The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a Licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible version of ourselves.
If your Instagram feed looks anything like mine, for months you’ve probably been seeing tons of beautiful sisters in their homes surrounded by lots of luscious green plants. It seems like many of us have found solace in plants and other connections to nature recently. We wanted to dig into what’s driving this for us so we found two experts to share about their work and how we can heal through nature.
Beth Collier is in private practice as a Nature Allied Psychotherapist and writes on nature, health and race. She specializes in working with relational trauma in our connections with people and nature. Dr. Jennifer Roberts, an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park joined me to discuss her research which focuses primarily on the impact of our built environments and some of the ways programs are being developed to improve our access to nature within our city environments, including Medical prescriptions for Nature and other outdoor activities.
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Session 172: Plant Parenthood Is More Than A Trend
Dr. Joy: Hey, y’all! Thanks so much for joining me for session 172 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. If your Instagram feed looks anything like mine, for months, you've probably been seeing tons of beautiful sisters in their homes surrounded by lots and lots of luscious green plants. It seems like many of us have found solace in plants and other connections to nature in the past couple of months, so we wanted to dig into what's driving this for us.
In this episode, we're sharing two perspectives on a growing field of psychology called nature therapy or ecotherapy. First up is my conversation with Beth Collier. Beth is in private practice as a nature-allied psychotherapist and writes on nature, health and race. She specializes in working with relational trauma in our connections with people and nature. Beth and I discussed what ecotherapy is, why so many of us have turned to plants, the psychological benefits of being connected to nature and steps we can take to repair our relationships with nature. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Beth.
Beth: Thanks so much for inviting me. It's really great to be able to join you here from London, although I’m sat in a woodland so I don't really feel I'm in the city at the moment.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. Of course, the listeners can't see you but you have a very picturesque background so I'm at peace just looking at your background out there in the woodlands.
Beth: We are lucky. Although a lot of people see London as one of the world's major cities, it's still got a huge amount of greenspace where we're lucky to have lots of parks but also woodlands, too, very close and accessible.
Dr. Joy: Beth, I'm happy you were able to join us because I'm not sure how active you are on social media, but definitely since March, since the pandemic really hit, I've just been observing lots and lots of pictures of plants all across the social media feeds. It seems like lots of people have been getting into buying house plants for their homes, planting gardens, just really doing a lot with greenery. I’d like to hear just from you, your thoughts about why that's happening, like, why do you feel like people are turning to things like plants and gardening right now?
Beth: Nature has this wonderful capacity to soothe us and to help us feel grounded and I think a lot of us have turned to nature to help us get through some very stressful anxious times during the coronavirus period and lockdown in particular. For many of us who have had policies where we've had to stay indoors most of the time and we can't go out and access our usual greenspaces, then bringing nature indoors has been the next best thing. I think people have been turning to nature for release. It's been a wonderful focus having plants to tend to and care for, but also feel the benefits of being around plants which uplift us, that make us feel calm.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. And I know a lot of your work, Beth, is in nature therapy so can you tell me more about what that is and how you became so passionate about that practice?
Beth: I grew up in the countryside in the UK, which for a person of color is quite unusual: only 2% of people of African descent live in the countryside in the UK. And so my childhood was spent roaming the fields, playing outdoors, learning about nature and how I could meaningfully interact with it. For example, the more I knew about edible plants, the less I had to go home to get something to eat, so nature became a very meaningful relationship for me.
When I moved into the city, I realized that not everybody saw nature as normal, that there had been a real disconnection. Where I opened my door and I was surrounded by nature, for a lot of people, they have to make an effort to go out and find the natural world. And not everybody has the kind of connections which make that possible, whether it's they don't have parents that take them or they find that greenspaces aren't accessible in the areas that they live.
My journey into nature was through seeing how for many people there was a distance between them and the natural world. And I'd been working with a young boy who was at risk of falling into trouble with gangs and we were working traditionally indoors in a room and nothing seemed age-appropriate for him. The toys were too young, he was someone that presented with a lot of bravado, even though he was only about 10–11, but he wasn't ready for face to face eye contact. And it made me think back to my days as a child and having natural spaces and being able to roam and how that lets out a lot of energy and how it allows us to process things that we're feeling. And I wondered what it would be like if I took our work outside.
It didn't actually happen with that child but it did with others in a similar situation and from there, I started to offer my adult clients the opportunity to work outdoors, too. The transformation was sort of self-evident, that when we change our environments and we’re able to express ourselves differently, we realize that much of the things we're experiencing are to do with the external environment we're in, not just our own inner internal worlds.
Dr. Joy: What is it about being in nature that you feel helped people to kind of broaden their perspective?
Beth: I think there's something in introducing the idea that there is a relationship to be had with the natural world. That just like our parents and our siblings, the quality of our relationship with nature will have an impact on our wellbeing. I describe nature as offering the core conditions of the ideal primary caregiver: nature is unjudgmental, nature's available, nature makes us feel supported and confident. And by offering those qualities, nature is able to offer us positive attachments and we can find a secure base by being in nature. That's a wonderful thing to be able to access, to feel safe, to process other feelings regarding our human social relationships.
