Tag Archives: Counseling Connoisseur

Counseling Connoisseur: What Would Yalom Do? A Tribute

By Cheryl Fisher March 10, 2017


Editor’s note: CT Online columnist Cheryl Fisher writes this appreciation of Irvin Yalom in anticipation of his keynote address at ACA’s upcoming 2017 Conference & Expo in San Francisco. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfransisco2017.




“What I want is to be intimate with the knowledge that life is temporary. And then, in the light (or shadow) of that knowledge, to know how to live. How to live now.”

― Irvin Yalom, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy


I have a passion for books. You know, the old-fashioned paper kind. The kind that are transforming, as they [themselves] are transformed by every crinkled, coffee-stained page and dog-eared corner with smudges of comments penciled in the margin. The kind that, once read, become a part of one’s being. I love books so much that this past summer, I had beautiful built-in bookshelves installed in my home, along with a window seat where I fancied myself enjoying my literary mecca. I have shelves devoted to theologians, philosophers, feminist scholars and mental and holistic health experts ― with a smattering of best-selling novels and summer romance paperbacks.

As I reflect on the insights penned on the pages of the many volumes now perched on my bookshelves, my attention turns to the vast wisdom found in the works of Irvin Yalom. His work, spanning decades, contributes to the counseling profession in ways that transformed psychotherapy from science to art. In The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and Their Patients, Yalom invites the clinician to not only invest in, but therapeutically utilize, the client-counselor relationship that presents in each session. Through a series of vignettes, Love’s Executioner provides examples of the tender and complex tapestry of human experience that occurs between the therapist and client: “A therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested, and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing.”

In Momma and the Meaning of Life, Yalom graciously offers his experience in grappling with his relationship with his own mother (“who had a poisonous tongue”) years after her death. He further examines grief therapy intimately by exploring the many facets of loss and death. He continues his exploration of death anxiety in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, where he posits, “It’s not easy to live every moment wholly aware of death. It’s like trying to stare the sun in the face; you can stand only so much of it.” He returns to the topic of death anxiety as he explores his own mortality in his more recent release, Creatures of a Day and Other Tales of Psychotherapy.

In his fictional teaching novels — The Schopenhauer Cure, The Spinoza Problem, Lying on the Couch and, my personal favorite, When Nietzsche Wept — Yalom plucks key philosophers and physicians from history and transplants them into a terrace of tales that not only explore the complexity of human behavior and mental processes, but dare to venture into the minds of those who struggle to understand it.

Yalom’s words and transparency have informed my own practice and guided me to discover my ultimate message as a counselor educator: “Illuminate the shadow and embrace your humanity so that you may fully consummate your life. For we are people, not pathologies seeking to connect to oneself, others and the Sacred.”


In tribute to this great clinician, author and educator, I offer online readers the article I wrote as a final letter to my graduating counseling students, titled What Would Yalom Do? Ten Nuggets of Wisdom for Counselors Old and New.





Cheryl Fisher


Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices that speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.




Dr. Irvin Yalom will speak Friday, March 17 at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco and will sign books afterward. His keynote will also be live-streamed online. Find out more at counseling.org/conference/sanfrancisco2017


Find out more about his work and books at yalom.com





Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.


The Counseling Connoisseur: Winter wonderland: Lessons in patience and perspective

By Cheryl Fisher January 30, 2017

I listen to the howling of the wind as it whips the snowdrifts about our modest rambler. Branches dangle from their fragile joints, and birds huddle beneath boxwoods and holly. The birdseed scattered just moments earlier is now covered with a new layer of snow. In the warm glow of our fire, the scent of tomato, garlic and onion from the bubbling pot of chili drifts throughout our home. The dogs lie at our feet gnawing on their bones, and we huddle in the family room, surfing through Netflix … as we brace for the storm.

Just days before, we were collecting supplies to ready for the blizzard. Flashlights were recharged, shovels and ecofriendly salt positioned by the doors, fresh treats and toys gathered to entertain our dogs, ingredients for soups and stews and favorite comfort foods purchased and stored. Cars fully gassed and parked, we were ready … almost delighting in the idea of a weekend of snowshoeing, book reading, movie watching and family time.

