As the name suggests, adventure therapy is a form of experiential therapy that involves various types of adventure. Adventure therapy is often conducted outdoors, although some adventure therapy activities are done indoors. Activities may include things like camping, hiking, navigating ropes courses, rock climbing, sailing, and cooperative games. Adventure therapy allows participants to take calculated risks and explore personal issues in a safe, supportive environment under the guidance and support of mental health professionals.
Like other types of experiential therapy, adventure therapy uses the experience itself to help individuals face and overcome emotional issues, addictions, behavioral problems, and many other challenges. It also helps participants develop important life skills that can benefit them throughout their lives.
Adventure therapy is known by several different names, including activity-based psychotherapy or counseling, wilderness therapy, and therapeutic excursions. Although the names may suggest that adventure therapy is all about having fun, it’s designed to have profound therapeutic benefits and teach valuable life lessons, such as the importance of cooperating with others, working as a team, and the impact of natural consequences due to poor choices. While there is fun to be had, adventure therapy can tap into deeply painful issues. That’s true of most types of therapy, and can actually be a tremendous benefit of this therapeutic approach. By bringing those issues to the surface, adventure therapy provides ample opportunity to confront them and begin the healing process that’s essential to personal growth and a happier life.
Adventure therapy often involves spending time in nature. This has therapeutic benefits in and of itself, particularly for teens and young adults who come from urban areas. Getting away from the day to day pressures of daily life, as well as being surrounded by spectacular natural beauty, breathing fresh air, and listening to the unique and often tranquil sounds of nature, can boost anyone’s spirits and help them gain a new appreciation for life. For those recovering from deep emotional wounds, unresolved trauma, or the grips of a destructive addiction, adventure therapy can open doors to healing that traditional forms of talk therapy often can’t. This is why adventure therapy is often used in many treatment programs.
Unlike most forms of therapy, adventure therapy doesn’t require you to spend all of your time sitting and talking to a therapist. Programs that last for a weekend or several days out in nature provide individuals with ample opportunity to listen, instead, to the still, small (or perhaps raging or crying) voice within. For many participants, this may be a very foreign experience as the majority of their waking hours are bombarded with almost non-stop noise from multiple sources – cell phones, computers, iPods, stereos and televisions, machinery, traffic, planes, trains, next-door neighbors, and family members. Facing and reflecting upon one’s thoughts during moments of silence is an important therapeutic aspect of some types of adventure therapy.
Spending time in quiet reflection allows participants to gain a greater sense of self-awareness. They can think about the things they accomplished (e.g. putting up a tent for the first time or climbing a challenging rock wall), the fears they’ve faced (e.g. heights, performing a task while others watch), the connections they’ve established or difficulties they’ve encountered with other participants, and things they’ve learned about themselves. The activities used in adventure therapy represent, in some form or another, situations and challenges that participants face in the real world. Therapists will often encourage participants to talk or think about the similarities between a particular activity and experiences they’ve had in their lives. They may also encourage participants to think about the feelings an activity or experience elicited, or the consequences (good or bad) of a choice they made (e.g. not being cooperative during a team activity or helping collect extra firewood).
It’s not uncommon for participants to be instructed to keep a detailed written log or journal about their experience. Although the journals are for their own eyes only and not to be read by therapists or other participants, keeping a log of their thoughts, feelings, and experiences gives them something to go back and read later. They can use it to discuss things in future therapy sessions, and to help them look back and see the progress they made during and since the experience. Overtime, journals provide invaluable information regarding patterns of behavior and emotional triggers that further increase self-awareness. Just putting thoughts and feelings down on paper can also be cathartic. Even though they are still private, they’re no longer silently held inside. The journaling process can be especially helpful for teens who have a difficult time expressing identifying and expressing their real feelings.
Since adventure therapy is typically done in a group format, it also provides opportunities to talk to, learn from, work alongside, and share experiences with other participants. Activities often require working closely together as a team or unit. This helps participants develop better communication and social skills. It can also increase self-awareness as participants give each other both positive and negative feedback. If someone’s not pulling his weight, someone else is going to point it out. Likewise, if someone is doing an exceptional job, other participants will express their admiration and praise. Team activities also allow participants to learn from one another and practice new skills.
Adventure therapy draws from several different disciplines, including education / outdoor education, sociology, and psychology. The psychological theories that form the basis of adventure therapy include psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive behavioral, experiential learning, existential, and systems theory.
History of Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy may seem like a relatively recent concept. However, it actually dates back to the early 1900s when tent psychiatric hospitals allowed patients to stay in tents on the lawn for a period of time. In the 1930s, camping programs were used to observe, diagnose, and treat teens struggling with psychological problems.
