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The Counseling Connoisseur: Picnicking as a therapeutic tool

By Cheryl Fisher August 29, 2019

“A picnic is a state of mind and can be made anywhere.” — Author Unknown

 

A few years ago, I purchased a beautiful, fully furnished wicker picnic basket from Ireland. It is lined in moss green fabric with leather straps that hinge the basket lid and latch the top closed. The lid lifts to expose beautiful porcelain plates with huge sunflowers painted on the creamy surfaces. Moss and golden linen napkins are folded neatly to the side, and crystal wine glasses are nestled against the fabric basket wall. Silver salt and pepper shakers hang in leather straps alongside the carefully arranged silverware and wine opener. A dark green corduroy container is perfect for holding a chilled wine bottle and a larger, insulated, corduroy covered cooler holds containers of varied sizes — perfect for holding nibbles and tapas to enjoy with the beverage du jour. A matching moss green blanket is neatly rolled and strapped against the side of the basket with leather ties. It is just lovely and evokes the promise of fun family gatherings, evenings under the stars, romantic dinners and quiet solo outings with an enticing book.

This is what I love about picnics. They can be as casual as a peanut butter sandwich devoured while lying on a blanket in your backyard or as adventurous as the promise of a chilled shrimp cocktail thawing in the warmth of the hot boulders that hold kayaks after a rapid run down a stream. Or as elegant as lobster rolls and blueberry lemonade consumed while overlooking the Bay of Fundy. What picnics all possess is the promise of a satisfying sensory experience with good food, great company, and a setting that soothes the mind, body and spirit.

The history of picnicking

Picnicking has evolved over time. Although early picnics consisted of medieval hunting feasts of the wealthy, over the centuries they have become more egalitarian. The location of picnics has also evolved. Early European picnics took place indoors and in the city where the elite would promenade fancy foods and fine dining. However, picnicking eventually shifted to outdoor pastoral settings and became a custom common to people of all classes and socioeconomic levels. Picnics have been captured in art and literature, epitomizing leisure and social gathering.

Some picnics occur in seemingly strange places. For example, during the 19th century, Americans regularly picnicked in cemeteries. Although this is no longer a common custom in the United States, other cultures continue to picnic among the dead. Picnicking in a graveyard can provide an opportunity to honor deceased loved ones while enjoying a peaceful green space.

In many countries, specific holidays, events and forms of attire are celebrated with picnics. For example, Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival is often accompanied by a hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnic. In Argentina, after their official celebration on Christmas Eve, Argentines often spend Christmas picnicking outdoors—in some cases on the beach. Australia’s Northern Territory has an official Picnic Day celebrated on the first Monday in August. Picnic Day was first observed by railway workers, and the town of Adelaide River honors this history by celebrating with a Railway Heritage Picnic Day event. In Finland, a traditional May Day celebration includes a “herring picnic” in which pickled herring and other salty foods play a starring role, and Greece ushers in the beginning of Lent with kite flying and family picnics.

Unusual attire—or the lack thereof—accompany picnics in some countries. Nude picnicking may not be an official activity in Germany, but nudity is more widely accepted there and is common in some popular locations for picnics such as parks and the beach. While Germans may not have established nude picnicking as a tradition, in France, nudists hope to do just that. In June of 2018 and 2019, naturists held a public nude picnic in a park in Paris.

However, picnics are not just a pleasurable leisure activity—they can also be therapeutic.

 

Five ways in which picnicking can be therapeutic

  1. It is a form of nature therapy

Most picnics are accompanied by an outdoor setting. In a lush field, by a babbling brook, on a sandy shoreline, at a park table, or at the peak of a mountain top, picnics encourage outdoor dining.

As I have discussed in previous columns, research suggests that natural settings can help decrease cortisol levels and blood pressure while increasing serotonin levels. Spending time in the outdoors also exposes people to more sunlight. Light therapy can be an effective treatment for certain types of depression—particularly cases caused by seasonal affective disorder.

Simply being in nature is healing.

 

  1. It can cultivate positive social experiences

Rather than the isolating experience of eating in front of a digital device (TV, computer, smartphone), picnicking promotes personal interaction and engagement that can result in a satisfying social experience as well as a meal. Communication is enhanced as friends and family enjoy a meal amidst the slower pace of natural settings.

 

  1. It provides an opportunity to practice acceptance and commitment (ants and bugs cohabitating)

Picnics offer an excellent opportunity to lean into the reality of outdoor dining — which includes those creatures who may not have been invited. Bugs join the party, and unless you are going to spend the time swatting them away, it is an opportunity to learn patience and tolerance while enjoying the many other aspects of outdoor dining that are less of a nuisance.

 

  1. It encourages reflection

The naturally slower pace of outdoor dining promotes a more mindful experience. It is one that creates the space for quiet and reflection. I love to begin my mornings by eating breakfast on my patio. It’s a mini-picnic just beyond my back door that embraces an appreciation of the morning sun and is enhanced by the fragrant herbs from my garden and the morning activity of the birds and small animals. As I sip my tea, my mind clears, and I have the mental bandwidth for reflection of gratitude–for the beautiful day, my health or the fullness of my life (translation: busy schedule). My practice is just one example of how picnics can offer opportunities for reflection.

 

  1. It can promote healthier eating

Recently, I packed up my beautiful picnic basket with a variety of foods. As I nibbled on the fresh vegetables that I had harvested from my home garden that morning — dipped in warm lemon-infused hummus — I honestly could not imagine anything tasting as splendid. The fresh air, green space and gorgeous food made for an exquisite sensory experience. While it is true that a quick visit to a fast-food drive-through could fill a picnic container (basket, backpack, bucket), people often select foods that promote healthier eating.

 

 

So, the next time you are faced with clients who could benefit from a mini-break that would include a therapeutic experience that will encourage positive interactions and reflection, suggest they pack their favorite goodies and head for an outdoor space. Inviting clients to participate in a picnic promotes their connection with self, others and natural settings. Picnicking can help enhance engagement, interaction, and reflection. It also encourages the development of more tolerance and may even lead to healthier eating. As the summer wanes, prescribing a picnic is a traditional, creative and therapeutic way to ease the stressors found in a skim, scan and scroll world.

 

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher

Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

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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.

 

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