illustration of someone in a therapy session in nature
Yifan Wu
illustration of someone in a therapy session in nature
(Illustration: Yifan Wu)

Climate Grief Was Clouding My Time Outside. So I Turned to Ecotherapy.

Therapy on the hiking trail couldn’t fix the new normal of Oregon wildfire season, but could it help me grapple with it?

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Midway through my second ecotherapy session, I was climbing a muddy hill and trying to articulate a particular brand of climate-change-induced loneliness when I heard a squawk. Stopping abruptly on the trail, I looked down into the canyon to our right, then up into the fir canopy above.

“What kind of bird was that?” I asked, as if this were a normal question for a therapist. Thomas Doherty paused, tilting his face toward the misty sky.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I hear a crow, but this is something else.” Craning toward the noise, I became aware of my heaving breath, now as much a part of the morning’s soundtrack as the mystery bird. After a few seconds’ pause, both Doherty and I took out our phones, opened the Merlin Bird ID app, and held our microphones to the sky.

I didn’t have time to consider how much of a cliché I had become in my first months of amateur bird-watching—I was too busy wondering if the app’s Shazam-like feature would track the call. When no answer came, the mystery felt like its own pleasure, a cheery postcard from an unknown friend.

As we continued up the hill, I tried to recall where my train of thought had stopped, but it no longer felt important. I had been talking about suppressing climate sadness because I didn’t want to sound like an evangelist or bum my loved ones out. But now I was thinking about the bird, and wasn’t that the opposite of doom-brain—tuning in to all that lived around me? This sort of diversion certainly wouldn’t happen in a therapy office, but it wasn’t a bad thing. The bird had, for a moment, airlifted me out of my anxiety. “Being outside gets us out of our heads,” Doherty told me when I mentioned it later. “It keeps us in the present moment, reminding us our bodies are curious and attuned.”

My jeans were speckled with rain and my fingers were cold, but I felt calm. Buoyed, even. As the bird let out another hoarse hoot, I followed Doherty around the bend.

Sometime during the summer of 2020—the worst wildfire season my home state of Oregon had ever seen—my visions of outdoor recreation began to curdle. I frequently replayed a memory from a hiking trip with family in eastern Montana a few years earlier. That day I was reading in a hammock beside my campsite when a smoky tendril appeared against the blue sky. Running to the top of the hill, I saw flames heading toward our access road. Who would move faster, my family or the wildfire?

My grandfather, who had spent a few college summers as a fire lookout, evaluated the distant burn and determined we’d be fine. The wind was in our favor. After reporting the smoke to authorities, we stayed. I barely slept, but we survived. In recent years, though, I could not stop converting the memory into a choose-your-own-adventure nightmare. One where the wind changed. The fire moved. We didn’t have cell reception. Our road got blocked.

I had worried about global warming since adolescence, but back then my angst was more philosophical than tangible, less a siren than a hum. Swayed by Big Oil’s concept of the carbon footprint, I obsessively channeled my anxiety into guilt-inflected actions. (A college roommate once caught me drunkenly removing recyclables from the trash.) In the 15 years since my high school science teacher had planted the possibility of a dystopian climate-changed future, some version of that future had come to find me. I had moved home at the start of the pandemic, and my return to Portland confirmed what, subliminally, I already knew was true for so many others—global warming wasn’t some distant shore but a present reality. Full weeks of August and September passed when smoke made it unhealthy to go outside. Multiple people I knew had fled the backcountry when flames arrived.

Wildfires had been forcing my relatives in Montana to evacuate for a few years, but it wasn’t until my ex and I were packing our own go-bags on the edge of Portland, quibbling over what made the cut during those orange-sky weeks of 2020, that it sank in—the changing climate was not a thing out there but in here. A force tangibly reshaping my interpersonal and interior landscapes. What did I aspire to professionally in an unstable world? I’d always wanted to be a mother, but what did it mean to shepherd a child into the decades to come? Unable to solve the big problems, I’d dwell on tiny moments of individual choice, sulking whenever my ex brought home out-of-season blueberries in plastic clamshells. How could one enjoy fruit plucked with too-cheap labor, cased in fossil-fuel-produced packaging, freighted across the sea?! In these moments, my annoyance at him was eclipsed only by frustration with myself. When did I become intolerable? Aware that I was being a downer, I kept my feelings close and then pitied my self-imposed loneliness.

