Wilderness As Therapy-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Healing Power of Nature

Wilderness as therapy -Dr. Arielle Schwartz

When you feel overextended or have lost a sense of yourself, where do you turn?  A few weeks ago I had one of those times. I was tired from balancing the demands of being a mom, wife, friend, teacher, and therapist. I had nothing left to give and was tapped out. I know, from experience, that these feelings are a signal from my soul not to be ignored. I have burnt out before and am committed not to end up there again. Grateful to have some time to myself, I took the opportunity to head to the trails in the Colorado foothills and to tend to my weariness with a day of silence and nature.

“My take home message, embrace confusion, let yourself be disoriented; sometimes this is the only way to find your inner compass.
-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

A tribute to the trail

Over 20 years ago, my entry work in psychology was as a “field guide” in a wilderness therapy program. In Southern Utah I ventured out into the desert and the mountains. Barely in my 20’s, I trekked alongside my group of “youth at risk”. I’m not sure who needed this life changing experience more, me or the teens I was guiding. It was during this time that I took my first “solo;” time alone in the wilderness to observe my mind and heart as reflected in the rocks, stream, trees, and animals that surrounded me. This served as one of many initiations into a felt experience of the profound interrelationships between body, psyche, and earth.

Interconnection r

Tending the heart, mending the soul

On my solo journey a few weeks ago I stood at the trailhead prepared to summit South Boulder Peak via shadow canyon. I paused, not only to check my water supply and route, but to clarify my intention to re-align myself with the natural world. For the first hour my mind busied itself with reflections of the busy few weeks that had passed. Over time; however, I began to more fully experience the wildflowers and grasses, some deer grazing, the pine trees and junipers. I saw the clouds, loose and floating high above. I noticed the filtered quality of light pass through branches.  As I climbed I passed a few other hikers. We exchanged kind words and remarked on the cool temperature and lovely day. I felt the lightness in my heart return as I climbed higher and became deeply reflective about the sights and experiences on the trail.

Death and rebirth

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Wilderness as Therapy

At one point the trail passed through an old forest fire burn area. The blackened trunks of the trees stood starkly erect while a fresh carpet of green beamed a reminder of the cycles of death and rebirth. As if the trees could speak, “trust” resounded inside my heart. I, too, am dying and being reborn. My busy, unsustainable pace, like a fire, rages and burns, expands without limits, and takes me beyond by human capacity to contain. Once the fuel is used up, I am burnt out. What is ready to rise from the ashes? Who am I now?

Finding the inner compass

Finding the inner compass Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Crossing the stream bed, weaving in and out of trees, I lost sight of the trail. I paused to look around and drew upon my senses more fully. “When lost, slow down, it is a gift” my heart spoke again. Then hidden below the brush was the cairn. How often do we want to rush through these moments in life and why? Maybe, because being disoriented is uncomfortable, equates error, or worse, is a sign of failure. My take home message…embrace confusion, let yourself be disoriented; sometimes this is the only way to find your inner compass.

Honor those who have come before

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Wilderness as therapy

In the steepest section of the climb I was profoundly appreciative of the well designed trail. Boulders arranged as a staircase and a set of wooden steps to assist with the ascent. How many people have walked this path? How many hands helped to build this trail? I am grateful. I am grateful to all those who have come before me; who have bushwhacked, and cleared trail, and left your mark. You have made my journey smoother as a result. In the midst of my prayer, I met a fellow traveler on his way down from the peak who said with a grin, “Look around you when you get near the top…the raspberries are ripe and ready to eat.” Thank you, thank you.

Dr. Arielle Schwartz Wilderness as therapy

The peak experience

I have arrived. Eaten the raspberries, and tastes the sweetness. But often my head was down, assessing each step, avoiding the rocks that might trip me, navigating the obstacles of the trail (of my life). From the top there is a perspective that is not possible within the moment by moment walks of life. Savor this moment. This is your “one wild and precious life” (thank you Mary Oliver), what will you do with it? The raptors soar on the air currents and butterflies flit around the mountain peak. I too am soaring inside; I made it to my destination. In life I can forget to savor the fruits of my labors. Savor this. Savor your one wild and precious life.

Dr. Arielle Schwatz Wilderness as therapy

Taking the lessons of the trail home

Descending, my legs shake and my water nearly gone. The cool air grows cooler but eventually I arrive safely to the trailhead and soon to the comforts of home.  A dear friend calls me up but quickly hears in my voice that I am not ready to talk. My voice is still held in the inner recesses of my reflective heart; receiving the lessons of the trail. “Write,” says my heart and devoted to this inner voice, I obey. Wilderness as therapy, as medicine, as healing.

Further reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Meet Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. Dr. Schwartz is the author of The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook, follow her on Linkedin and sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all her posts.


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