Lots of Coloradans spend their free time hiking through the forest, climbing mountains and backpacking through the wilderness, but some of these adventurers are simultaneously working on improving their mental health.
That’s because of a variety of outdoor mental health programs along the Front Range that are using nature as a “co-therapist.”
Whether it’s the guided meditations of forest bathing, the extended alone time of wilderness therapy or the activity-based programs of adventure therapy, there are multiple options for people who want to improve their mental health but aren’t interested in sitting in an office or a clinical setting.
Aleya Littleton, an adventure therapist based in Golden, uses a variety of experiences in nature as the backdrop for her therapy work.
“It’s using nature as your office and your co-therapist,” she said. “Nature herself creates a neutral and regulating space for us to be in while we're feeling and talking about difficult things.”
Littleton’s work includes hikes at North Table Mountain, climbing at a nearby crag or even camping and backpacking. While her clients are pulling on their climbing harnesses or stopping to take in mountain views, they’re also talking about and addressing specific mental health concerns.
Littleton, who is a trained rock climbing guide, also takes out new and experienced climbers to work on things like fear and body autonomy.
“What happens when you climb is you have to refine and renegotiate your relationship with your body, with the rock and with other people,” she said. “You get to learn about yourself with a constant, neutral backdrop.”
One of her priorities during these excursions is to allow the climbers to make their own decisions about whether they want to push forward or come down.
“We celebrate choice and people who are learning to listen to their body,” she said. “It’s not about the actual climbing, it’s about you being good to you and making wise decisions for you.”
Littleton points out that from the research she’s seen, adventure therapy is equally as effective as traditional forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, but for some people it’s just a better fit.
“What makes the difference is that relationship with the therapist,” she said. “And your belief that it’s going to work.”
When Sandy Troyano tells new clients about her work in forest bathing, they often picture something involving a swimsuit.
The reality of the practice is far from that, however.
Instead of diving into a body of water, when Troyano, an Evergreen resident, meets with a client or group of clients, she walks them through a series of sensory-opening exercises followed by a long, slow walk through the forest.
“There’s a saying that the guide opens the door, but the forest actually does the work,” Troyano said.
The practice comes from a Japanese concept called shinrin-yoku, which literally translates to “forest bathing.” The sessions have an approach that’s similar to meditation, with exercises intended on opening up clients' senses through slow, deliberate walks in nature and a focus on the present moment.
Troyano begins her sessions — which can be one-on-one, groups or couples — with a type of sensory-focused, guided meditation that includes feeling the textures of the earth, noticing smells in the air and deeply listening to sounds both near and far away.
“The next step is take a small walk, a slow walk and notice everything that’s moving around you,” she said.
Then, she invites the forest bathers to find places to sit still for about 15 minutes each, observing the world around them. The process takes about two and a half hours.
“It’s really about putting yourself into the present moment,” she said.
Troyano has worked with clients who are grieving or dealing with mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety. But she believes everyone can benefit from the practice, she said.
Troyano, who is a certified nature and forest therapy guide, said the mindfulness practice also helps clients become more in tune to the nature around them even when they’re not in the forest.
“Once you open your senses, you start noticing more,” she said. “More comes into you.”
When Anthony Riske was first introduced to wilderness therapy, the programs were typically nomadic backpacking trips accompanied by clinical support. The clients were often teens or young adults with substance abuse problems or lifestyle issues.
Now, his work includes more consultations for those interested in trying out “solos,” where they spend extended time alone in the outdoors as a way to treat mental health concerns.
“We spend so much time with machines that we think that we are machines now,” he said. “But really, we are a part of nature.”
Riske, who is a therapist originally based in Arvada but currently living in Costa Rica, meets virtually with clients to help them set up their own wilderness therapy experience. Often, his clients will search for an isolated area and camp there for up to 72 hours.
He recommends journaling prompts, symbolic ceremonies and books for them to engage with during their time alone.
“If you get bored, look closer,” he said he advises people. “Find the trail of ants, the different kinds of soil.”
Riske usually advises clients to slowly work their way up to spending more time alone outside and ensures that the client is comfortable with safety precautions.
Often, clients will report that during the first 24 hours alone, they remained busy with their assigned activities along with setting up camp and eating. After 48 hours, some say they feel good but somewhat exhausted from their thoughts, he said. Many of those who remain for 72 hours, though, say they reach a blissful, relaxing state.
In the past, he’s also led group backpacking trips with therapy intertwined and solo therapy meetings in the outdoors.
“People are certainly more interested in that kind of experience,” he said. “And in Colorado, you just head straight up into the foothills.”