I had worried about global warming since adolescence, but back then my angst was more philosophical than tangible, less a siren than a hum.

I had returned to Oregon after a decade away because I missed it, both the people who lived there and its rainforest canopies. The expectation of familiarity now left me bloated with grief. I struggled to accept that my homecoming felt less like a reunion than a return to an uncanny valley. My understanding of what it meant to be outside, and what I would see when I got there, was continually challenged.

I tried to counter sadness with action—volunteering, donations, books—but it didn’t keep the creep of doomer-brain away. Later, while researching this piece, a line about climate anxiety from one of Doherty’s papers in American Psychologist would click for me: “What constitutes an appropriate level of worry remains in question.” The thought trickled beneath my life, disappearing only to gush up during the warm-skin pleasure of an unseasonable November day. Sure, I was prone to catastrophizing, but so many institutional responses to global warming were catastrophically inadequate. I had seen therapists on and off for anxiety since college, but our conversations about environmental grief had always left me frustrated. They told me to breathe and make gratitude lists. I didn’t want an antidote; squashing the bad feelings felt irresponsible. I wanted strategies for how to better hold my dread while still engaging with climate activism and living my life.

My response to stress has long been to go outside. To sand the edges off my moods by flooding myself with endorphins. A cruelty of the new climate was that the outdoors could now be its own source of sadness. Swimming in a drought-dry river was no escape from anxiety. I’d allow myself an autumn trail run if the air seemed clear, then collapse on the couch, hungover from smoke. If I was going to enjoy being outside in Oregon’s new seasons, I needed new tools.

Thomas Doherty uses walking-based therapy to address clients’ environmental grief and anxiety. (Photo: Elizabeth Sattelberger)

I heard about Doherty from Sarah Bord, another local therapist who had trained with him and referred to him as a sort of father of climate-aware therapy. The field of ecotherapy has expanded in tandem with research about how being in nature helps our mental health. There is no set-in-stone approach to the discipline—it encompasses a wide range of therapeutic types, including gardening therapy for incarcerated people, equine therapy for veterans with PTSD, or immersive wilderness therapy for struggling young adults. Perusing local Psychology Today profiles, I was surprised to see that Oregon’s Medicaid plan would even cover some ecotherapy. Doherty uses walking-based therapy to address clients’ environmental grief and anxiety. It felt so on-the-nose I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it before.

Doherty grew up in a working-class family on the eastern shores of Lake Erie, in New York, where hunting and fishing were a natural part of life. After graduating with an English degree from Columbia University, he went to Alaska to try his hand at what he called the “Romantic Jack London kind of thing,” working on fishing boats and, eventually, in outdoor programs. He guided river trips in the Grand Canyon, did a stint with Greenpeace, and, after connecting with counselors in wilderness therapy programs, went to grad school at Antioch University New England to train as a clinical psychologist.

Most people weren’t thinking of environmental issues and mental health in the same sentence in the early 2000s, but Doherty’s path had primed him to consider the overlap. A turning point came in 2011: after serving on a task force for the American Psychological Association, he co-authored a paper on the psychological effects of climate change, which revealed that people could suffer even if they weren’t directly involved in a disaster. It wasn’t just survivors who needed help talking through our new ecological reality.

Today, Doherty’s private practice centers on environmental concerns, while acknowledging that these concerns inevitably bleed into the rest of his clients’ lives. He also co-hosts the podcast Climate Change and Happiness, launched one of the first environmentally focused certificate programs for mental health professionals, and runs a 12-week Zoom training for therapists who want to become climate-aware.

“Therapists often feel too intimidated to talk about climate change, but they’re all going through it personally now,” he told me. He reassured them that their apprehension is valid—anyone tackling environmental issues should feel daunted by the enormity of the problem—just as he reassured clients that feelings of doom and powerlessness will coexist beside feelings of empowerment. “No feeling is wrong,” Doherty told me. “We can spiral in anxiety, but also in boosterism, in false positivity. The message to tell people is that you cycle through the curve of both things.”