The first 24 hours were beautiful to witness as the white blanket began to cover the brown and drab of January. The contrast of cardinals on snowy limbs resembled holiday greeting cards, now discarded for the season. Social media ignited with pictures of snowy backyards and decks, while friends and family in more temperate climates were not denied their contribution of palm trees and sunny skies.

“Wish you were here!” read the captioned picture of a friend lying on the beach with a fruity umbrella drink.

“Right back atcha!” replied another as she sat in her steaming hot tub, snow falling all around, enjoying aged brandy.

There was a time I would have joined the ranks of “winter haters.” I had been in the tropics in my early teen years, and seeing Santa in anything other than Bermuda shorts just seemed wrong! Winter in Maryland was cold — and boring. So I grumbled and grunted the months away, counting the days to spring.

Then, somewhere along the way, I realized that I was complaining for a full quarter of my life, wishing the months would vaporize into warmer days. I was missing out on opportunities to witness beauty and joy that could be experienced even on snowy, bleak winter days. So, I decided to learn to love winter.



Viktor Frankl, in his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, suggested that the one thing that can never be taken from a person is her perspective of her situation. Therefore, according to Frankl, we have the opportunity to view any circumstance in a beneficial — even transcendent — manner. It is with this intention that I offer to you a few of the tricks that helped me transcend my wintertime bah-humbug blues:

1) Enjoy comfort foods. What are your favorite cold-weather foods? Let’s face it … soups and stews, ciders and hot cocoa (aged scotch or brandy, for that matter) just taste better when it’s cold outside. I could appreciate winter food and drink with little effort.

2) Get involved in winter sports. I made a list of activities that could be experienced only in snowy weather. This list included ice skating, snow skiing, snow tubing, snowshoeing, and making snow people and snow angels. As I’ve mentioned, my childhood did not include weekends at the slopes, so I invested in lessons. I learned to ice skate at a local arena and took ski lessons any chance I could get. Although I never acquired a passion for either, I found that I really loved sitting by the warm fire in the ski lodge with a hot beverage in my hand and enjoyed the glow that physical fatigue offers after a day on the slopes or ice.

I also discovered that I loved snow tubing. After all, if you are going to end up on your bum … why not begin there? I later obtained snowshoes and now thoroughly enjoy romping in freshly fallen mounds on a quiet evening. If you are more of a spectator of sports, remember there is always the Super Bowl, March Madness and the Winter Olympics (every four years).

3) Dress appropriately. Winter is cold, and I learned quickly that my jeans and bubble jacket didn’t offer enough warmth as part of my new quest to appreciate winter. So, I invested in the real deal — insulated, wicking pants and jacket, along with matching headwear and gloves. What a difference appropriate winter clothing makes. Trust me!

4) Huddle in community. I live in the best neighborhood ever. In addition to keeping an active email blitz going to check on our aging neighbors and helping out with an occasional malfunctioning heater, we arranged a snowperson contest followed by a potluck feast. It is such fun mounding snow with intention and in community. Laughter and silliness permeated the wet gathering. Then we peeled off our snowy gear, warmed ourselves by a fire and enjoyed a table spread with each neighbor’s favorite idea of comfort food. Yum!

5) Relish the silence. I am inherently an introvert. Although I thoroughly enjoy my practice as a counselor and my academic career as a counselor educator, I recognize my need for quiet. I always have a book or two (or three) on my nightstand waiting for me to openly indulge in literary wisdom or adventure. Snowy, wintry days are perfect for lounging in your favorite snuggle-wear and reading away the hours guilt-free.

6) Appreciate the beauty. It is no secret that I swoon to the beauty of nature regardless of season. The birds feast at the feeders on suet and seed. The squirrels run along the branches, dodging snowdrifts that randomly plop down from the tree limbs. The red berries come to life against the green holly bushes, framed by winter’s white. If you are fortunate to live near a forest, you may spy a family of deer out for a moonlit walk. Winter offers a variety of natural beauty that is unique to the season … if only we open our eyes.