Dr. Joy: Beth, I am just fascinated by this because you describe your work as really focusing on the relational trauma in our connections with people and nature. I consider myself someone also who really helps clients to work with those relational traumas and attachment pieces that may have kind of gone awry and so I love how you're talking about using nature to do that. Can you talk more about how you are helping people to work through some of these relational traumas through the use of nature?
Beth: Let me just widen the context a little bit. I'm a nature-allied psychotherapist, which means I see all my clients in natural settings: in parks, in woods. And as well as exploring human social relationship, there's the opportunity to explore relationship with nature. Another part of my work is with Wild in the City and we offer experiences in woodland living skills, like foraging, wildlife identification, and also ecotherapy and hiking. So I'm opening up the space just to talk about trauma and people of color in particular.
One of the things we do with Wild in the City is to help people rebuild the oral tradition back into relationship with nature and we do this by coming together to experience the natural world. For many people, it's a process of discovery about the plants and the wildlife in the UK. In our history of migration to the UK, we often experienced hostility. For many people of color in the UK, there was a large period of migration in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the hostility we encountered which tended to be in cities, meant that many people felt unsafe to venture off into the countryside and more remote areas. And so a relational bridge into the natural world was disrupted and rather than feeling safe and welcome in natural spaces, there was a cultural pattern of feeling unsafe and that it wasn't for us.
A lot of what we're doing with Wild in the City is bringing people together, gathering particularly around the fire and reflecting about what our relationship with nature has been and looking at the interruptions, the human interference that has meant being in nature doesn't feel safe. And trauma is a big part of that work in understanding the loss that has been experienced in not having access to nature as this wonderful nourishing resource that helps us to feel good. But also that the means by which we came to be separated from nature are often stemming from a human interference and a trauma within that.
Dr. Joy: Wow, that is fascinating. I love that. I don't know that I've heard anybody here in the US, though it may exist, I’ve not heard of other people practicing in this way. I'm wondering for people who may be interested in exploring some of this, what kinds of things might they look for in terms of searching for a therapist? Like what are some key terms they might google? How might they connect with someone like you?
Beth: Other common terms for this kind of work are things like ecotherapy, simply outdoor therapy, nature therapy. There are other parallel practices like forest bathing, taking advantage of the wonderful health properties, particularly within woods and amongst trees. There are also wilderness experiences, so if you were to look up wilderness therapy or wilderness retreats.
Dr. Joy: Got it. Okay. And I'm wondering if you can say more about how we're psychologically impacted by this disconnection that we've had from nature. How does that maybe show up in our lives?
Beth: I'll answer that the long way around by talking about what nature does for us and then we can see what we miss when we aren't connected. I think for many of us, although I've talked about some fears and anxieties, when we're in nature, we feel a lot of positive feelings. We feel uplifted, we feel more relaxed, we feel calmer. There's a sense of contentment and perhaps a sense of belonging to something bigger than us. Neuroscience is showing some amazing things, that these aren't just subjective feelings, that something very real is happening to our physiological systems.
For example, I'm sat now in this woodland surrounded by trees and these trees are releasing a chemical called phytoncide and it's part of their defense system against bacterial and viral attack. This chemical also has a positive impact on both of our nervous systems, that they soothe and calm both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. That's going to help our sleep our rest, our digestion, it’s going to make us feel calmer, it's going to help regulate our natural rhythms. So just by being in a space, we get a lot passively from nature. The neuroscience also shows, for example, that when we're in greenspaces, areas of the brain associated with love and empathy are activated and that's in contrast to gray concreted areas where areas of the brain associated with anger, fear and stress are activated. There's a very real difference between what happens to our physiology when we're in greenspaces.
Talking about what we lose, when we come into a city space, we've got the sounds, the noise, the smells, so many signs, other people, lots of things demanding our attention. This can feel like a real assault on our nervous system and our body can react as if we're in fight or flight. Our adrenaline tends to be higher, we have higher levels of cortisol, breathing and our heart rate goes up so there's something very stressful about being in city spaces. And if you've lived in a city all your life without access or a relationship with nature, you might not even be aware that you're living in a more heightened adrenalized state than if you live more rurally or have a closer connection to the natural world.
Dr. Joy: Got it. So, just being outside, and like you said, we know the feeling that you get sometimes when you just allow the sun to hit your face or that you can just feel really grounded by being in touch with nature.
Beth: Absolutely. I think it's the same in America, but certainly in the UK, people of color are more likely to live in cities and urban areas. If that environment is already more stressful, already an assault that we experience as a trauma, fight or flight being activated, let alone all the other things we're experiencing with people of color–the trauma of racism, the stress of navigating social life and professional life as a person of color–then it's a part of our systemic experience of racism and trauma, to be disconnected from the natural world.
Dr. Joy: I wonder if you can say more about that, Beth. Because on the podcast, we talk a lot about generational trauma and it sounds like that is what you are referring to as well. And I had not thought about the ways that we have been kind of pushed out of greenspaces as a continuing legacy of that. Can you say more about that?