Perhaps two of the greatest influences on adventure therapy as we know it today are 1) the Texas-based Salesmanship Club Camp developed by Campbell Loughmiller and the Outward Bound program created by German educator Kurt Hahn. Both programs were developed in the mid-1940s. Loughmiller believed that individuals learned valuable lessons about cooperation and natural consequences when put in an environment that involved a sense of danger. Hahn believed that spurring students into challenging life experiences would enable them to realize and enhance their capabilities. Wales was the home of the first Outward Bound school. Its focus back then was to develop essential survival skills in young, inexperienced sailors during WWII. The program was introduced to the U.S. by Josh Miner, an American who had taught under Hahn and was inspired by his philosophy. The first U.S. Outward Bound school opened in 1962 in Colorado with just 35 students.
Project Adventure, influenced by Outward Bound, brought adventure therapy interventions and activities, including cooperative games and ropes courses, into classrooms and physical education programs in schools. Two individuals associated with Project Adventure – Mary Smithy, a social worker, and Paul Radcliffe, a school psychologist – helped develop the Learning Activities Group and Adventure-Based Counseling (ABC for short).
Currently, there are many adventure therapy programs – including several wilderness therapy programs – located throughout the U.S. as well as other countries around the world. Outward Bound has therapy programs for teens and young adults, as well as training programs, all over the U.S. Outward Bound also offers free wilderness courses geared towards recent veterans and returning service members.
Primary Elements of Adventure Therapy
- Therapy clients are directly involved in their treatment rather than merely observing from the sidelines
- Individuals receive positive therapeutic benefits from the process because they are motivated to participate in it
- Ongoing reflection during therapy enhances personal growth and progress
- The activities that are chosen must teach lessons that are applicable to both past and future experiences
- The experience is both meaningful and real to the participants because it reflects their real life.
Types of Adventure Therapy
There are several different types of approaches and activities that are utilized in adventure therapy. These include:
- Cooperative activities or games
- Wilderness excursions (e.g. camping, backpacking, hiking in the mountains and other remote areas)
- Problem solving initiatives
- Trust activities
- Outdoor activities (e.g. kayaking, rock climbing and rappelling, horseback riding)
- Ropes courses (high and low)
Each of these activities is designed to be therapeutic in nature. They may focus on fostering communication and cooperation, building trust in self and others, or developing and improving problem-solving skills.
Disorders, Issues, and Conditions that can Benefit from Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy can be a very effective treatment for many different mental health disorders, challenging life issues, and other conditions and problems with which people struggle. Studies have shown it to be beneficial in the treatment of:
- Adolescents with substance abuse issues
- Behavioral problems in adolescents
- Juvenile offenders
- Conduct disorders in teens
- Anger management issues
- Eating disorders
- Recovery from trauma
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Anxiety disorders
- Individuals with developmental disorders
- Adolescents with emotional problems
- Grief and loss issues
- Adults with substance abuse problems
- Relationship problems
- Issues with codependency
Adventure therapy can also benefit families in conflict, individuals struggling with low self-esteem or lack of self-confidence, and those who struggle with taking initiative.
Benefits of Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy has many wonderful benefits for those who participate in it, including the following:
- Trust in oneself as well as others
- Opportunity to model healthy behaviors of therapy staff in a safe, supportive setting
- Sense of personal empowerment and accomplishment
- Ability to work as part of a team
- Increase in leadership skills
- Stronger self-esteem and greater self-confidence
- Greater sense of self-awareness
- Greater problem-solving skills
- Emotional discovery and healing
- Greater sense of self-reliance
- Increase sense of worthiness and personal value
- Better communication skills
- Ability to give and receive constructive feedback
- Ability to set appropriate limits and boundaries
- Ability to cooperate with others to achieve a common goal
- Greater sense of personal responsibility
- Reflect on experiences and learn valuable lessons from them
- Recognition that actions have natural consequences
- Willingness to accept help from others when needed
- More optimistic outlook on life
- More positive attitude
- Appreciation and respect for the needs of others
- Increased ability to face one’s fears rather than avoiding or numbing them
- Improvement in fine motor skills and coordination
- Greater willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone
- Decrease in denial
- Greater focus and attention
- Increased ability to identify unhealthy patterns of behavior
- Greater awareness of personal strengths and weaknesses
Adventure therapy can be fun, exciting, and challenging. It’s a great way to learn and practice new behaviors, improve your interpersonal skills, face your fears, overcome personal obstacles and challenges, and heal painful emotions. Adventure therapy programs are available throughout the country. If you’re interested in adventure therapy for yourself or a loved one, or if traditional therapy hasn’t really worked, contact the staff of a program that interests you. They can help you determine if it’s a good fit for your needs and goals.