7) Realize that it is temporary. For those who, after exhausting all possible avenues to appreciate the winter months, still crave the warmer weather, I remind you … it is a mere few months that will be over before you can say “Easter Bunny” (especially if the occasional tropical vacation is sprinkled in).

Yes, winter is all about perspective and (for some of us) patience.




Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices that speaks to nature-based wisdom. Contact her at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.









Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Enjoying the holidays by letting go of expectations

By Cheryl Fisher December 21, 2016

“Peace begins when expectation ends.” — Sri Chinmoy


My family recently celebrated several milestones of honor. Turning 16 and now boasting a driver’s license, my nephew has intensified his campaign to own that ever-elusive Mustang. Meanwhile, his parents celebrated their 50th birthdays. The grandest of celebrations, however, honored my parents, who both turned 80 this year.

This special event warranted all the hoopla we could muster. We reserved my parents’ favorite restaurant, which has played host to their Saturday date nights for more than 30 years. We ordered a three-tiered cake that was glazed in teal and decorated in white-and-black lattice and beads. Cherries jubilee, my father’s favorite dessert, was assembled to accompany the cake.

Furthermore, decorations, flowers and unique trinkets were crafted and arranged to create a special tribute to family members. We compiled a soundtrack, with a conglomerate of music specially selected to appeal to each of the honorees. We hired a photographer to document this precious event. The drinks were poured. The food was delectable. Everything was perfect.

Except … the music wouldn’t play because there was no access to Wi-Fi … and the cake leaned like the Tower of Pisa as it settled on the stand … and the toast I had spent hours preparing didn’t come out quite as eloquently as rehearsed. Even the cherries jubilee failed to ignite, requiring the dousing — OK, the dumping — of more brandy than should ever be used in any dessert.

It was a circus of mishaps. Nothing turned out as planned. But once we were able to lean into the moment and dispel our illusions of control and perfection, we engaged in merry-making and memory-making that will last a lifetime.


Five tips for enjoying the holidays

‘Tis the season for gatherings filled with song, culinary bliss, gifts and expectations. Invariably, it is the stress generated from these expectations that diminishes the magic that can be found among family, friends and festivities. Rather than succumb to the tyranny of expectations, here are five liberating suggestions for the holidays:

1) Focus on the moment. Often we impose expectations around time. We either have the perception of too much or, more commonly, too little time. However, time is, according to Einstein, an illusion.

Therefore, spending precious time in the past or the future can be futile. Focus on the moment at hand. What is it that you want to remember about this moment? Is it the perfectly crafted table setting and trimmed tree … or is it the communion of family? Finally, find ways to simplify your schedule. Prioritize activities and give attention only to those that are meaningful to you.

2) Set boundaries, and don’t take it personally. Setting boundaries is probably the most powerful tool you have for protecting against the stress that is sometime generated by family and friends. Be clear and assertive. If you are unable to host an event, then (practice with me) just say, “NO.”

No is a complete sentence and really does not require an explanation. If you feel compelled to provide an explanation, then do so … but do not personalize any response you may receive. Everyone is entitled to her or his reaction; however, we do not need to take that reaction on. If Aunt Susan always criticizes your sweet potato casserole (regardless of how much you modify it to her specifications), then let it go. This is not about your casserole. Aunt Susan simply benefits from the illusion of control she exerts when she criticizes. It is her baggage — you don’t need to carry it.

3) Think in possibilities rather than expectations. Unlike expectations, which often hold assumptions from past experience and promote rigid thinking, possibilities are based in the mystery of the moment. All things are possible in any given moment. It is possible Uncle Tommy won’t have too much eggnog and need a ride home. It is possible that the cousins won’t engage in a passionate dispute over political views this year. Possibilities allow room for change.