Beth: Absolutely. I touched on, in the UK, our experience of migration. I should say there have been people of color in the UK for centuries but in more recent years, our larger migration as communities has been in the 20th century. And when we came over to the UK, we tended to gather in cities for the support, to have a sense of community, to be able to meet our needs, it’s where the jobs were. And just in setting up our lives, we encountered a lot of hostility. It was very common, for example, for housing to have signs which said “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” So just finding our feet, finding basics like accommodation was a struggle.
Faced with that kind of racism in city context where there are larger numbers of people of color is already unpleasant and hostile. The idea of going more remotely where there are fewer people of color becomes intimidating. Generationally, so depending on your age, grandparents or parents pass down the message of “don't go” out of fear, wanting to protect and keep people safe. And there are many people that have had that message passed down to them that this isn't for us or even “this is for white people.”
And I think in our culture, that kind of message that nature isn't for us is quite common. I mean, some of my favorite comedians have pieces about how ridiculous it is to want to camp or to go into nature, you know, why on earth would you want to do that? I think that that's a reflection of a rationale that does exist within black communities. And for me, this is a sign, it's a coping mechanism. It's a sign of being able to cope with disconnects that actually is really hurtful, it's harmful. And obviously a very common way of coping with the loss of something is to disparage it, to say, “Well, I didn't want it anyway. It's dirty, it's boring, why would I want to go?” And I think this thread within our culture, which can sometimes dismiss nature, is a part of protecting ourselves from a hurt, from the loss of something that doesn't quite feel safe and easy to access.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Beth, do you have any ideas or maybe strategies that you've used in your own work for how people can reclaim these spaces?
Beth: Yeah, so particularly drawing from my work with Wild in the City, I think being together as a group has been really healing and reparative. Obviously, there are a large number of us that do enjoy nature and the natural world and I'm aware in the US you've got amazing groups like Girl Trek and Outdoor Afro. I'm not meaning to suggest that we're not in these spaces, but for many of us that do enjoy nature, we often find we're the only one in a group and we're having to work through being the only one, sometimes microaggressions, other things that create a barrier to just be able to relax and enjoy.
Men tell me that they're often made to feel that they are a possible threat and so they're modifying their behavior in natural settings. And all of these things become a barrier to their own enjoyment, that they're having to think about other people and change their behavior to make others feel at ease. So there's something about being in a group of people of color, which means we can let go of a lot of that and just have that direct connection to the natural world. And have time to sit, to talk, to connect and talk about what our experiences have been, what our family experiences have been, but also particularly to explore our very rich culture of relationship with nature from our countries of heritage. I think that's the great irony, that in our countries of heritage–whether that's Africa or the Caribbean–we tend to have a really deep connection with the natural world and it's been lost on our migration to the West.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Do you have any suggestions, Beth, for people who may struggle with outdoor allergies?
Beth: Yeah, it’s a difficult one. It’s such an unfair thing if you are wanting to spend time in nature or enjoy nature and you have allergies and that feels like a barrier. There are remedies, people recommend eating local honey, people also recommend colonics and enemas to address allergies. But I think also thinking about time of day: there might be a time of day where there are less allergens which affect you. Or trying to work out, are there particular trees or plants that are triggering this? And finding habitats that are more comfortable for you.
Dr. Joy: Are there additional barriers to getting into this work or practicing this work, besides allergies, that you can think of?
Beth: I don't think so. I think for some people, apprehension about being in nature can itself be a barrier. But just like many of us when we're approaching therapy, there can be something that makes us anxious or cautious. I think nature brings its own triggers for some people. For example, bugs, dogs, other aspects of wildlife that might be encountered. And just like you would in any other part of therapy, that's something that can be talked through, either in advance or it becomes part of the work that you're doing together in a session. Is to explore that anxiety or that fear.
Dr. Joy: I would imagine, like many things, the Coronavirus has changed what your work looks like. I know a lot of us have been encouraged to just stay indoors at this point and so I think it's difficult to navigate wanting to be outside for some benefit with also the concerns about safety and health. I'm curious to hear what you're seeing and how maybe it's impacted your work.
Beth: One of the wonderful benefits of being outdoors is it’s perhaps a safer way of meeting face to face, there's less risk. And so some of my work has been able to continue being socially distant but still together in our natural setting. But also, the great use of technology, Zoom allowing sessions to go ahead where I'll be in my nature spot and my client will be in theirs. So we are separate but the client is still able to access all those benefits of being in the natural world. And they've fed back to me of how powerful that's been, that they haven't lost nature as their therapist. Even though we're not together as humans, they still feel the benefits of nature as their co-therapist.
Dr. Joy: Beth, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more about what kinds of things you're doing with your clients in terms of helping them to get engaged with nature.
Beth: As a psychotherapist, nature is our location for where we meet, but it's also potentially a relationship that's further developed. That's something that will depend on our client's individual connection with the natural world. For some, we don't particularly go very deep because that's not what they're looking for. Much like when people come to traditional indoor therapy, there'll be some areas they want to explore more than others, there'll be some resistances they feel ready to face and some they won't. So as well as being a wonderful location, nature can be and is very active within the therapy.
