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How Adventure Therapy Helps in Recovery

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Sometimes adults and families need a different kind of help when it comes to dealing with emotional health. Whether the issue is behavioral or relational, adventure therapy can be the answer when traditional methods don’t seem to be effective or aren’t an option.

“Adventure therapy helps kids learn to be in the moment, be in their own skin and trust themselves, as well as their peers,” says mental health expert and professional outdoor educator, Tim Walsh. Walsh has more than 20 years of experience leading adventure programs for adolescents and families. “Through real-time activities in a group setting, the kids build self-esteem by embracing new skills, learn self-compassion and respect for each other as they work together, and get to breathe in the fresh air and find their own natural rhythm,” he said.1

Hikers in the mountainsBut adventure therapy programs aren’t just for teens and young adults. First made popular as an alternative treatment for mental health issues in the 1970s, adventure or wilderness therapy can give adults dealing with addiction a chance to grow and change through team building activities and other challenges in nature. Some of the most popular adventure therapy activities include camping, rock climbing, ropes courses, surfing, hiking, kayaking, and paddle boarding.

No matter which adventure therapy option you choose, it’s important that all activities are led by trained professionals in each area. Having the right people leading the activities mean participants can be inspired to achieve more than they ever thought possible while also being safe. Building confidence in themselves and their teammates helps those in treatment open up. Sharing their feelings in this type of non-threatening environment allows the hard work of healing to begin.

A Blend of Techniques

According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), there is growing evidence to suggest that access to nature at every age and stage of life can alleviate some of the most important public health issues, including obesity, stress, isolation, injury, and violence. The findings have been so impressive that the APHA reports access to nature significantly reduces illness and increases a great sense of well-being.2 But it’s important to understand that quality adventure therapy programs are more than just people meeting physical challenges in the great outdoors.

Adventure therapy programs and those who run them offer the same types of psychotherapy — Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, group activities, journaling — to address the emotional needs of those in their care. These psychotherapy techniques are incorporated into the activities meant to challenge patients both physically and mentally.

“These are not Outward Bound courses or backpacking trips,” said psychologist Steve DeBois, Ph.D., clinical director of an adventure therapy program called Second Nature. “Those things have value unto themselves,” he said, “but we offer a layer of real therapeutic work, a traditional insight-oriented approach to addressing whatever these kids’ issues happen to be.”3

Adventure Therapy Goals

The goal of adventure therapy or wilderness treatment is the same as with other types of treatment — to give participants the coping skills needed to deal with difficult situations and to draw on these experiences during recovery. Struggles with withdrawal symptoms, relapse triggers and the overwhelming desire to use again are met with the coping strategies learned through outdoor challenges, team-building activities and the knowledge of how choices impact others. The feelings of self-esteem and belief in oneself learned through wilderness challenges translate into the confidence necessary to stay clean and sober one more day.4

Self-esteem, something that takes a beating in people who struggle with addiction, is rebuilt in new and different ways during adventure therapy. According to Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, in Psychology Today, “Confidence can depend on measuring accomplishments in the present, past (mastery) or future (talent) and can be determined internally by comparing oneself to past records or externally by comparing oneself to peer performance. Self-esteem is often also intertwined with self-identity.”5

Being able to measure success in the concrete ways adventure therapy provides helps participants rebuild lost self-esteem and create a new identity apart from drug use.

As with other types of treatment, adventure therapy begins with a thorough assessment of the needs of the patient. This allows therapists to group patients with others who have similar issues. Because these types of programs tend to be open enrollments, it means young adults at any stage of their journey can be together for adventure treatment. With new patients coming in and those who have completed the programs graduating, peer mentoring is always a positive force for change within the adventure team.

Family Adventure Therapy

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists are also trying adventure therapy with families and couples. Wilderness family therapy was officially launched in 1990 by psychologist Scott Bandoroff, Ph.D. Dr. Bandoroff discovered that the young people he treated on wilderness therapy trips lost ground when they returned home due to unhealthy family dynamics.3

Having the entire family together for a wilderness experience removes loved ones from the demands of everyday life, opening the door for interaction and working together to solve problems. Family members have the chance to look at their role in the family and how their behaviors and reactions are contributing to the health of the entire group.

When family members participate in group activities, they understand their current family dynamics better and what needs to change. Time away together in a wilderness setting also allows families the opportunity to set goals based on what they’ve learned so that they can continue to work on issues and evolve after returning home.

Finding Help Through Adventure Therapy

Wilderness settings that provide adventure therapy programs help adults and families get to the heart of their mental health issues. Spending time away from screens and other distractions help those in adventure therapy programs fully focus on healing. Adventure programs help patients learn they can achieve more than they ever thought possible.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction or other mental health issues, we are here for you. Call us at 760.548.4032 to speak to an admissions coordinator about how we can help.

1 Langone, Chris. “Adventure Therapy Helps Adolescents With Mental Health and Substance Abuse.” Bedford Daily Voice, 30 May 2018.

2“Improving Health and Wellness through Access to Nature.” AMERICAN PUBLIC HEALTH ASSOCIATION, 5 Nov. 2013.

3 DeAngelis, Tori. “Therapy Gone Wild.”Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Sept. 2013.

4 “Outdoor Therapy.” Addiction Recovery Guide: Outdoor Therapy. Accessed June 17, 2018.

5 “How Does Self-Esteem Change in Adventure Athletes?” Psychology Today, 23 Mar. 2018.

By Patti Richards