4) Embrace the mishaps. If we must carry expectations at all, then expect that mishaps will occur. Stuff happens. Presents don’t arrive on time. Dinners don’t look like their airbrushed pictures in the magazines. People … well, people can be temperamental. Yet it is often the mishaps that generate the charming memories that we hold so dear.

5) Remember that it is temporary. In the midst of the hustle and bustle and family dynamics, remember that it is all temporary. All of it. The holiday. The time together. The busyness that we impose on ourselves and each other. It is simply a flash, and then it is over. All that remains are the memories we have chosen to create. Therefore, craft wisely.



The pictures from my parents’ celebration arrived recently — 335 snapshots that captured moments from this monumental family event. Each print portrayed a perfect interaction of smiles and hugs. Beautifully set tables, the cake perfectly straight and tall, the cherries jubilee aflame.

Yet behind each perfect pose and print resided another story … a narrative flawed by imperfections. A narrative that fades into our family history of “mostly happily ever after.”

From my family to yours … Peace and Happy Holidays!




Cheryl Fisher


Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the pastoral counseling program at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research is titled “Sex, Spirituality and Stage III Breast Cancer.” She is also writing a book, Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, that speaks to nature-informed wisdom. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.








Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



The Counseling Connoisseur: Mini-mindfulness moments

By Cheryl Fisher November 17, 2016

I wake up in the early morning to the sound of birds chirping delightfully outside my window. I quietly make my way to my yoga room, where the gentle flow of the tabletop waterfall cascades rhythmically, inviting me to my morning meditation. I inhale deeply, letting the stream of thoughts flowing in my mind pass gracefully in and out of consciousness. I then exhale any tension or tightness my body may be holding as I sit in my deep meditation for a delicious 40 minutes.

BEEP BEEP BEEP! The sound of my alarm wakes me from my dream. I roll out of bed, grab my robe and fumble to let the dogs out, stubbing my toe along the way. Following a few expletives, I scoop the dog food into the metal bowls, toss them to the floor and make my way to the steaming shower that must quickly wash away the lingering fog from my still-sleepy brain.

I jump into my clothes, paint on some semblance of a face and pull up my hair. I grab a glass of juice, a packet of instant oatmeal and a yogurt, which will serve as my breakfast and lunch when I make it to the office. I secure the dogs and (as I exit the house) take a deep breath (holding it for the required four seconds), offer a blessing for the day on the exhale and haul it to my Jeep because I am now five minutes late for work!

Research continues to remind us of the role of mindfulness in our experience of overall wellness. Yet, a culture of “busy” permeates, sabotaging earnest attempts at a peace-filled, mindful lifestyle. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his groundbreaking book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, writes, “There is something about the cultivation of mindfulness that is healing, that is transformative and that can serve to give our lives back to us.”

A practice of mindfulness extends beyond the individual practitioner and benefits those who surround her or him. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and author of many books, including Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness With Children, offers, “When you are solid, happy and full of photo-1478980236323-01c287f81aedcompassion, you will naturally know how to create a happy family or school environment, and how to water the positive qualities in your children, other family members, students and colleagues at work.”

Although most of us would agree that this sounds divine and long to attain a lifestyle that promotes full presence, many of us struggle with the basic logistics of beginning a mindfulness practice. To devote the suggested 40 minutes a day to meditation would require many of us to eliminate sleep. I am a huge advocate for daily meditation, but I find that a 20-minute practice following my hour at the gym is about all I can devote to it daily. However, there are numerous ways that we can create moments of mindfulness throughout our day.

1) Add intention to routine activities. Routine activities can take on contemplative practice when we set our intention on being fully present in the moment. Walking the dogs, making the bed, even emptying the dishwasher can become moments of mindfulness (if we put the distractions of our phones away). For example, a morning shower is filled with sensory experiences if we allow ourselves to be present to the sensations of the water cascading down the body. We can use that time to do a body scan and note where tension is being held, then allow the warm water to release the tightness and relax our muscles.

2) Breathe through the mundane. Traffic lights are notorious stressors. We can, however, repurpose those few minutes by taking deep breaths, setting aside our agenda for the day, turning off the radio and becoming fully present in our bodies.