As I mentioned, nature is a co-therapist. It's not just me there as a human therapist and I say co- therapist because nature is able to reflect back and mirror to us feelings, emotions and patterns in our experiences. There can be incredible synchronicity as you move through a space of wildlife interacting–of the sun shining off leaves, of the wind suddenly picking up–that speaks to clients, that helps reflect back something they may have been feeling. It never ceases to amaze me the timing of nature, the client speaking about something difficult or feeling oppressive and the wind will come in and sort of really blow on us and the client will smile and say, “See, I told you. I'm feeling things are against me.” There's a wonderful mirroring that nature can offer.
As well as being a co-therapist, nature is an incredible dynamic container. She's always changing so our therapy room never looks the same, it never sounds the same and it never smells the same. It's a really rich space to work in, whether we're meeting in the middle of the day under a bright blue sky, or whether we're having a session in the evening with the stars and the moon and the different sounds that you get during the night time. Nature is the co-therapist, it's the dynamic container, it's the therapy room but also, as I mentioned, my work is very much based in attachment theory to promote that we have an attachment to the natural world just as we have an attachment to our parents, our siblings, our work colleagues. And the quality of that attachment can change. We can develop and nurture our relationship with nature to feel that positive sense of attachment and that secure base in the natural world.
And for many people, experiencing the intimacy with the natural world can become a roadmap for experiencing and nurturing intimacy within human relationships. I'm sure lots of your listeners that have been on their own therapeutic journey might recognize perhaps initially feeling a bit lost or uncertain: where's this going to take me? There's a lot that's unknown about the process and sometimes you just have to sort of let go and trust. And when you look back, you can see how you can't always control what's going to come up or which way things are going to go but you can realize moments where you were brave and you went with it.
Some clients, they have that experience first with the natural world, developing that relationship. Then when they contemplate looking at perhaps a painful relationship within their human relationship, they already have a roadmap for these challenges–the twists and turns and how it's going to feel–so it feels safer and less daunting to touch on those more uncomfortable feelings.
Dr. Joy: Nice. And I can imagine it also is kind of like a great projective space, so to speak? I mean, because somebody sees a leaf falling or something and then they can talk about things that that triggers for them in their lives, right? So it's very dynamic.
Beth: Yes. There's a wonderful creativity so we might stop and just observe and look at something in nature or a client might want to use materials within nature to explain something to me. I remember one client really welcoming the opportunity to draw out how he experienced his psychosis using leaves. They were all tunnel leaves, really bright colors, and it was the first time he had had the opportunity to really describe and depict such a visceral experience. He used the natural world to do that.
I can think about another client who was expressing real frustration and anger with her mother in particular, but her family who she felt neglected by. Just as we were walking past the lake and there was a female mallard being pursued by three chicks who were desperately trying to keep up with her but not quite managing to do so and my client went, “There you go, a bad mother.” and was able to use that visual metaphor in front of us to really unpick feelings of frustration she was feeling about being abandoned, about being left behind.
Dr. Joy: Wow, thank you for sharing that, Beth. I appreciate that. What are your hopes for the future of nature therapy? Where do you feel like the field is going?
Beth: It is an emerging field but increasingly in demand. I also offer training for psychotherapists and other wellbeing professionals in nature-allied psychotherapy. This is a modality of therapy that I've theorized based on my own practice. I've been working in nature for over eight years now and it's a modality for ongoing client work in natural spaces. There are therapists working in nature but not necessarily in an ongoing way so it might be more one-off experiences or shorter group work, but my work happens continually in an ongoing relationship in nature, just as you might do indoors.
I offer CPD short training and also a diploma, a yearlong diploma in nature-allied psychotherapy and this is something I'd like to develop so psychotherapists can do their entire training journey within nature. Whereas at the moment most people are training traditionally for indoor modalities and then sort of topping up afterwards, so my plan within the next three years is to have a training program so you can start from day one, immersed in the woods, within a nature-based practice.
Dr. Joy: Nice. And where can people connect with you, Beth? What are your websites as well as any social media handles if you'd like to share them?
Beth: My private practice website is BethCollier.co.uk. You can also find some of my writings on that site. For training courses, it's the Nature Therapy School and then for interest in Wild in the City, it's www.WildInTheCity.org.uk. The Nature Therapy school is NatureTherapySchool.com and my personal address is BethCollier.co.uk.
Dr. Joy: Perfect, and we'll be sure to include all of those in the show notes. Thank you so much, Beth. I appreciate you joining us today.
Beth: Thanks so much for inviting me. It's been a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
Dr. Joy: Thank you.
Dr. Joy: Next, I chatted with Dr. Jennifer Roberts who is an assistant professor of Kinesiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health in College Park. Her research focuses primarily on the impact of our built environments and some of the ways programs are being developed to improve our access to nature within our city environments, including medical prescriptions for nature and other outdoor activities. Here's our conversation.
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Roberts.
Dr. Roberts: Definitely. I'm really thrilled to be here chatting with you.
Dr. Joy: Can you start by just talking with us about your research with PHOEBE and what you're seeing in terms of built environments and how they impact our health and wellbeing?
Dr. Roberts: Sure. I kind of entered this field, I like to call it active living research because a lot of times when I say built environment, people are like, what are you talking about? When I say active living research, I characterize it as seeing how the spaces that we live in can either promote or not promote our ability to be physically active. And physically active, whether that's recreational, going to a park and playing with your kids, or even like active transportation, which is transporting yourself by walking or biking or skateboarding or any of those things.