During our introductory Zoom call, I told Doherty I often tried to sublimate my emotional environmental responses, whether fear, rage, or grief. Watching him nod as I spoke—validating me, rather than prescribing meditation to wrestle my worry away—I realized how surreal it felt to have space to talk about these feelings. “Eco-anxiety is a normal feeling,” Doherty said. “You can’t get rid of it, you just moderate the unhealthy or disordered manifestations. Someone who is too anxious is like having a smoke alarm that’s too sensitive, going off too much. What are the possibilities instead?”

Doherty’s approach acknowledges the push-and-pull that global forces and institutions have on our bodies. He works to help clients parse the difference between their “capital I” issues and “lowercase I” ones. The former includes things like systemic poverty, social injustice, and sustainability; the latter, things like mental health, family, and relationships. My climate anxiety was wrapped up in my generalized anxiety. Untangling them might help in both realms.

So, during the darkest, rainiest month in Oregon—a season when it was easy to pretend wildfires would never touch the soggy firs and banana-slug-flecked trails—I scheduled a couple of Friday-morning appointments to walk beside my gloom.

We met at Tryon Creek State Natural Area, a park 15 minutes from downtown Portland. Doherty is in his early fifties; on first impression, his calm, almost impassive demeanor reminded me of a tall, sturdy tree. He was dressed for the drizzle, toting a backpack. After a few minutes on the trail, he unearthed a fleece blanket and asked if I wanted to sit on a log.

The area where Doherty holds ecotherapy appointments is off the main circuit, away from the traffic of dog-walkers and field trips. He uses a web of looping trails—their edges shaded by salmonberries, snowberries, hemlocks, and pines—where he can customize routes during the 55-minute sessions. He first meets clients on Zoom, both to introduce his background and approach (“present-focused, action-focused, practical-pragmatic”) and to go over trailhead directions and the safety waiver. People have different comfort levels when walking in the woods, and I appreciated how sensitive he was to this, checking in regularly and exuding the quiet competence of a wilderness guide.

Now, sitting a few feet away from me on the rain-slick log, he suggested I close my eyes. It had been months since I’d stopped moving long enough to sit under the trees, and though rain sprinkled the lattice of branches around us, we were shielded from the drops. A speeding car reminded me the city existed beyond us—more audible now than when muffled by summer foliage, Doherty mentioned—and while my first instinct was to wish the city noise away, I sat with it. Nature existed beside the cars.

Doherty’s practice centers on environmental concerns, while acknowledging that these concerns inevitably bleed into the rest of his clients’ lives.

As Doherty guided me through a few deep breaths, my pulse slowed, my body tuning itself to sensation, a breeze tangy with leaf-rot and metallic with rain. I thought of hikes I had taken as a child, how my parents herded my sister and me under the branches when the rain swelled, making a game out of what might have been a drag. This made me think about whether I wanted to have children, which made me think about what sort of world they might see at 10, 30, or 50 years old. By the time I felt tears, it was too late. But our eyes were closed, and in the minute of silence that followed, I swallowed and blinked them away. I hadn’t come to any big revelations, but slowing down had given oxygen to feelings I normally pushed aside.

As Doherty and I continued down the trail, I confessed that I’d been looking forward to ecotherapy because I liked walking and talking, and I hadn’t grasped that some of what I might gain might be from being forced to sit still. “I, uh, almost cried back on the log,” I said. It was only 15 minutes into my first session, and it felt embarrassing, like I was a therapy try-hard. Doherty sounded unsurprised. “Part of my job is teaching people to interact with their space in a new way,” he said.

I had never consciously integrated mindfulness with hiking, and it felt like a useful, scalable takeaway. Tuning in to the natural world is a reminder of what is still around us, and what is worth fighting to save. In Indianapolis, Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology and Sustainability recently collaborated with the college’s counseling center to construct DIY ecotherapy trails with guided mindfulness activities along the way. It was a reminder that you don’t have to go to an ecotherapist—outdoor spaces and schools can help introduce people to these techniques, too.

