“Adventure therapy” is not a pseudoscientific term like “retail therapy.” Adventure therapy is a legitimate, experiential approach to improving clients’ mental health, disposition, and behavior. According to Gass, Gillis, and Russel (2012):
“AT is the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by mental health professionals, often conducted in natural settings that kinesthetically engage clients on cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels.”
It is related to yet distinct from “wilderness therapy” and “outdoor experiential therapy” because it entails emotionally and physically challenging activities that carry risk, and it doesn’t necessarily have to happen outdoors (think indoor climbing gyms, for example).
People have used adventure activities in healing processes for generations, but adventure therapy as we know it emerged in the 1920s and made its way to the United States in the 1960s through an experiential learning program named Outward Bound. Outward Bound launched its Mental Health Project the next decade and began offering courses to individuals dealing with mental illness, addiction, trauma, and other conditions.
What Is Adventure Therapy Used to Treat?
Mental health professionals use adventure therapy to treat a broad range of conditions, including:
- Substance abuse disorders;
- Eating disorders;
- And more.
Adventure therapy is also applicable for relationship or family therapy because it can be used as a bonding exercise and an outlet for participants to discuss their emotions in a safe, facilitated environment.
Evidence suggests that adventure therapy can be used for treating patients with PTSD, such as veterans, active-duty soldiers, or anyone who has experienced a traumatic event. People often speak of the “healing power of nature,” but a study from Denmark found that nature-based therapy (NBT), which can include adventure therapy or wilderness therapy, helped veterans develop tools to use in stressful situations and reduced their overall PTSD symptoms.
Types of Adventure Therapy Activities
Adventure therapy can take numerous forms. The particular activity a patient and health provider partake in depends on the client’s needs and ability. Popular activities include:
- Rock Climbing;
Some less common but still promising activities are:
- Snow camping;
- Paddle Boarding;
- Obstacle courses.
Therapists can structure activities based on their patient’s (or patients’) needs. For instance, they can have individuals partake in activities that enhance their self-awareness and challenge preconceived notions they have about themselves. In group settings, adventure therapists can have their clients engage in activities that improve social skills, build trust, strengthen relationships, and promote team-building. Some activities are useful for teaching problem-solving skills and establishing healthy boundaries.
Adventure therapy activities can involve single or regular day trips, but they can also be longer-term expeditions that last days or even months. Such excursions, like camping and hunting trips (outside of adventure therapy, such trips may entail teaching participants how to train hunting dogs and selecting camouflage patterns in support of the main excursion), remove patients from their normal lives for longer periods, and provide them with countless opportunities to learn, reflect, and grow.
Adventure Therapy Benefits
The goal of adventure therapy is to put patients in situations with real or perceived risk and teach them how to apply what they learn about themselves and their decision-making processes (which directly affect the outcome of the activity) to their daily lives. Adventure therapy is very metaphorical in nature and enables participants to understand themselves in a microcosm, and then on a broader scale.
For example, a therapist can help family members that consistently bicker build better relationships with one another by providing them with a problem they must rely on each other to solve, such as navigating an obstacle course while blindfolded. This situation highlights each family member’s personality traits and the way they interact with each other. Identifying these issues and incentivizing family members to overcome them will have lasting effects once the “simulation” is concluded.
Other benefits of adventure therapy can include:
- Teaching resilience and tenacity that participants can apply in other aspects of their lives when the stakes are higher;
- Providing environments that encourage emotional discovery that patients would balk at otherwise;
- Improving confidence by coaching people with low self-esteem through challenging activities and helping them understand what they are capable of;
- Teaching stress management skills (patients who learn to raft over whitewater calmly can apply the lessons they learn to other stressful situations);
- Providing mental stimulation;
- Imparting a sense of personal responsibility and helping individuals learn the consequences of their actions in a more apparent light;
- Fostering relationship and team-building skills so that clients can make more meaningful connections outside of therapy;
- Helping patients learn to manage their emotions and reactions;
- Educating clients on hard survival and physical skills;
- Teaching patients resourcefulness, such as how to be creative with their surroundings and be prepared with the right gear for their activity.
Some of these benefits are short-term, such as the immediate benefits of being immersed in nature, while others are long-term, including teaching healthy coping mechanisms and helping patients learn to support their peers.
Is Adventure Therapy Effective?
Admittedly, very little empirical research exists that attests to the effectiveness of adventure therapy. However, a great deal of anecdotal evidence indicates that it is a promising form of treatment and a viable alternative to traditional “talk” therapy.
There is no defined standard of methodology for practitioners to follow. Adventure therapy is nebulous and can take numerous forms at the discretion of practitioners, so interested clients should bear in mind that mental health providers that offer adventure therapy don’t have much research-backed guidance. Only certified mental health professionals should provide adventure therapy.
However, many adventure therapy programs exist and have provided positive results to participants. Experts note that adventure therapy may be of particular interest to adolescents and veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Adventure therapy often incorporates the healing power of nature, but it does not refer to participating in adventure activities recreationally. Instead, adventure therapy involves applying emotionally and physically challenging activities toward a cognitive, behavioral, spiritual, physical, or affective therapeutic goal. Though this form of treatment has not been studied as extensively as other treatments, adventure therapy presents a potentially legitimate method for treating a range of conditions, disorders, and personal issues.