I entered this kind of pivot in my research or in my career about 10 years ago. I wanted to do this research to focus on the impact of “built” but also social–and now I've kind of moved into natural environments–and see how those environments can really impact our public health by way of physical activity. I particularly like to focus on adults and youth but also kind of really highlighting marginalized communities, and so a lot of the times I've looked at whether there's a presence of sidewalks, whether there's adequate lighting, whether there's parks nearby. In a nutshell, it's just kind of like what are the features of that built environment, of that neighborhood, of that community, that can encourage us to get out and move?
But then you can't really just look at that in a vacuum. You have to think about the social environment. So, for example, I had to study my physical environment and active transportation study, which I typically called PEAT, and I did some focus groups of some adolescent kids and most of them were youth of color. Many of them were sharing experiences about how they’ve experienced microaggressions or anxiety, walking or taking public transportation in certain spaces because of their race.
You have to really think about, it's not just about is there enough lighting, is there sidewalks? But is it a safe space for particularly people of color to engage in physical activity? I always give the example of Trayvon Martin who was engaged in active transportation on his way back home and we see what happened with him. We have to also consider the social environment and not just the built environment.
Dr. Joy: Yes. And you know, I think that it's so impactful to think about all of the different ways that we can really kind of approach advocacy work. Even with that example of Trayvon Martin, you wouldn’t necessarily think that your area of study would kind of intersect, but it does.
Dr. Roberts: It does. I get so excited because a lot of the conferences and the venues that I go where the act of living researchers are, we are very kind of myopic. We're like, oh, there's sidewalks, oh, there's parks, and we get very much into using GIS to see whether or not if the park is within a half mile because of a bus stop is within like a half mile, because then people are more likely to go to it. So we can really zoom in on that aspect, which is great, but then a lot of times, most recently in the last few years, I've actually been bringing this other layer, looking at “Well, it's great if we have the best built environment, but what if that's not the best social environment for some of us?” And so when I've given talks, it's kind of opened the door to people seeing this other aspect of active living research. And so I do like what you say; I really enjoy when I can see that intersection of the different disciplines.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Can you talk more about any other research maybe you've done or seen that talks about particularly black women being disconnected from nature and maybe some of the societal factors that have impacted that?
Dr. Roberts: It's interesting that you say that because, as a whole, there's been this kind of belief that black people in general are just disconnected from nature. Some of the research that has been done has shown that that's not necessarily the case. There are black people out there who want to engage in nature, who want to be a part of nature. It’s not just a sense that, oh, this is something only for a white space or for a white community and so I think some of the issues around that have to look at whether or not these spaces are inclusive. A lot of this work has been done by Dr. Dorceta Taylor at the University of Michigan and she's looked at this whole idea of this disconnect of black people from nature.
Most recently, I actually came across some work from Dr. Melanie Harris. She's an associate professor of religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and she's really looked at this whole kind of like… Well, first is nature being sacred, but she uses this ideal of eco-womanism which has its underpinnings in an environmental justice paradigm. Basically, environmental justice meaning that it's not random that there's certain areas where there's more environmental pollutants. There's more environmental pollutants in more impoverished areas and more areas that are inhabited by black and brown folks, so it's this whole idea of using that paradigm to understand that there are more areas where black and brown people live that happen to be environmentally toxic communities. But then they move forward in looking at this kind of eco- womanism and then links it to this whole acknowledgement that we are connected. Humans are connected to nonhumans as well as there’s strong links between women, spirituality and nature.
And there’s this really wonderful kind of, I don't want to say theory, but paradigm of looking at the connection between particularly women of color–particularly African American women–and nature. She presents a lot of issues in a lot of the literary works of Alice Walker, who is a naturist, let alone one of the best authors out there. And she (Dorceta) uses a lot of the literary works, specifically her work from The Color Purple, to show that there's always been that connection between Africans and African American people and nature. So to have this kind of narrative now that we are disconnected, it's partly self-imposed but it's typically skewed by the fact that it's been imposed on us by other people, I guess I should say.
I think this whole idea of looking at nature as being kind of intrinsic to us since the beginning is important to acknowledge. Even when you look back at old slave narratives, there was always this kind of connection and discussion about acknowledging nature: nature as a source of knowledge, as a source of getting to the north. It was just always a part of us and so I think saying that we're not connected is really just a disservice to the fact that it's always been a part of us as a people.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, and it goes back to your earlier comment that some of the disconnection has come from “it not always feeling safe” or we have not been included in these spaces.
Dr. Roberts: Right. And even still, there's so many other layers that go into this in the sense that you think about the ideal of some places, there's this whole white privilege of “Well, this is my space, so what are you doing here? How do you know about this space?” And kind of like, why are you in this greenspace? Why are you here? And so sometimes I think we as black Americans, African Americans, however you want to self-identify, we sometimes self-impose and say, well, hiking is not for us or going out mountaineering is not for us. Not realizing, no, it is for us just as much as it is for anybody else and we have a right to be there and enjoy the beauty and what we can get out of nature, just like anyone else. I think it's important to acknowledge that.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. Do you have any tips for people who may be kind of stuck there?
