Mental Health Innovator: Michele Zehr

Mental Health Innovator: Michele Zehr

Michele zehr




Written by Rachel Featherstone

Ecotherapy is defined by Michele Zehr as “anything we do that connects us to the more-than-human world in a healing capacity. It includes a wide array of nature-based healing modalities — both clinical and non-clinical — such as outdoor meditations, gardening therapy, spending time with animals, and yes, even hugging a tree!” It’s one of the newer ways that science has recognized we can support mental wellbeing, especially in people with depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

Alchemy wellness: how can someone do ecotherapy independently, to harness the mental health benefits without having to attend a specialty program?

Michele: The great news is that anyone can engage in ecotherapy at anytime, even without stepping outside. I’ll let everyone in on what I think is the big secret around the effectiveness of ecotherapy—Mother Nature naturally helps us regulate our nervous systems! Our nervous systems co-regulate with the environment and people we are around at any given moment, so take a moment to reflect on all the negative emotions we are collectively experiencing in the world today. When we connect with nature, our bodies remember what a regulated nervous system feels like. In our modern world where we are constantly ‘plugged in,’ working overnight shifts, and packing more and more into our chaotic schedules, most of us are actually experiencing a dysregulated nervous system. There are major consequences for how the body and the brain function when they are constantly exposed to even low-levels of stress hormones. We weren’t designed to live that way but most of us are, so ecotherapy is one possible avenue that can help us re-regulate.

One of the myths that people often believe is that ecotherapy has to involve going out to the woods and “eating bugs” or something similarly intense–but it’s simply not the case. I developed and offered a 3-hour training on trauma-informed ecotherapy in 2017, and I traveled 4,000 miles around Virginia offering this training to over 400 healing professionals. Many people don’t understand how profoundly simple it is to engage in ecotherapy. I brainstormed with all of these professionals and created a comprehensive list of ecotherapy tools. I framed it as “How to get ourselves from the inside to the outside” and “How to bring the outside to the inside,” especially for individuals who can’t get outside easily or simply do not like to be immersed in nature. Ecotherapy is for everyone–Mother Nature doesn’t judge anyone for not being comfortable hugging a tree or going for a hike.

Body scan
Basic Instructions to Engage with Ecotherapy

  1. Ask yourself how your 6 senses can connect with nature (sight, touch, smell, hearing, tasting, or anything focusing on intuitive feeling in the body).
  2. Determine if you want to do this outside or bring the outside to the inside.
  3. Do a body scan and take a note about how you feel  in all different parts of your body (anxious, tired, sad, heavy, nervous, scattered, etc.)
  4. Slow down and be present with your experience (put the phone down, unplug, and see if you can put all of your focus and attention on the ways you are connecting through your senses).
  5. Notice any subtle changes in the ways you feel in your body. Maybe you’ll become aware of a lot of discomfort and maybe you’ll notice slight shifts. Whatever you notice, you don’t have ‘fix’ anything–just note it.
  6. Best of all, you can’t do ecotherapy incorrectly. Even if you went out into nature with your phone permanently attached to your body, there are still going to be benefits, but to become aware and present of your experiences is where the true epiphanies will arise.

The story of the center for earth based healing

When you think of mental health professionals, you probably aren’t thinking of former U.S. Marines, auto mechanics, or self-defense instructors–but Michele Zehr is all three. To say she’s unique is an understatement.

Michele is the Executive Director of ‘The Center for Earth-Based Healing,’ a nonprofit which offers trauma-informed ecotherapy programs for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. It’s the culmination of Michele’s education and experiences that inspired her to bring this therapy to trauma survivors.

Her vision of the program began in 2008, when Michele was on her own hike of the Appalachian Trail. Her experiences in nature and the insights she gained informed her opinions that “…profound healing can take place when one slows down and becomes present with Mother Nature’s gifts and wisdom.” After completing the Appalachian Trail, Michele began working as an advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and three years later, the opportunity to begin using trauma-informed ecotherapy with survivors, who are often experiencing PTSD, presented itself. Michele founded the Center for Earth-Based Healing, a 501(c) charitable organization in 2015, and has focused on bringing this creative healing modality to Virginia ever since.

Michele zehr pic

Michele’s story

“What took me out on a 2,175-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail (without ever having backpacked before) was the realization that I had lost my faith in humanity and I knew I needed some serious time to think. At that time, I was in a graduate program where I was learning how power is abused and how oppression and violence are perpetuated in society. I got to the point where all I could see were the horrible things people do to one another and it catapulted me into a sort of existential crisis. I needed a serious perspective check and attitude adjustment if I had any hope of healing myself and contributing to creating healing spaces for the wounded in our world.  I was also becoming aware of just how much trauma I had personally survived in my life, and I had not fully comprehended this prior to 2005.

Once I started walking north from Springer Mountain in Georgia in March of 2007, my life changed in radical and unexpected ways. I always say that journey changed me at the cellular level and without my even realizing it at the time, it has become a defining experience in my professional offerings now.”

Alchemy wellness: what are some of your favorite moments from working at cebh? Tell us about your experience, and maybe one of your favorite testimonials.

Michele: “My absolute favorite moment doing the work we do at CEBH is when we’ve just completed one of our camps and I get to take pause and really “take in” what just happened. We have a ritual we always end our programs with, and once the program is officially over, participants are packing up their cars and saying goodbye to one another and staff. I always pull a big rocking chair out to the deck of our lodge and get very still. I watch the departures, the hugs, the tears, the acknowledgement between survivors that “Maybe we aren’t as broken as we thought we were; maybe there is hope that we can heal from this trauma. Maybe Mother Nature has always been here offering her support, and now I understand how that shows up.” There is a palpable shift in the energy and openness of each survivor, and it is truly something to behold.

The whole time I sit in that rocking chair, I am intentionally opening myself up to the immense gratitude and love that I feel for my staff, Mother Earth, and every single survivor who had the courage to attend our programs as well as my predecessor, Deb Downing, who created the very first program, Camp Mabon, in 2005. When our paths crossed in 2012, she said, “Michele, I am retiring in three years, and I want you to take my Vision and grow it,” and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing ever since.”


Michele zehr pic2

Rachel Featherstone, NP
Alchemy Wellness



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