperately wanted to have children while at a relatively young age, he was frightened of becoming an old father, an old father who didn’t play with his child. And he had consistently chosen partners who didn’t want or couldn’t have children. And this made him angry.
He grew up with a father who was in his 60’s and it was a source of deep sadness that his father didn’t play with him. His father was absent, tucking himself away in his study, surrounded by books, he’d ignore my client. Both his parents were emotionally unavailable, they would talk to him like an adult even though he was very young. They valued complex intellectual arguments and would only engage him at that level which made him feel stressed because he was challenged to come up with a clever argument, rather than just be able to talk freely. His parents showed no empathy when he was in distress trying to express his emotions. They didn’t acknowledge his needs as a child for emotional warmth. He was emotionally neglected. My client felt controlled, angry and powerless. To feel this way became normal for him. Unfortunately it set him up with an expectation and acceptance of how people would treat him and unconsciously he developed a pattern of being attracted to people who were emotionally unavailable, which led him to feel very angry at the lack of connection.
To cope with his parent’s rejection, particularly his father’s, in his early teens he consciously constructed an identity to make himself feel better, to make him feel protected and to boost his self esteem. In constructing this identity he rejected that part of himself that he felt his father had rejected, his emotions, the child who wanted to play, explore and be in nature.
The identity he gave himself was that of a Don, a professor, it was an adult intellectual identity which came with a serious attitude. A uniform developed, modelled on the literati, of velvet jackets, leather brogues and a briefcase. How he looked was very important, he was not casual. He had been given the messages; don’t be connected to your emotions; being intellectual is more desirable than exploring and playing; indoors is sophisticated, outdoors is unsophisticated.
We first started to meet indoors and he’d take notes, so he could analyse what was going on. This was unusual. Taking notes was something that allowed him to make the exploration about the head and thoughts and not emotions which were terrifying. We later started to meet in a park. On one early session it was raining and he came wearing a thin shirt and very expensive leather shoes which were getting stained by the rain, no coat or umbrella, his hair drenched, he was visibly angry. His uniform was so important to him he’d rather be uncomfortable than adapt it; outdoor clothing didn’t go with his look. He was angry that being in nature didn’t allow him to take notes like he used to, not being able to write made him feel unnerved. There was one less barrier between him and his emotions.
We were walking through the park and looking out across a beautiful landscape of a hill with copses scattered over it. I asked him what would his younger self would have wanted to have done in that space? He said with annoyance, “well probably play, run around”. I looked at the way he was dressed and he looked at me, I had on walking boots and waterproof clothing and he became aware that his uniform and attitude were preventing him from engaging in nature in the way he wanted to.
He was desperate to become a father that could play with his child, yet he found it hard to contemplate being playful. He had the realisation that the Professor identity may have felt protective as a child but as an adult it had become something of a prison.
Nature held up a mirror to him so he could see what his identity had become. He was terrified to find out who he was underneath but being in nature challenged him to do that. Nature helped him connect to the part of himself that he abandoned all those years ago when he became the Professor.
He realised he was still young and vibrant and it was attitude not age that determines how a father interacts with a child and he relaxed about the timing of becoming a father. It also helped him to grieve the loss of not having emotionally present parents. Being in touch with his own emotions, meant that he was able to communicate based on feeling rather than through convoluted thoughts designed to impress, this brought new honesty and intimacy into his relationships, particularly with his wife. He had become more connected to himself, his significant others and with nature.
After the end of our sessions he said he visited the park, seeing it as somewhere that felt supportive in exploring his feelings or in having difficult conversations. This was a huge change from where we started – when nature was an annoyance, an inconvenience which threatened him.
The Professor isn’t alone in struggling with emotional issues and intimacy. In reimagining London’s emotional well-being we first need to look at the here and now, what is our emotional health like? Emotional distress is more prevalent in London than any other area in the UK. Many of us feel lonely, isolated, depressed, angry, stressed and unsatisfied. Relationships are central to our well-being. And I think we’re experiencing a relationship crisis – the quality of our social relationships is poor. We’re less physically connected than we used to be despite the rise in technology that promises to make our worlds smaller, we’ve increased the virtual and dramatically reduced personal and intimate connection. We’re spending less time connected with the ‘real.’
Our relationship with nature mirrors the state of our social relationships. We’re spending less and less time enjoying, playing, working or contemplating in wild and green spaces. An average 8 year old 100 years ago could roam six miles from his house by himself, 30 years ago it was half a mile and today many 8 year olds are not allowed onto the street by themselves and are confined inside. Children are starting off life with less physical freedom, less face to face contact with people and with nature. These formative experiences of how we relate to others and nature tend to stay with us as adults, as a society we’re becoming disconnected, from ourselves, each other and natural environments. The problem has become generational.
Nature deficit means families don’t know what they’re missing, because they’ve never had it. For children who have never spent time in natural environments, this lack is often normalised; in mindsets nature and the outdoors come to be considered undesirable and pointless, having no place in their lives. By definition a deficit is a lack of something that is needed, it’s the state of not having enough of something necessary. Nature deficit is a form of neglect, we’re lacking something necessary.
So how can London being a National City Park support our emotional health and address deficits in the quality of our connections to people and nature?
The city contains both the poison and the cure. The poison being an imbalance of fast paced city life which can leave us feeling isolated, lonely and stressed. The cure being the many areas of natural habitats in London that we can spend time in to feel calmed and re-energised. Research has shown that built up urban environments trigger areas of the brain associated with stress and fear, whereas green, natural spaces stimulate areas associated with stability, empathy and love.
As a client recently described to me, being in nature is like active mindfulness. It encourages the whole body and all the senses to engage, whereas fast technology driven, stressful lives put us on constant alert living in our heads and at the level of thought, switched off from our feelings. Its an indication of surviving. When we’re in survival mode we park our emotions and just do what we need to get through, whereas when we’re living we feel safe enough to process our emotions in the moment. In our heads we have the power to distort reality and make it more manageable, avoiding how we really feel. What we’re avoiding soon catches up with us and can lead to emotional stress later on. Nature is an antidote to stressful, lonely survival existences, it helps us to live, to be real and honest with ourselves.
Sometimes we contrast nature with rural and concrete with urban, but nature isn’t just something that exists in the countryside. The city is as much home to wildlife as it is to concrete. A city shouldn’t be defined just by its cement. Over 47% of London is green space, if half of London is green space, then it should be feasible to spend at least half of our time in its natural places. If it can be done outdoors, then do it outdoors. Does your meeting need to happen inside? Watch what happens to your productivity when you take it outdoors. If you’re in a helping profession watch what happens to the quality of your relationship with your client and to their esteem if you meet them in a natural setting. Play outside, watch what happens to you and your children’s confidence and stress levels if you swap indoor play with outside exploration. Whatever it is you do, there’s likely to be scope for doing more of it outside and that increased time in nature will boost your self esteem, productivity and the quality of your relationships.
We need London to be a National City Park to help raise awareness of the potential of nature to provide enjoyment and support well-being. We need to promote Nature as a medicine which we can self prescribe. There are generations of Londoners who have no idea what they’re missing, because they’ve never had experience of her and don’t know what she can offer.
Nature is a battery that we can all plug into to feel nurtured and energised, enhancing our emotional health. Conceiving London as a National City Park will help remind us that this valuable resource is on our doorstep, its free and therapeutic.