Dr. Roberts: For one, think that nature is for you. And one person's exposure to nature may not be the same type of exposure that you may need for nature and I think it's one of those things that you have to maybe take baby steps. Sometimes it's just a matter of like going out your front porch, sitting on your front porch for maybe like 10 minutes and kind of absorbing just the sounds. Particularly when you can do this very early in the morning, where you just have this orchestra of nature, whether it's the birds or the wind or whatever, and just taking those baby steps. I don't say necessarily go and try and climb and do these long treks and hikes, but just take that.
Or maybe if you feel unsafe doing that, there's wonderful ways that you can get nature without having to absorb all the elements of nature. What I mean by that is when you are in a greenspace, you can see these maybe like wonderful natural landscapes. You can hear the animals, you can smell the flowers, you can feel the breeze, but you can still get the therapeutic benefits of nature without having to get all of those elements. So maybe you just download a YouTube clip.
It's funny because I was just visiting my mom last week, and she was like, “Jen, I found the greatest video on YouTube,” and I'm thinking it’s a movie or something. She’s like, “No, it’s a sound of birds.” She was like, “Sometimes I will just listen to this!” And it does work. If you just close your eyes for a minute, you just listen, you can absorb that aspect of nature. With some great noise cancelling headphones, you can really just kind of soak that in. There's also videos, I mean, I love watching documentaries and animals. That right there kind of brings you close to nature and that can be in just the safety of your home without having to go out to spaces if you're not ready to do that just yet.
Dr. Joy: Got it. I love it. I saw a suggestion also of these underwater videos where you can kind of see all these fish in their natural habitat.
Dr. Roberts: Right. Yeah, just something simple as that or even just opening your window and you're like, oh, just get the breeze a little bit. And the interesting thing is, it doesn't take a long amount of time. I do have a colleague who's with me at the University of Maryland, her name is Dr. Naomi Sachs, she actually did research and she found that as little as 10 minutes of leisure time in spirit and nature can give you the most benefits: improve your mental health, improve your wellbeing. Just 10 minutes. A lot of times people think, oh, nature, I gotta get my backpack, I got to pack up the car, I gotta go up to this mountain. It could just be 10 minutes of all the different ways that I just described on how you can absorb some nature and you'll be amazed at the benefits that you're able to reap.
Dr. Joy: Can you talk about some of those benefits and maybe some of the things that we have lost related to our spaces being more urbanized? You've already talked about in black communities, there does not tend to be as much greenspace and we see more urban environments. Can you talk about some of the downsides of that?
Dr. Roberts: It's interesting because currently about half of us live in urbanized areas and they project that by 2050 it will be like 68% of us worldwide living in urbanized cities. You know, urbanization is great in the sense that it can bring some advantages and some disadvantages. We think about there's sometimes better access to certain services when you live in an urbanized area or a city.
But some of the disadvantages have to do with the profound changes in even how our social family patterns are organized. If you think about the fact that if you live in a city and maybe you have aging parents who live in a more rural area or even in a suburb, there's that gap. And so it becomes very challenging to be able to tailor your life in such a way that you can still fulfill the responsibilities you need in terms of aging parents and then balancing that with children.
But we have seen that urbanization, not only just in terms of disrupting family patterns, it can affect mental health through a variety of stressors. Whether that's the overcrowding, noise pollution. I have a lot of noise pollution where I live: I live across the street from a fire station, so hearing the sirens every so many hours. Light pollution, so there’s sometimes more light in the urban area, high levels of violence, and then the reduced social support that I was alluding to before.
With all of these stressors coupled with the fact that sometimes there's like this intertwined relationship between urban living and poverty and so between all of that, it can really have some detrimental effects on mental health. When I say mental health, mental disorders, I’m including depression, anxiety. We've seen it with substance abuse, alcoholism, family alienation, a variety of different things. And a lot of research has actually shown that in some urban areas, there’s higher levels of anxiety and depression for women than it is for men.
We've also seen that it's more prevalent when you couple that with the area being poor versus not being poor. It's like these kinds of layered effects in terms of the social isolation, the external stressors, that can really cause havoc on your mental health. Coupled with the fact that if you don't get a good dose of nature to help in between those bouts of all these stressors, then it can really be even more detrimental because you don't have a reprieve.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. You already mentioned some of the things that people could do if they had limited space or limited access to nature, but you're also talking about poverty and other situations that might make it difficult to like, listen to a YouTube video or something like that, right? Do you have suggestions of other things that maybe don't involve technology for people who maybe have limited access to nature?
Dr. Roberts: I do have a suggestion in the sense that sometimes, practicing meditation and mindfulness can help in terms of kind of just putting you in a space. I saw this quote, it said exposure to nature can quiet the rumination of the worried mind. And I think even if you don't have access to nature, I think that meditation and being in a quiet space can help quiet that mind and help prevent that constant rumination. We all get into that point where we're just going in circles and circles and circles, worrying about something or concerned about something. And so if you don't have that easy access to the park or the easy access to technology to help link to listening to, I think if you can just find a quiet space in your home or quiet space at work. Sometimes it might be just shutting your door and kind of meditating for those 10 minutes. It can kind of still simulate some of the benefits that you would get if you were in a place of nature.