The few times that Doherty and I passed other people on the trail, we nodded, and after a moment’s pause, kept talking. Maybe it was because I wasn’t revealing the most vulnerable parts of my life, but it didn’t bother me that the white walls of the therapy office were gone. I appreciated the choreography of the outdoor appointment. I was less aware of what my body might be saying about me—whether I was picking my sleeve or making enough eye contact—than what it was accomplishing, pulsing gloved fingers to stay warm, navigating a damp incline. It was hard to feel powerless when you were reminded with every step of your power.

Pausing above a shaggy canyon, I mentioned my runaway anxiety around natural disasters, and Doherty suggested I play it out, scene by scene, to the very end. Visualizing worst-case scenarios can feel self-absorbed and morbid, he said, but it might be helpful. “Life goes on. You realize ‘I was going to die anyway,’” he said. He emphasized that he wouldn’t suggest this approach for all clients—only if they showed an appetite for more existential inquiry. “A lot of our grief around the environment is not so much ‘I’m ending’ but ‘These things around me that I value are ending.’ Coming back from that means reinvesting in life,” he added. My wildfire anxiety was, in this light, an escapist tic. A Hollywood-ready loop where I could spiral by imagining the deaths of myself and my loved ones. Individual worry—just like an obsession over individual action—could so easily distract from the harder work of institutional change and collective action.

Our session ended, but I wasn’t ready to get back in the car. After saying goodbye to Doherty, I picked a new trail and started walking. I wanted to try playing out the nightmare, and then I wanted to try moving on.

My last session took place a few days before the winter solstice; the morning sky was the same color as the “It’s a Boy!” balloons I’d just seen at a supermarket. It was so cold I passed a frozen puddle on my way to the car. We chose a slightly longer looping trail this time, and our conversation settled into the rhythm of our steady pace.

I told Doherty I was finishing a writer-in-residence stint at a public high school, teaching science storytelling to tenth- and 11th-graders. The teens were making me glum. When I asked them to write a letter to themselves in 2040 and imagine a form of built climate adaptation that might exist, a handful told me they couldn’t imagine the future because they thought they might be dead.

“Remember, feelings are OK,” he said. He had been raising his own teenage daughter alone since he’d lost his wife to cancer a few years ago; she had been diagnosed in her mid-thirties. Life, he knew, was precarious. Anything could happen. Wasn’t there value in facing mortality rather than hiding from it?

Doherty had previously told me that one of his main approaches was to “validate, elevate, create”—to acknowledge clients’ feelings, reassure them of their emotional worth, and then get creative about how they could move forward—and I was beginning to realize that I might try this with the teens, too. “Remember, grief is a doorway, not a barrier,” he had said. “It’s a rite of passage.” It surprised me that being around the students’ doom left me more fervent with hope. Doherty said this sort of co-calibration was one of the reasons it was helpful to talk about climate with other people, even if it felt uncomfortable, and even if we were on different pages. It was natural to “go high” when another was low. I had wanted to sit beside my grief without it being corrected. Couldn’t I now let the students sit with theirs? What might be on the other side?

Tuning in to the natural world is a reminder of what is still around us, and what is worth fighting to save.

The year’s seasons had been weird in Portland—too much cold rain in June, almost none in October—but now, with a canopy of half-dressed trees filtering sun as if through a cheese grater, December felt OK, even nice. I felt the reflex to capsize the peace, to remember that things were still fucked up, but I squashed it. Since our first session, I had been reminding myself that pleasure would live beside rage, optimism beside grief. It wasn’t a paradox to square; it was the point.

“The loss of that familiar baseline—the change of climate change—means we cannot trust the Holocene weather that we used to,” Doherty said. “There will still be good days, but darnit, we can’t go back, and that’s a place for being angry. Something has been stolen from us.”

Above us, a crow cawed hoarsely across the pearly sky. The night had lasted so long, and now we had only six more hours of daylight. This was just how winter was: a little light, a lot of dark, a little light, a lot of dark. “How do you do it?” a friend asked me a few days later. He was home for the holidays, depressed by Portland’s curtain of downpour, incredulous that I had chosen to move back home. He said he’d barely left the house in a few days. I told him the only thing I’d learned was that you had to go outside regardless of how sorry and soggy you felt. It helped if you accepted the darkness—if you stepped right into it.

Corrections: (04/25/2023) This story has been updated to correct the name of the podcast Doherty co-hosts. Outside regrets the error. Lead Illustration: Yifan Wu