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Connecting nature to mental wellness

Experiential therapists present at regional conference

Meaghan O’Connor, M.Ed., NCC, CCTP

Oxford Treatment Center experiential therapists Katherine Westfall, MSW, and Meaghan O’Connor, M.Ed., NCC, CCTP, shared insights from their work with patients in addiction treatment recently at a conference for outdoor education professionals and students.

The Arkansas Regional Adventure Programming Conference was held April 20-22 at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, Arkansas. Westfall and O’Connor presented I Bend So I Do Not Break: Connecting Nature and Mental Wellness.

“We know that physiologically when you spend time in nature, it naturally lowers your cortisone levels — the stress hormone,” said Westfall, a wilderness therapist at Oxford Treatment Center. “As anxiety melts away, being in nature is a chance to just be who you are and be fully present in the moment.”

The practice of focusing on what you are seeing, hearing and experiencing, instead of the whirling fears and worries inside your mind, is known as mindfulness. It is often used today as a tool to prevent relapse in recovery from addiction.

O’Connor leads mindfulness and meditation groups at Oxford Treatment Center. She is also a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional through the International Association of Trauma Professionals.

Westfall holds a master’s degree in social work in addition to being a Wilderness First Responder and Challenge Course Facilitator. She works with young adults at Oxford Treatment Center, leading camping, canoeing and other recreational therapies.

Katherine Westfall, MSW

In the conference presentation, the two therapists shared perspectives on how interacting with nature affects people biologically, physiologically, emotionally and interpersonally. They also offered practical ways that even non-therapeutic outdoor programs, such as those on college campuses, can integrate wilderness therapy and mindfulness concepts into their programs.

As a field, wilderness therapy traces its roots to Outward Bound adventure programs developed more than half a century ago. Its application in therapy, particularly for troubled adolescents, took off in the 1990s.

Westfall said the use of wilderness therapy in substance abuse prevention and treatment is still new and evolving. “It’s exciting for us to be part of building new programs and advancing this field,” she said.

Learn more: 5 Ways Wilderness Therapy Aids Recovery

ARAP Conference photos by Damon Akin/University of Arkansas