In education courses, new teachers learn that each student processes and remembers information differently. There are visual learners, audio learners, hands-on learners – the list goes on. The same is true for therapy – one singular approach doesn’t work for everyone. Some people, for example, are resistant to traditional group or individual counseling. The thought of sitting in a chair or on a couch and talking about feelings can make a person hesitant to open up. On the other hand, this type of approach may work very well for another person.
Over 100 years ago, doctors were using nature and its elements as a way of helping patients. This practice of using the outdoors to improve health was largely influenced by the progressive education movement and the development of the Outward Bound program in 1941 by Kurt Hahn. Since then, the concept of adventure therapy has evolved and been found to be effective, not only for adolescents, but also for veterans and others experiencing mental illness or substance abuse.
Learning More about Adventure Therapy
Wilderness adventure therapy (WAT) is, in essence, the use of adventure experiences to improve mental health. The practice is flexible in such that it can occur indoors or outdoors and in rural or urban settings. By using experiences that are active and changing, adventure therapy mirrors real-life instances that occur outside the therapy session.
Clients can learn basic survival skills, coping strategies, and interpersonal skills that they can then apply to their lives outside of treatment.
The basic premise, according to the Association for Experiential Education, is that a person can learn more effectively when all senses are engaged in the learning process and when he is directly involved in the process.
Five main components involved in adventure therapy are:
- The learner engaging in treatment as a participant. The individual, rather than watching the events unfold, is directly involved in the treatment and works cooperatively within the group. When a person directly participates and has accountability for his actions, a person can learn more about himself.
- Personal motivation of the individual. Through energy, personal responsibility and involvement, an individual is thus motivated to participate in treatment and, consequently, increase the opportunity for positive experiential benefits.
- Experience is real and meaningful. As a reflection of life, the activities in adventure therapy help an individual learn the consequences for his actions as well as group and individual accountability.
- Reflection on experiences. A key element in progressing through treatment is that the individual reflect upon his experiences during the therapy. Doing so allows the participant to learn more about his strengths and weaknesses and develop self-awareness.
- Activities must be relevant to current and future experiences. In order for the participant to truly benefit from adventure therapy, the lessons learned must be able to be applied to future experiences as well as those from the past.
Phases of Adventure Therapy
A report noted in the USDA Forest Service Proceedings mentions three distinct phases for wilderness therapy. The study noted in particular the effect of adventure therapy on adolescents with mental health disorders or substance abuse problems.
- Cleansing is the first phrase. It’s a period during which the individual can go through a detoxification of sorts, particularly for those with substance abuse or alcohol problems. This stage also removes the person from any negative influences in his life outside of treatment.
- Personal and social responsibilities comprise the second phase of adventure therapy. By generalizing the instances that occur in real life, an individual learns to be responsible for the choices he makes. During this time, the participants can also learn how to express emotions in a constructive way and foster positive relationships.
- Transition and aftercare is the third stage. Therapy alone may prove to be a beneficial experience, but a crucial part of maintaining a lasting recovery is the aftercare on receives and how he re-acclimates to life again. Some individuals may need to continue treatment at a residential or outpatient facility or attend group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Positive Benefits of Adventure Therapy
Studies reported in Neopsychology noted significant reductions in depressive symptoms of therapy participants as well as improvements in overall self-esteem. The findings from the study also revealed that the majority of adventure therapy participants identified feeling more motivated, learning personal skills, and learning new communication skills. Other important aspects included offering to help another person, feeling pride in achievements, and feeling part of the team.
Through these shared experiences, individuals can learn new communication and interpersonal skills, basic life and outdoor survival strategies, stress coping mechanisms, and how to appropriately express emotions. By reflecting the changing nature of life, adventure therapy allows a person to take responsibility for his actions and learn the real-life consequences for actions. These adventures help individuals form bonds and develop relationships that can increase self-esteem and confidence. Subsequently, when one increases self-awareness, there is an increased probability for healthier and better decision making and strengthened positive relationships.
Interested in Adventure Therapy?
If traditional therapy doesn’t work for you, adventure therapy may be an option. Especially for those with co-occurring disorders, adventure therapy can be the door to recovery. Of course, as mentioned, adventure therapy isn’t a singular treatment in and of itself. Adventure therapy often accompanies traditional therapy. When combined, both can be very effective in helping a person recover from substance abuse and manage his or her mental illness
Our treatment coordinators can tell you more about a variety of alternative treatment options that may work for you. If you’re suffering from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or any other mental health problem, you can find the help you need with us. Our knowledgeable counselors and clinicians are here for you, day or night.