3) Seek consciousness through coloring. Adult coloring books have become the latest craze because they allow the individual to focus on a single task. The activity incorporates creativity and color and allows for a few moments of relaxed consciousness. Grab a book and color during breaks at work.

4) Practice jigsaw meditation. Jigsaw puzzles are another way to promote a focused meditation. Dollar stores carry small puzzles that can be placed in break rooms at work, promoting collective consciousness with colleagues. Taking a few quiet moments to focus on this task may be just what the doctor ordered to relieve stress during the day.

5) Delve into devotion moments. Opening a book with inspirational quotes can offer moments of reflection and contemplation. My recent favorite such book, The Meaning of Life by Bradley Trevor Greive, provides brief reflections captured in combination with precious pictures of animals.

6) Make time for teatime. Taking a break for a cuppa tea has long been one of my favorite routines. Tea has been a staple in China for centuries, first being used for medicinal reasons and later for more social purposes. British afternoon tea was offered to break up the extremely long time between breakfast and the fashionably late dinner, which were the only two meals served. Still, a good cup of tea in the afternoon can provide a soothing, fragrant mini-escape from a stressful day.

7) Embrace the Zen of nature. Years ago, I purchased a mini-Zen garden, filled with sand and miniature rocks, for my office. I use a small rake and create swirls and twirls in the sand as I release the tension of the day. I know other colleagues who enjoy the art of bonsai and trim their tiny trees during breaks. Nature is a sacred space that connects with us in meaningful ways. Gardening, taking nature walks, watching a sunrise or sunset — just being present to the outdoors can significantly reduce our stress levels.

8) Blow bubbles. Bubble therapy is one of my personal favorites. It requires one to take a deep breath and skillfully exhale in a way that will not burst the bubble. After a particularly stressful day, I like to take my huge bubble bottle outside and blow to my heart’s content.

9) Make a gratitude list. Counting our blessings appears to offer not only moments of mindfulness but also a shift in brain chemistry. Taking time to reflect on that for which we are grateful can promote an immediate reduction in the experience of external stressors — and the effects can linger long after the moment has dissipated.

10) Connect with others. Animals can provide connection and comfort in the most primal way. For me, watching goldfish pop to the surface during feeding and then swim gracefully among the miniatures in the bowl is therapeutic. However, few things beat a cuddle (and a good tummy rub) with my two 65-pound dogs. We all huddle together and enjoy the connection between human and animal. Of course, although I love my canine cuddles, my ultimate is simply sitting quietly and hugging my spouse for a few moments.

Armed with a handful of ways to incorporate moments of mindfulness, take a deep breath, exhale and enjoy being present in your day.




Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the pastoral counseling program at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research is titled “Sex, Spirituality and Stage III Breast Cancer.” She is also writing a book, Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, that speaks to nature-informed wisdom. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.







Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

The Counseling Connoisseur: Nature-informed counseling for children

By Cheryl Fisher October 13, 2016

“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy” — from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein




I recently returned from a wonderful week in Nova Scotia featuring painted clapboard cottages against blue skies and a seascape of majestic hills and swirling tides. With a history rich in forts, fur trades and complex propriety, Nova Scotia also affords miles of pristine trails for the avid (and not so avid) hiker.

On one such hike, I ventured up Cape Split, which offered a spectacular view of the Bay of Fundy following a two-hour uphill jaunt. The inland path was lush with evergreen and paved in centuries-old rocks. Snarled roots from ancient maples protruded from the narrow trail, and patches of mud provided slippery terrain. At times the trail seemed endless and unforgiving. However, just at that moment when body and morale were failing, the forest opened to a grassy knoll that blanketed the age-old rock formation overlooking the (now) returning six-foot tides of the Bay of Fundy.

Damp with perspiration from navigating the trail, we sat down and unloaded our backpacks, laying out a feast before us of lobster rolls and blueberry lemonade. The cool breeze from the bay mingled with the warmth from the sun. In that moment, I was sure there was nothing sweeter than communion with nature and the physical and emotional exertion and spiritual nourishment it afforded.


