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What is adventure therapy? If you are in an addiction recovery program, your therapists are likely to use a variety of different techniques to help you learn. Lectures, books, group meetings and counseling sessions provide a direct method to transmit information: they speak and you listen. But not everyone learns well this way. In fact, some people learn best when they’re asked to do something and then think about what those actions mean. Plus, listening to lectures and talks every day can be monotonous, and it might be easy for you to tune out and think about something else.

Enter adventure therapy. Here, you’ll be taken out of your familiar environment and asked to solve problems through leadership and teamwork. You might also have a lot of fun in the process.

Some adventure therapists believe that the word “adventure” is a bit of a misnomer, though. After all, in your adventure therapy sessions, you won’t be asked to sail across the seas, fight space aliens, or perform some other daring deed. In fact, some adventure therapy sessions are quite tame and take place in parks. Therefore, alternate names for adventure therapy include:

  • Wilderness therapy.
  • Therapeutic excursion.
  • Wilderness-adventure therapy.
  • Activity-based counseling.
  • Activity-based psychotherapy.

Psychological Underpinnings

All forms of addiction therapy attempt to help you to understand your own motivations and your own thought patterns. In therapy, you learn to identify destructive forces within your own mind, and you develop tools you can use to help you change those forces from negative to positive. Much of this work is done by talking. You describe a situation, think of solutions and then talk about applying them. While all of this might be quite helpful, adventure therapy uses an entirely different approach.

In an adventure therapy program, you’re provided with some sort of challenge to solve. While these challenges could include almost anything, common adventure therapy tools include:

  • Rope courses
  • Long hikes

  • Camping trips
  • Canoeing

All of these activities require a bit of physical skill, but they also require you to step out of your comfort zone and solve problems using your mind. If camping is unfamiliar to you, for example, you might find setting up a tent to be a real challenge. If you’re not physically fit, completing a ropes course might mean looking for shortcuts or ways to cross the finish line without dropping from fatigue. According to those who believe in adventure therapy, it is this working of the mind that makes adventure therapy so appealing. Each time you’re presented with a problem, and you use your mind to overcome that problem, you’re learning self-reliance. You’re moving from a state of helplessness, brought on by addiction, to a state of power. This can be an incredibly valuable lesson.

Therapy Qualifications

According to an article provided by the Association for Experiential Education, there are no industry-recognized standards for therapists who provide adventure therapy. This might be changing, however, as therapists strive to receive more recognition for the power of adventure therapy and ensure that all who participate are able to have the best experience possible. While no credentials are required, it’s best to ensure that the therapist who will handle your adventure therapy session is a licensed mental health professional in your state. Those who can’t provide proof of education should be avoided. These unlicensed professionals might be able to provide a great experience, but they may not have the educational background to help you make sense of that experience.

The Power of Nature

Most adventure therapy programs take place outside. Extra space is needed, of course, in order to complete many of the tasks so common in adventure therapy programs, but people who believe in this form of therapy also feel that being outside in nature has its own merit that might be hard to measure. As an article in the Journal of Experiential Education puts it, “The therapeutic side of adventure also looks to recognize the inherent healing qualities found in nature and in the general experience. Just the process of spending time in a healthy and supportive group can be therapeutic. Similarly, spending time in a wilderness environment can provide renewal and be therapeutic.” Just moving outside into the fresh air, listening to the birds and feeling a cool breeze across your skin could lift your spirits and make you feel better about your world and your life. These sorts of mental boosts are an incredibly important part of your recovery process.

Longer adventure therapy programs, such as weeklong camping trips or extended hikes, also allow you time alone to gather your thoughts. In your therapy sessions, you’re often expected to stay engaged with your therapist for long periods of time, talking, discussing and sharing. In adventure therapy programs, you’re often allowed to simply experience the outdoors and the space you’re standing in, without being asked to talk to anyone at all. Some people report that these moments of silence are some of the most rewarding parts of the adventure therapy process.

Measuring Benefit

In order to determine the benefit of an adventure therapy program, researchers writing in the Therapeutic Recreation Journal interviewed students who had completed a program, attempting to determine what they found meaningful and how they felt improved. Researchers found that participants had improvements in the following areas:

  • Trust
  • Empowerment

  • Teamwork
  • Personal value, or self-reliance

Building a Team

Adventure therapy programs rarely involve fewer than three people. In fact, some adventure therapy programs include groups of 10 or more. While large groups like this can help to keep costs down, they can have additional benefits. In large groups, you’re required to form teams and learn to work with one another. Working in close proximity with others takes a significant amount of skill. You’ll need to determine both what you want and what the group wants. You’ll need to come up with solutions everyone agrees with. And, you’ll need to share information about yourself so others will trust you. In your addiction therapy sessions, you might discuss all of these concepts and determine what skills you’ll need to put them to use. In an adventure therapy program, you might be given the opportunity to actually practice those skills.

Some adventure therapy programs allow you to go on expeditions with your family members. Here, you can learn more about how you typically communicate as a group, and what information is commonly lost in those interactions. It might be helpful for your therapist to see these interactions as well, and this might help to inform your family therapy sessions. As your family solves problems together, you might also build new connections and feel closer to one another. The experience might help you to repair relationship damage the addiction has caused.

Adventure Therapy and Health

Adventure therapy programs require people to flex their muscles and move about from place to place. This can provide physical benefits as well as mental health benefits. For example, a study in the International Journal of Obesity found that overweight adolescents who participated in an adventure therapy program experienced significant weight loss over time. The benefit was particularly acute in older adolescents. If your addiction process has caused you to gain weight, adventure therapy might provide you with the opportunity to slim down and improve your physical health, while you’re working on your mental health at the same time.

Quiet Reflecting

Going camping, completing a ropes course and sailing down the river on a canoe might all be interesting and fun, but they can’t be considered true therapy. After all, if this were the situation, an army-style boot camp could be considered adventure therapy and this isn’t the case at all. Instead, adventure therapy programs ask participants to spend a significant amount of time reflecting on what they have accomplished, and they might even be encouraged to think about the activities as metaphors or stand-ins for challenges they face in real life. For example, when a person refuses to complete a ropes course, a counselor could ask, “What does this course represent to you? Why is refusing to participate a good choice? Is opting out a powerful choice for you, or is it a choice made out of fear? When have you opted out in the past?” These questions could cause you to think more about your life and your knee-jerk reactions when faced with common challenges.

Some adventure therapy programs ask participants to keep detailed journals about what they have done and how they felt about all of the activities. These journals may be intensely private and not shared with others, but they might provide fodder for your one-on-one addiction-counseling program when the adventure therapy program is over. For example, you might realize that your family rarely allowed you to express an opinion, and when your adventure therapy teammates ask you to do so, your mind goes blank. These sorts of insights could provide important clues to the roots of your addiction, and spotting them might help you to heal.

Final Thoughts

Adventure therapy might provide you with the opportunity to look at your addiction in a whole new light, and practice new skills you’ve begun to learn in your addiction therapy sessions with your counselor. While not all programs provide adventure therapy, those that do might give you just the sort of help you’ll need in order to make lasting changes in your life, and you might enjoy the experience at the same time. If you’d like more information on adventure therapy or help locating a program, give us a call.

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