Kim Harrison is an outdoor art therapist in Oldham and online

What attracted you to become a therapist?

I was intrigued by the idea of tapping into creativity as a way of empowering people. My deepest motivation is to help people live their fullest lives, and from an early age I was fascinated by how our minds work and the intricacies of interpersonal interactions.

I naturally use art making as an emotional release myself, and my personal go-to remedy for solace and grounding is time in nature. It therefore seemed a perfectly logical progression for me to combine the two in nature-based art therapy – a fusion of eco-therapy and art therapy. I find both these activities help me to get in touch with my true nature, the core self that lies beneath all the day to day concerns, and I wanted to assist other people in accessing this space of deep nourishment.

Where did you train?

I completed my Masters in Art Psychotherapy at Roehampton University. I would also add here that I learned a huge amount simply through living life with awareness and curiosity, and figuring out what does and doesn't work for myself. I have also completed trainings in nature-based mindfulness and nature-connection facilitation. Whilst my forest school training was not therapeutic in itself, the awareness and practical skills it furnished me with does feed into my outdoor therapeutic practice in many ways, and vice versa. Everything is interlinked.

Can you tell us about the type of therapy you practise? 

I began offering sessions online during lockdown, this was something I had never considered before, but like many people I've had to adapt. I was sceptical about the art element and nature element transferring to a digital platform. Interestingly my experience so far has proved otherwise. It was challenging designing a new way to incorporate nature in particular, with people sat indoors on Zoom. I encourage people to gather natural materials for art making on walks beforehand, which some people have found a pleasant experience in itself, and a nice way to prepare mentally for their session. In the nature connection sessions I invite participants to take short breaks from Zoom to do simple sensory exercises outdoors or by a window, and then come back together to share their experiences. So I have found that not only is it possible, to my astonishment it works really well and people got a lot from the experience.

My aim has always been to help people build a repertoire of ways to increase awareness, presence, and connection, which ripple out into their everyday lives. I have always encouraged people to extend their practice beyond the session, for example doing regular sit spots (daily if possible). A sit spot is somewhere you go regularly to purposefully with nature, through opening your senses. These adaptions, such as collecting natural materials on a walk, have necessitated activities to extend beyond the session. Many participants have found the act of collecting natural materials on walks a relaxing, contemplative and connective experience in itself. A way of arriving with heart and mind prepared and bringing nature with them.

Environmental art therapy or nature-based art therapy is a valued methodology in it's own right. Due to Covid many art therapists have been taking sessions outside, but this is not necessarily the same as what environmental art therapy offers. Intentionally nature-based practices do not simply use the natural world as a consultation room. Sessions offer people the opportunity to not only think about and work through what's going on for them personally, but to also explore their connection to the natural world, and the web of life of which they are part. The vastness and interconnectedness of nature can provide a container for our inner, and outer work, it can be soothing to feel held within something much larger than our individual selves.

Of course there is the possibility of this awakening grief too, because deeper connection can bring home the true realisation of what we are doing to the planet as a species. It's not all roses and rainbows. It is a journey of acceptance, presence, connecting fully to the wholeness of everything, the natural cycles, the ebb and flow of our own energies, and thus coming into wholeness with ourselves. We have switched off to so much of ourselves, and our environment, due to the overstimulation of modern society. Nature-based art therapy offers the opportunity to recalibrate, to attune all of our senses, to reconnect with our own bodies and the animate earth. Through the creative process and through journeying in the natural world together throughout the seasons.

How does your therapy help with symptoms of anxiety and stress?

Anxiety, stress and burnout are huge issues in our fast-paced society and no more so than in our current global health crises. In my experience, the creative process and nature connection can help soothe our parasympathetic nervous system, helping us slow down, better regulate ourselves, and switch from a threat response to one of safety.

Through the nature-based mindfulness practices that I incorporate into art therapy sessions, and through the physicality of using art materials and finding objects to make art with in the natural world, we can drop into deeper connection to our body and our core self, which getting caught up in the stress response can dissociate us from. Attuning to the pace and rhythms of nature can help us slow down, and attune to our own natural rhythms and cycles and to listen to what pace our bodies with to travel at through life.

The creative process taps into the right side of the brain. Whereas we often spend most of our time inhabiting the left, rational side. New perspectives, insights and unconscious issues can emerge, things that were buried under day to day concerns, or that we were suppressing for many years can bubble to the surface through art-making and they need to be heard. It takes a lot of energy to keep things suppressed and that can have impacts on our wellbeing.

What sort of people do you usually see? 

I see people from all ages and backgrounds,. During Covid I have worked with key workers, bereaved people, and those suffering from loneliness, depression and anxiety due to self isolation and shielding. People who are drawn to my practice are usually interested in or at least open to exploring both creativity and the natural world.

What do you like about being a therapist?

Being a support for people, as I have needed in support in the past and recognise it's value. Going on a journey with them, facilitating their own self-empowerment, watching them begin to shine and accept themselves.

What is less pleasant?

Self employment has been a tough and stressful journey so far, mostly due to the bad timing of Covid interfering with the launch of my outdoor private practice. At least as I had originally envisaged it.

Working with extremely traumatised clients can be intense and draining if you don't practice rigorous self care and have very firm professional and work/life boundaries.

How long you've been with and what you think of us?

I have been with for two months, so not very long, yet I find them a supportive community. I am grateful for the addition of the outdoor category, helping me feel included and acknowledging the specific nature-based aspect of what I offer.

Do you ever suggest books or apps to clients?

For those who want to explore nature connection further I recommend Jon Young's connection first podcast. He offered this series of short bitesize episodes in the first few months of lockdown, each day suggesting a different way to interact with the natural world. He also talks a lot about sit spots which are a core element of my practice.

What you do for your own mental health?

I ask for help and I know my limits. Over the years I have cultivated wonderful mutual support networks, and value these immensely. I prioritise regular, daily nature connection exercises such as sit spots (see my blog for more details), body scans, a sketch book journal, a written journal. I see all this as essential, because having burnt out several times, and suffered periods of intense anxiety, I know the consequences of not keeping on top of self care. Over the years I have learned to listen deeply to my inner self and recognise what increases my wellbeing and what does not, and to increase/decrease these aspects accordingly within my control.

You are a therapist in Saddleworth, Greater Manchester. What can you share with us about seeing clients in that area? 

I have recently moved to Saddleworth, but due to Covid necessitating online sessions, suddenly the consultation room has become a virtual space, a meeting of our own personal spaces, each in their own home. On one hand people can worry it might feel intrusive, but it can also be incredibly convenient, and some people may feel more safe if they have a safe home where they feel more comfortable than in a strange space. For those without a safe space or the technology to access online sessions, this is of course a huge barrier, and one I constantly agonise about. However, with Covid restrictions as they are I feel it is the safest and most consistent way to practice for the foreseeable future.

What do you wish people knew about therapy?

That it's ok to ask for support, it doesn't indicate weakness and there is – or shouldn't be – any stigma. You don't need to be good at art to do art therapy. No artistic skill is required. The way art is used is as a method of self expression, emotional expression, reflecting on what's going on for you, exploring and making sense of your inner and outer world.

What did you learn about yourself in therapy?

That I am stronger than I gave myself credit for. Actually I can be quite mean and overbearing with myself in a way that I never would to others, pushing myself to do more and more and more. Since acknowledging this tendency, I have got better at recognising when I'm doing it, pausing, setting new healthier boundaries, re-prioritising self-care, and giving myself a break!


Contact Kim here

Meet more therapists