Psychotherapist Kelly Kilcoyne sat on a couch in his Half Moon Bay office explaining how he helps clients from Pescadero to Pacifica achieve emotional wellness through nature. Hanging on the wall behind him was a large-format photograph of redwood trees stretching up into a sunlit sky. On the other side of the room, natural objects like driftwood and bird feathers were piled high on a tabletop.
“It is kind of a spiritual center in the room where people can take something and hold it while they’re talking,” said Kilcoyne, referring to the collection of nature mementos.
But Kilcoyne doesn’t just bring nature indoors. He also takes therapy outdoors. Over the last six months, he has arranged to hold sessions of ecotherapy, also called nature therapy, with a steadily growing number of clients.
“Without exception, people say it was better than just sitting here in the office and talking,” he said. “I’m finding that people are gravitating to it, especially here on the coast. I think what draws people to the coast is they want to be close to all of this nature.”
Building a stronger connection to the place where we live can be an avenue toward personal growth and healing, said Kilcoyne, because therapy often hinges on understanding things from a new perspective. Kilcoyne likes to hold outdoor therapy sessions at places like the Coastal Trail, Half Moon Bay State Beach and Wavecrest Beach. He starts out by asking clients to pause and take in the natural space around them with a heightened sense of awareness. Often this involves a mindfulness exercise that engages the five senses. Additional moments of connection happen spontaneously.
“I was sitting on a bench out by Poplar Beach with a client a couple of weeks ago looking out at the water and a dolphin popped out of the water,” said Kilcoyne. “So, there’s a moment that is unscripted and raw, and you’re connecting with something else that is living. It’s very temporary, but it takes a person out of themself.”
Kilcoyne emphasized the emotional and psychological value of cultivating a close relationship with nature. “As it turns out, a lot of people that come to me are suffering from some form of modernity,” he said. “Something in modern life might be the biggest causative factor in their anxiety or in their sense of unfulfillment.”
During the pandemic, outdoor sessions offered Kilcoyne a useful alternative to online therapy, which he said can be limiting. Oftentimes it is helpful to observe a person’s body language and glean other information from being in someone’s physical presence, he said. But Kilcoyne has always felt drawn to nature.
“My connection with nature really started when I was a kid growing up in Fresno, exploring the outskirts on my bike,” he said, adding that he lived close to agricultural fields and fig orchards.
As an intern years ago, Kilcoyne was working two blocks away from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. He scouted out a spot in the park to hold outdoor sessions and found that these meetings made a big impact. Last year, Kilcoyne trained to become a Wilderness Quest guide, which required him to spend 10 days backpacking in the Sierra Mountains. He gained further knowledge about nature therapy in the Professional Ecotherapy Certificate Program offered by the TerraSoma Ecopsychology Training Institute, the teaching arm of Wilderness Reflections, located in San Rafael. Ecotherapy doesn’t replace traditional therapeutic methods, but practitioners say it can enhance them.
“Meeting outside with me isn’t just coming here to have a feel-good experience,” said Kilcoyne. “It’s part of counseling on a specific issue like grief or anxiety or divorce.” He added that the first few appointments for new clients take place indoors, and that any outdoor therapy will serve a clinical purpose. If someone is dealing with a significant trauma, Kilcoyne only holds sessions in his office.
David Talamo, a licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Wilderness Reflections, said that while ecotherapy isn’t for everyone, it is often highly effective. “There is no therapeutic method or approach that’s a match for every client, but a lot of people find being in nature to be restorative and therapeutic,” said Talamo. “Nature is where we’ve come from and it’s where we are, and people get very cut off from that. We lose track of the rhythm of life.”
The next ecotherapy training program, said Talamo, starts later this month, and the new cohort includes a therapist from Australia. “Over the years, there have been people from Canada and certainly all over the United States and South America,” said Talamo.
While ecotherapists like Kilcoyne can help people make strides in their therapy by deepening their connection to nature, the healing can happen anytime.
“Being in nature is like medicine, and you get it on your own without a therapist,” he said. “I’m more of a guide.”
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