Camps and communion

For many children (and their excited parents), the end of summer signifies a return to school, studies and schedules. It is a time when we bid farewell to the lackadaisical whimsy of carefree days. Summer memories of camps, cookouts and canoes fade, making way for the cooler activities of autumn. However, for many children, summer camp did not include nature hikes, bonfires or kayaking; it involved indoor activities centered around a theme such as weight management, music acquisition or computer skills.

photo-1447875372440-4037e6fae95dResearch suggests that connecting to nature can result in reduced stress, increased energy, improved sleep, reduction of chronic pain, and accelerated healing from injuries and surgery. In particular, Peter Kahn and Stephen Kellert have argued that “a child’s experience of nature exerts a crucial and irreplaceable effect on physical, cognitive and emotional development.”

Yet modern living has insulated us from the positive ionic exchange between grass, trees, river and sky, resulting in a physical, psychological and often spiritual connection from the Earth and her creatures. According to researcher and therapist Martin Jordan in his book Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces, this detachment is associated with a variety of dis-ease, including epidemic rates of obesity and depression.

Richard Louv, author and founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to refer to a generation of children who no longer spend time outdoors hiking, camping and otherwise interacting with the natural world. Direct contact with nature appears to benefit children physically, emotionally and spiritually.



Interacting with natural elements provides a varied and complex terrain and physical stimulation for children. Negotiating inclining hills or slippery declines, catching and releasing tadpoles or crickets, and chasing butterflies, for example, create opportunities for skill-building in a variety of areas, including large and fine motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination. Most people can remember the challenge of a new skill … and the thrill of successful mastery.


Emotional and cognitive

According to Kahn and Kellert, a child’s experience of nature “encompasses a wide variety of emotions” and an “unfailing source of stimulation.” I remember the awe and wonder I experienced when my childhood naturalist neighbors taught me how to look for the tiny green caterpillars grazing on the cabbage leaves in the garden; then observing their transformation as they ate their way to chrysalises; and the unbearable waiting and waiting until these dormant creatures emerged into beautiful white butterflies.

More recently, I ventured into raising the threatened monarch butterfly. Still with the curiosity of a child, I planted my milkweed, purchased my microscopic caterpillars and watched in amazement as larvae transformed into J’s hanging from the top of my butterfly shelter. Sadly, a virus attacked my precious guests and killed each before they could take their first flight. I experienced genuine grief over this loss.



Nature provides endless teaching opportunities around issues of moral conscience. Kellert identified nine values of the natural world:

  • Aesthetic: Physically appealing
  • Dominionistic: Mastery or control over nature
  • Humanistic: Emotional bonding with nature
  • Moralistic: Ethical or spiritual connection to nature
  • Naturalistic: Exploration of nature
  • Negativistic: Fear and aversion of nature
  • Scientific: Knowledge and understanding of nature
  • Symbolic: Nature as a source of language and imagination
  • Utilitarian: Nature as a source of material and physical reward These values tend to emerge in a developmental manner, generally shifting from more self-centered, egotistical values to more social and other-centered values.


Nature-informed counseling

Nature-informed counseling refers to a vast array of scientifically based psychological therapies that use nature in clinical practice. Among the foundational assumptions of nature-informed counseling are that we are not machines; we are human beings who are sensual, curious and creative. We are interdependent with the full ecosystem in which we reside.

Furthermore, ecotherapy is an organic model of care that tends to the whole relationship between humans and the other-than-human. Here are several ways to incorporate nature-informed methods into your counseling practice:

1) Animal-assisted therapy: I am fortunate to be able to bring my goldendoodles to my office to be co-therapists. However, in addition to dogs, there are other smaller pets that may work more easily in your practice. For example, I had a betta fish (who was named Olive by a client) that I used with clients. Or place a bird feeder outside your window (if you are fortunate enough to have a window).

