Compassion, CFT and Nature

Dr Kirsten McEwan – Associate Professor of Health and Well-being at the University of Derby

Since childhood, I’ve found solace and comfort in nature. The woods near my home were a sanctuary where I could escape and feel safe. Sitting in a tree, tearing up leaves, savouring their fresh scent, and listening to the wind rustling through the branches brought me profound calm. I was fortunate to have a deep connection with nature, spending most of my days in those woods.

Regrettably, like many adults, I lost that connection as life’s demands took over. Pursuing a career in research and earning a PhD left little time for nature visits or personal hobbies. However, it was during my first research job that I discovered an alternative path to access that elusive soothing system—Compassion-Focused Therapy.

In this role, I delved into the Three Circle Model of emotion regulation, recognizing the need for balance between our fight/flight and competitive/drive system (both influenced by our sympathetic nervous system) and our rest and digest/soothing system (rooted in our parasympathetic nervous system).

Compassion became the key to achieving this balance. By combining mindfulness, compassion visualizations, and other embodied practices, I found a new way to access my soothing system and spend more time in my rest and digest or parasympathetic system.

Driven by the benefits I witnessed; I dedicated the next eight years to building the evidence base for Compassion-Focused Therapy. 

three system model compassion focused therapy

It wasn’t until a new job brought me to Wales that I rediscovered my deep connection with nature. Wales offered easy access to the outdoors, with beautiful woodlands within the hospital grounds and stunning mountains and coastlines just a short drive away. Most of my weekends were spent volunteering in remote wildlife reserves, rekindling my lost bond with nature.

My renewed nature connection found the perfect outlet in a research project called “Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature.” This project combined my passion for mental health interventions with spending time in nature. Its aim was to help people notice and appreciate urban nature, improving their wellbeing. We discovered evidence of enhanced wellbeing in individuals referred by their GPs for mental health issues. Yet, GPs sought more objective evidence of how nature could impact our physiology, leading us to investigate previous research.

Compassion, CFT and Nature

Our findings revealed evidence from over 14 papers supporting a nature connection activity known as “Forest bathing.” This activity helped individuals shift from their sympathetic to their parasympathetic system.

Forest bathing, a slow, silent, mindful nature experience guided by sensory activities, intrigued me. For years, I had researched how Compassion-Focused Therapy could stimulate the parasympathetic system. I found it impressive that Forest bathing achieved a similar outcome.

This discovery prompted me to explore the potential of taking compassion practices outside. Combining compassion practices with Forest bathing could offer a gentler and more effective approach to shifting people into their parasympathetic system. Both Compassion-Focused Therapy and Forest bathing centre around mindfulness, but traditional mindfulness often proves challenging due to its inward focus on thoughts and body sensations. In contrast, Forest bathing directs mindfulness outward toward the natural environment, which many find easier, more engaging, and less triggering.

Compassion practices within CFT often require visualizing receiving compassion from others. Yet even our closest relationships are not without complications, recall the last argument you had with your partner for example. Many clients of CFT struggle with these visualizations, particularly those with early attachment trauma. However, visualizing a safe place in nature, a common CFT practice, often proves more accessible. Both CFT and Forest bathing aimed to help individuals spend more time in their parasympathetic system, making the combination of these practices in a natural setting seem promising. In a study exploring this combination, we combined the psychoeducation (especially the Three Circle Model) and the compassion and safe place visualisation aspects of CFT, with the natural setting and mindful sensory activities of Forest bathing.  The results from this study did indeed demonstrate a more significant impact on the parasympathetic system, compared with practicing CFT or Forest bathing alone.

Today, more therapists are taking their clients outdoors for sessions, recognising the potential benefits. Conducting therapies like CFT in natural settings is likely to be more accessible and advantageous for several reasons. Nature has been our backdrop for most of human history, enabling us to process information more effectively and feel more relaxed. Unlike a traditional therapy room, nature lacks hierarchy, creating a more egalitarian space for therapist-client interactions. Nature fosters positive social interactions by providing a shared topic of conversation, and it often leads to new insights, perspectives, and metaphors, such as observing a storm-damaged tree that continues to thrive.

Taking compassion outdoors not only benefits humans but also nature itself. Studies have shown that a connection with nature mediates the relationship between time spent outdoors and pro-environmental attitudes. If we come to appreciate nature as a source of wellbeing, we may be more motivated to protect it. In an era where we’ve lost connections, not only with nature but also with our communities, taking compassion outdoors in a group setting may not only help us reconnect with nature but also with each other.

Dr Kirsten McEwan

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