Dr. Joy: Dr. Roberts, I know that a part of your work involves working with doctors who are encouraging prescriptions for physical activities. Can you say more about that work?
Dr. Roberts: Sure. The Park Rx movement started here in DC as DC Park Rx and it was started by Dr. Robert Zarr and it's kind of evolved into Park Rx America. Basically, that's just kind of a nonprofit organization and its mission is to decrease the burden of chronic disease, increase health and happiness, but also foster this environmental stewardship. The goal is to have physicians, health care providers, nurses, actually prescribe a dose of nature. There's an actual prescription that you can get–you can get it by text, you can get a piece of paper–and the patient will get prescribed 20 minutes of going out to their local park.
And you actually walk through the process with the patient, so you ask them, where do you live or where do you work, where you can actually have a few minutes to go out and be in greenspace? And using that, you put that information in and then you'll say, okay, well, what do you like to do? Do you like to walk? Do you like to kind of meditate when you're out there? The prescription will not only say which park you can go to, but then it will say do like 20 minutes of meditation, 20 minutes of walking, and here's the prescription for doing these three times a week. And they found that after a while, people started enjoying it to the point where people didn't need a prescription anymore. They realized, oh, wow, I can do this for 20 minutes or even longer.
And they've noticed that this ideal of prescribing these which was intended to be kind of a supplement, not necessarily an alternate but a supplement to some of the medicines and the therapies that people were already on in terms of the conventional therapies, but people were able to see that, wow, I've actually been able to reduce my blood pressure medication. I've actually been able to cease taking my blood pressure medication because I have been walking three times a week in my local park. It's this ideal that using these natural, free resources that are generally trusted and accessible, hopefully, that you can actually use this as a supplement to improving our health. Not only our physical but also our mental health.
Dr. Joy: I'm curious to hear your thoughts about how our relationship to nature changes now in light of the coronavirus. We do know, or at least research is suggesting, that it is safer to be outside and still distance but wearing masks, but I'm wondering what we might see evolve in terms of our relationship to nature in light of this.
Dr. Roberts: It's interesting you say that because when we started getting all these shut down orders, people were starting to get cabin fever and so many people started flocking to their local parks to the point where some parks were becoming so crowded that it was hard for people to social distance in the parks. And it's really funny that I think about that because even my governor, he was trying to tell people, you guys have to be six feet apart, six feet apart. He actually took down the hoops of the basketball court because he tried to prevent people from playing basketball and it was so funny because it was counterintuitive. Like, you want people to be physically active but at the same time, you want them to be six feet apart.
It's funny because I feel like this kind of awakening came about where people were like, oh, I can get out because everything else is closed. I think it also led us to become more aware of some of the disparities, though, because not all of us had access, not all of us had equal access. Many of us live in what we call recreational deserts, park deserts, kind of just playing along the same framework as food deserts. But the key is the definition is not having access to a park that's also safe. A lot of us didn’t have that and so it just kind of came to light many of the inequities that were already there, in the sense that you had some people who were just kind of stuck; they couldn't go to a park.
It's interesting that you ask this about the whole COVID thing because going back to the Park Rx, I actually started an initiative on my campus at the University of Maryland called Nature Rx@UMD and it's part of this whole kind of coalition of campus Rx networks. Many campuses, about 20 in the US and Canada, we kind of started our own little Nature Rx in each individual campus and kind of going along with a lot of the mission of Park Rx, encouraged students, staff, faculty, to explore the natural spaces on campus. My actual campus is deemed an arboretum so we have many trails and many spaces, so encouraging people just to go out for a few minutes. Then also we're eventually going to incorporate the whole idea of writing a prescription for greenspace exposure.
But we're actually going to have an online symposium this October and one of the main things we're going to talk about is how nature has been helping people throughout this whole COVID-19 pandemic. Because people have felt isolated, people have felt stir-crazy, but going out in nature has not only helped them deal with that mental part, but it's also helped in terms of some of the physical activity of actually walking in nature. So there's been pluses and minuses: you see the inequities of people who don't have access to nature but then we see some of the pluses for the people who did, who were able to increase their level of physical activity and kind of get reacquainted with some of the benefits of nature.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, it definitely has been that. I think for a lot of people, I think in the beginning of shut down and when people were sheltering in place, it was like, okay, can I even go outside? Like, is it even safe to be outside near people? I think going outside has helped to ground people even if you don't have access to a beautiful ground space, I think just seeing people move around is a very grounding experience when you've kind of been in your house for some time.
Dr. Roberts: Exactly. I've seen more neighbors that I have not seen in years. I'm like, oh, you still live here? Because they were coming out in the street and just kind of like, I can't be in this house. It was kind of this, almost like awakening or people coming to light. I kind of liken it to cicadas: we were buried for years and then we just came out and we see each other. And I hope we don't go back down like before, but I guess that is one of the silver linings of this pandemic.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. What are you most excited about in terms of your growing field? Like you said, there are lots of different terms for what your work is called and it does seem to be like a growing field, so what are you most excited about?