2) Horticulture therapy: There are numerous ways to integrate plants in a therapeutic manner. Have clients plant seeds and tend to their care. Or keep small pots of herbs in your office, providing an opportunity to explore aromatherapy. It is a wonderful release to pinch off a bit of rosemary, mint or thyme and inhale the calming, soothing or energizing fragrance.

3) Wilderness therapy: I have used “kayak therapy” with trauma survivors with great success. However, you may not work in a community with easy water access or even know how to kayak. Therefore, your wilderness approach might be more in line with taking clients on a walk on a trail or observing wildlife with them in a nearby lake or pond.

You can also co-create homework around nature walks. For example, I was working with a couple who seemed stuck, so I asked them to go for a walk together (without talking) and collect items along the way that reminded them of their marriage. When they returned to my office, they emptied their treasures, which included a rock (“that used to be how I saw our marriage”), a feather (“we are drifting away”) and a few twigs (“we have roots still”). After a discussion centered around the items gathered, I had the couple finish the session by using the items to create a sculpture that reflected the relationship they wanted to craft.

4) Other ideas:

  • Assess your clients’ relationship with nature. Where is their “happy place”? How often does they get to visit it? Where are their favorite memories housed?
  • Invite a family with which you are working to spend the night in a tent in the backyard and reflect on this experience in session.
  • Teach cloud spotting. Teaching clients mindfulness takes on a fun twist as you lie on your back and gaze at the ever-changing cloud formations.
  • Use transitional objects. I keep a box in my office filled with seashells, sea glass and rocks lovingly collected by my own mother when she walks the beach. I use these as transitional objects when clients might benefit from imprinting an image or experience to an object that they can carry in their pockets or purses throughout the day.


Ethical consideration

As with all forms of practice, ethical standards must be followed to avoid harm and litigation. So what are the ethical considerations when utilizing the wisdom of nature in psychotherapy? This depends on the extent and type of nature-informed therapy you are using. For example, the ethical guidelines for hiking a trail with a client may look a bit different than the guidelines forphoto-1469440317162-d9798b137445 planting a sunflower seed and tending to it as metaphor for self-care and growth. However, in general the following issues must be addressed.

1) Do all parties feel physically and emotionally safe? Although you may thrive sitting in a field of poppies, your client may possess strong allergies to flower pollen that render therapy outdoors a physically uncomfortable experience. In addition to allergies, the client may exhibit phobias around the outdoors that need to be understood and appeased. Temperature and air quality may also be variables to consider.

2) Framing the relationship. For some therapists and clients, an office space with a designated chair arrangement signifies a professional relationship and the tasks that will ensue. A client may feel uncomfortable with the more lax and familiar atmosphere of sitting cross-legged on a hollow log while disclosing current therapeutic issues. Trading leather chair for log stump may alter the relationship in ways that prove unsettling for either the client or the therapist.

3) Is it confidentiality compliant? I have clients who love taking a walk during therapy. Some lament that it is the only time they have for physical activity. However, if we are walking in a heavily populated area, their confidentiality may be at risk. At the same time, an area that is too isolated may not be prudent should an emergency situation arise.

4) Get appropriate training. If you do not know how to kayak, taking clients on a wilderness kayak expedition probably isn’t wise. Always get training before using any modality in therapy.

5) Informed consent. It is always prudent to have clients sign an informed consent form that stipulates the possible risks and benefits of any therapy used in session. Therefore, a specific consent form that addresses the specific type of nature-informed therapy — including possible benefits and risks — needs to be explained and signed prior to taking that walk in the woods or a stroll in the garden during session.



Nature provides endless opportunities for metaphors, messages and meaning construction. Incorporating nature-informed approaches into our practices is not only creative but also clinically sound. It is as easy as taking the time to reflect on the sights, sounds, and smells just outside the door.




For more information:

  • Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (2009)
  • Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces by Martin Jordan (2014)
  • Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations by Peter H. Kahn and Stephen R. Kellert (2002)
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (2008)



Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at cy.fisher@verizon.net.







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