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Therapeutic ornithology – practical experience from the 2022 Ecotherapy Workshop

Published: 27/09/2022
Katarzyna Simonienko
Dr Katarzyna Simonienko, MD - a psychiatrist by profession, defended her doctoral thesis on the effects of psychoactive substances on the brain.

Date of the last update: 27.09.2022

Practical experience from 2022 Ecotherapy Workshop

Photos by Prof. Sławomir Murawiec, MD

Nature-based interventions (NBIs) are gaining increasing interest in psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy, offering a wide range of methods to improve both physical and mental well-being, capability to function in daily life and enhance mental health. Such interventions are also being developed in Poland, particularly in the field of forest bathing and, in recent years, therapeutic ornithology.

Table of Contents:

  1. A new trend
  2. 2022 Ecotherapy Workshop – where, when and what form did it have?
  3. Therapeutic ornithology
  4. Participants’ experiences

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A new trend

Ecopsychology is a topic that was broadly discussed by an American scientist, Theodore Roszak, among other in his “Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology” study. Just as ecopsychology situates itself at the intersection of ecology and psychology, ecotherapy intertwines ecology with psychotherapy. M. Amos-Clifford, specialised in so-called forest bathing, also wrote about how to find health in nature.

Therapeutic ornithology is a relatively new trend in nature-based interventions. The book “Therapeutic Ornithology. Birds – Health – Psyche” published in 2021 and written by Piotr Tryjanowski and Sławomir Murawiec, has sparked a wave of interest in Poland in this way of influencing wellbeing and mental health. Therapeutic ornithology is a new and still developing method, which requires refining in terms of both its techniques and describing the ways in which it affects the human psyche. The summary of 2022 Ecotherapy workshop presented here indicates that therapeutic ornithology has a multidirectional impact on several components of mental life: sensory perception, emotions, the cognitive sphere, the aesthetic sphere and social relations.

2022 Ecotherapy Workshop – where, when and what form did it have?

The therapeutic workshop organised by the Forest Therapy Centre workshop took place on 22–24 June 2022 in the Biebrza River Valley. There was a group of 12 adult participants involved in the process. All activities were led by psychiatrists with additional specialisation in ecotherapy.

The main activities that engaged the entire group during the workshop were forest bathing (shinrin-yoku), therapeutic ornithology walks and mindfulness exercises in nature. Each activity was preceded by a theoretical introduction explaining its nature and health benefits documented by research. Participants discussed their subjective experiences as a group each time.

Therapeutic ornithology

Therapeutic ornithology classes were held twice. On the first day of the workshop, they took place between 7:30 and 9:00 p.m. on the footbridge running along the swamp in the fen, in good weather conditions. Participants had the opportunity to observe and hear voices of birds, including rare species (aquatic warbler (Acrocephalus paludicola) and species absent from the urban environment: woodcock, common snipe and crane. On the third workshop day, the therapeutic ornithology walk took place in an open area, along a road running in the vicinity of the floodplain and meadows, in good weather, from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. Participants had binoculars and atlases at hand to help identify species. Twenty-one bird species were observed (including rare species such as the white-winged tern (Chlidonias leucopterus)). Participants could freely comment, share their remarks and observations, seek expert advice on species identification and point out to details and curiosities they had observed, such as the nature of the birds’ flight, their colours and sounds.

The activities described in this report were addressed to people interested in improving their wellbeing by participating in ecotherapeutic activities and were attended by adults who volunteered to participate.

Participants’ experiences

Based on participants’ accounts, the following ranges of impact of therapeutic ornithology were identified:

  • at the sensory level: participants expanded their sensory perception field to include auditory impressions, associated with focusing on the singing or other birds sounds and distinguishing individual bird voices among the many heard simultaneously. For people who predominantly use their sense of vision, it was a sensation that opened up perceptual fields other than those normally used. There was also an account of experiencing the sensation of sensory synesthesia – singing/movement.
  • At the emotional level: experiencing strong positive emotions when perceiving a succession of bird species in the environment and then observing them; feelings of pleasure, happiness, joy and enthusiasm.
  • at the cognitive level: birdwatching aroused cognitive needs, curiosity and motivation to explore, a desire to discover, learn and deepen knowledge. Participants described the feeling of discovering a range of reality that they had hitherto failed to notice.
  • at the level of language: one person reported a sense of discovering a new lexical world: bird names, anatomical names and words describing behaviour.
  • at the level of the global emotional state: all participants noticed a calming and relaxing effect, bringing a subjective feeling of serenity both at the mental and physical sensation level.
  • In the context of preoccupation with one’s own thoughts and emotional states, we noted accounts indicating that birdwatching almost immediately “detaches” from a focus on oneself and instead directs attention to external reality. This dimension was described as a detachment from internal problems by focusing on external stimuli and the environment.
  • In the context of memories and associations, therapeutic ornithology can lead to a change in emotional-cognitive experience, recalling the freshness of childhood experience, enjoying the discovery and learning about the surrounding world and its elements.
  • The participants also described their aesthetic experiences, the impression of perceiving beauty and their delight and admiration related to it.
  • At the level of relationships with other group members, participants reported a sense of being in a group with a common goal and being mutually motivated to observe.
  • At the emotional and symbolic level, some participants reported specific significance and accompanying emotional states, such as a sense of “flying away” from their problems together with large species of birds (e.g. cranes).

The experiences described here indicate that therapeutic ornithology had a multidirectional positive impact on the psychological sphere of 2022 Ecotherapy workshop participants, as reflected in their accounts. For the therapeutic group members therapeutic ornithology appeared as complimentary to forest bathing. As forest bathing has a different impact, dynamics and improves different areas of well-being, the two methods intertwine and have a wide-ranging effect on mental wellness. Owing to rapid focus of attention during the therapeutically directed birdwatching, along with gradual relaxation and phytobiochemical effects achieved during forest bathing sessions, it can be assumed that relaxation will happen faster and last longer when these practices are used simultaneously. Further research is needed to confirm the above thesis. So far, numerous studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of forest bathing, while the impact of therapeutic ornithology and combinations of both methods are a promising direction for shaping a holistic intervention aimed at improving psychological well-being.

Check out also: Abundance of plant and bird species affects people’s mental health


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Katarzyna Simonienko
Dr Katarzyna Simonienko, MD - a psychiatrist by profession, defended her doctoral thesis on the effects of psychoactive substances on the brain. She combines her interest in ethnobotany with mental health. Doctor Simonienko worked for several years at the Psychiatric Hospital in Choroszcz, and also did research and teaching at the Medical University of Bialystok, the Faculty of Law of the University of Bialystok and worked on phytotherapy in psychiatry at the High School of Theology and Humanities in Podkowa Leśna. She currently works at Allenort – Bialystok centre for therapy. She is a certified forest bathing guide, a guide in the Bialowieza National Park, founder of the Forest Therapy Centre and author of books on forest bathing. Katarzyna specialises in the treatment of anxiety and depression disorders, insomnia, burnout, PTSD and ecopsychiatric disorders (climate anxiety, climate depression, activism burnout).