Dr. Roberts: I think I'm most excited about the fact that people are starting to recognize that the marriage between nature and physical activity can be promoting to your health. And it cannot only be promoting to your health, it could help you in the sense that it may not be a complete alternative to some of the medicines that people are taking, whether it's for diabetes or high blood pressure, but it can be a supplement that can help you so that maybe you can decrease the dosage. I've actually heard of people who eventually cease that type of medication.
I think people kind of understanding that there's this other whole kind of therapeutic and preventative outlet that is good for us. I also am encouraged by the fact that I see more people of color coming into the field, more people of color coming into the field from different angles. There was a woman who she started, I forgot her name right now but I believe she's in Atlanta, she started this group or this company where she gives bike tours. People are on the bike and she's going to different historical spots within Atlanta. And so you’re getting a little bit of both; you're getting some African American History but then you're also getting some physical activity. She's a woman of color and so she's marrying history and active living together.
I think a lot of those things excite me about this field because it's an evolving field and it's completely different than it was maybe 10 years ago. It’s still a young field, but it's evolving and so I think seeing what can come of it in the next 10 years is something that I find exciting.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, that does sound exciting. And people are also during this time getting innovative, so thinking about how you can do some of these things that are still safe for people to participate in.
Dr. Roberts: Exactly.
Dr. Joy: Do you have any additional resources that you would suggest for people who maybe want to learn more about this or things that have been particularly helpful for you?
Dr. Roberts: I know there's a group that I'm a part of, it's called Active Living Research, that is definitely a resource because it gives you a variety of different tools to look at how you can be more physically active. That's one key thing that I do in my research. On the nature side, there's Park Rx America website that gives plenty of information. Also, what I like about the website is, if you go to the website, it immediately shows you a map and it shows you where greenspaces are close to your location, based on where you've logged on. I would definitely go there if you're like, well, I don't know where the closest park is or I don't know where these parks are. It will kind of give you an idea of, oh, there is actually one just like half a mile down the road, or one right around the block. And so I like that kind of website that helps you understand that.
And then there's other kinds of tools that you can look at if you really want to get into some of the research. The woman who I mentioned before, Dorceta Taylor, she's done a lot of research regarding environmental justice, looking at the connection of African Americans in nature, so I would definitely look at some of her work. And then even the professor, Dr. Melanie Harris, is another person who I would look at as well. They're on the website and you can look at some of the work that they've done if you really want to get to some of the scholarship behind it.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. Where can people connect with you? What’s your website or any social media handles you’d like to share?
Dr. Roberts: My website is my full name. I always say it’s long but it’s my full name: it’s JenniferDeniseRoberts.com and through that website, you can get linked to my website at the University of Maryland. My Twitter is @ActiveRoberts so it’s pretty easy to remember. If you find one of those, you can link to some of the other spaces that I have some information on the web.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. Thank you so much for sharing with us today, Dr. Roberts. I appreciate it.
Dr. Roberts: Thank you so much, Dr. Bradford. This has been a thrill to chat with you and I’m really excited that you invited me. Hopefully, we get a chance to chat more in the future.
Dr. Joy: Thank you.
We have heard you all loud and clear. Many of you have sent in messages saying that you love the episodes where we share journal prompts or other practical ways for you to take what we’ve talked about in the episode and apply it in your own life. Today, we’re introducing a brand-new segment called Press Pause. This will be your opportunity within the next week to press pause on everything else going on to engage in something that will be restorative or reflective for you. This week, our Press Pause comes from Beth who you heard from earlier.
Dr. Joy: Beth, I would like for you to close us today with one practice that we can use. For somebody who’s been really inspired by hearing you talk today, what’s one practice maybe a very low barrier to entry thing that they can do to get connected with nature or to help them to kind of reestablish that relationship?
Beth: My one thing would be to treat yourself to some meditative time in nature. There’s a practice called Sit Spot which is a practice used by indigenous groups all over the world, particularly in the Americas. Sit Spot is literally as it sounds: it’s finding a space in a natural setting that you feel drawn to and sitting in it–ideally for at least 15 minutes–and just tuning into the things around you, what you can hear, what you can smell or the sensations against your skin.
The idea of a Sit Spot is as we move through woodlands or open spaces, wildlife is reacting to us. We are a potential threat. But if we sit still for long enough, the natural world accepts us as part of the flora and fauna and starts to go about its business as it would if we weren’t there. You get a real window into the conversations and the communion between natural things, including ourselves and this can be a deeply connecting practice. If you don’t have access to nature immediately, this is a meditation that can be done just viewing pictures of nature, a lovely video of nature from YouTube, or just tuning in, enjoying the imagery and the sounds. [Sounds of nature]
Dr. Joy: I’m so glad Beth and Dr. Roberts were able to share their expertise with us today. To learn more about them and their work, be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session172. For all the plant parents among us, our friends at The Sill are offering the TBG community 15% off your next purchase at TheSill.com. Enter promo code TherapyForBlackGirls15 at checkout.
Don’t forget to share your takeaways with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession and please text two sisters in your circle right now and encourage them to check out the episode as well. If you’re looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. If you want to continue digging into this topic and connect with some other sisters, come on over and join us in the Yellow Couch Collective where we take a deeper dive into the topics from the podcast and just about everything else. You can join us at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/YCC.