Adventure Therapy & Addiction
When you think of addiction treatment, you probably think of either individual counseling or group therapy. However, there is a new emerging form of therapy growing in popularity: adventure therapy. Adventure therapy may not be well known yet but it has proven to be a powerful and effective method for those who utilize it. Treatment centers in the US and all over the world are beginning to offer adventure therapy to their clients, as it offers a number of key benefits that standard counseling cannot provide as easily. In this article, we will begin by defining adventure therapy and its benefits and will then review some of the types of activities associated with adventure therapy.
Adventure Therapy Defined
In the simplest terms, adventure therapy is basically a process of getting outside, engaging nature and creating a challenging physical or mental activity to educate and practice coping skills and elicit emotions. This, however, is probably something of an oversimplification of the process. In fact, adventure therapy is such a specific form of psychotherapy that one can actually earn a Master’s degree in adventure therapy at some universities. The word “adventure” points to the fact that this form of therapy often involves outdoor activities, usually with some sort of physically demanding component. This is something that many clients at traditional treatment centers will not receive.
There is some crossover between adventure therapy and other forms of therapy, such as wilderness therapy. While both may take place outdoors, wilderness therapy generally focuses on one’s abilities to adapt to nature/harsher environments & unfamiliar surroundings. Adventure therapy, on the other hand, is focused more toward challenging activities and exercises that will allow patients to overcome obstacles, experience powerful emotions and practice coping skills in a real-life practical setting. When done correctly, adventure therapy activities are emotionally, cognitively and physically challenging for the client. Clients will learn about themselves and about each other. They will learn about cooperation and communication. But more importantly, they will be given a chance to have fun and to feel human again. After long periods of crippling addiction, this is a feeling that cannot be overrated.
During an adventure experience, clients may find themselves facing some of the same emotional triggers they used to experience while in active addiction. Fortunately for them, they will not be alone. While adventure therapy can be done in a one-on-one session, it is normally conducted in process groups. Also known as “personal exploration groups,” process groups allow patients to engage in especially designed exercises so that they may work on such vital character attributes as honesty, communication, and the ability to put faith in others. In addition to traditional trust building exercises such as falling backward into a person’s arms, clients will also learn to trust each other by working together on activities such as mountain climbing, kayaking, hiking and zip-lining.
Adventure therapy is actually a fairly old idea. Activities such as camping have been used for therapeutic purposes in one context or another since the early 1900s. Over the subsequent decades, it grew into something more. It also began to embrace a more varied patient population. It began with psychiatric patients. By the 1930s, it was being used to treat troubled adolescents. Over time, it was discovered that adventure therapy could also be used to improve family and marital functioning. More recently, the benefits of adventure therapy in addiction treatment have been discovered and researched leading the way for facilities to begin offering it.
There are some who have questioned whether or not adventure therapy promotes any efficacy as a modality for treatment whatsoever, but studies have shown that it can be quite effective. One study conducted early in the millennium showed that adventure therapy can be particularly effective among adolescents, delinquents, and those who are “emotionally or physically challenged.” This is quite revelatory as addiction is a disease with both physical and emotional (not to mention mental and spiritual) components. At the time of this study, however, it was concluded that more research was needed in order to make a full assessment.
That brings us to a more recent study conducted in 2013, which lumped the effects of adventure therapy into several outcome categories. It was found that, to some extent, adventure therapy had the capacity to yield benefits concerning morality and spirituality, physical health (this is relevant considering that many forms of adventure therapy involve some level of exercise), academic performance, family & social development, and overall behavior. The second-highest number of measured outcomes concerned self-concept, indicating that adventure therapy has the capacity to increase the patient’s self-perception, self-control, and self-efficacy. The latter finding is especially important as these intra-personal elements are a major facet of addiction recovery.
It has also been determined that adventure therapy can help to decrease clients’ anxiety. Since there is usually a mild level of real or perceived risk involved in adventure activities, it is not uncommon that patients will have to learn how to face their fears in order for this therapy to be effective. As we consider that that anxiety is one of the major co-occurring disorders associated with drug and alcohol addiction, the benefit of adventure therapy grows.
While not specifically studied in terms of adventure therapy, we’d like to make a brief mention of what certified hypnotist John Mongiovi refers to as the “Tetris effect.” Mongiovi writes about a 2012 study which found that drug cravings could be decreased by playing the video game Tetris. As for why this works, it is believed that the rote, repeat actions performed in a game of Tetris can condition the addict in such a way as to achieve symptom substitution. The game stimulates the user’s brain in a fashion which is actually quite similar to the neural stimulation experienced when a craving takes place.
The Tetris effect points to the reasonable suggestion that it seems probable that symptom substitution could arise from repeated adventure therapy as well. Addicts who engage in adventure therapy learn skills such as cooperation and trust while engaging in activities that might cause them to feel self-conscious under normal circumstances. A person with low self-esteem might easily become anxious when engaging in physical activities within a group, because they are inclined to feel at risk of looking inferior. But adventure therapy takes these anxiety triggers and substitutes them with fond memories of having fun, successfully solving a problem or achieving a goal and making friends. In the same way that cravings can be replaced by Tetris, anxiety and low self-esteem can be replaced by a drive to compete, succeed and engage in prosocial leisure activities. As addicts, we can be very high-strung and anxious; therefore, this opportunity to experience anxiety in a safe, controlled and work through it with the help of our peers and with guidance from a clinician is one of the strongest benefits presented by adventure therapy.
Types of Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy doesn’t always have to take place outdoors. Indoor activities can deliver many of the same benefits. The amount of risk involved depends on the activity itself and where the activity is taking place, as well as who is participating. Some locations really do not offer any risk at all, while others might offer such activities as mountain climbing, mountain biking, or snorkeling.
As previously stated, camping was basically the original form of adventure therapy. Many other types of adventure therapy will offer very similar activities, such as hiking, backpacking and zip-lining. Some activities may be somewhat expeditionary such as hiking, backpacking and zip-lining, which is common among many types of adventure therapy.
A fair number of adventure therapy courses take place in, on, or around water (such as South Florida). Ocean-based activities may include fishing, wakeboarding, kayaking, snorkeling or sailing trips. The number of adventure therapy activities involving water is not surprising when you consider that water is generally considered to improve mental health. This is particularly true of activities that involve the ocean. Census studies have shown a correlation between a person’s health and their proximity to the sea. Not only does the sea air appear to have many physical health benefits, but being near the ocean can reduce stress while also promoting physical activities such as swimming and surfing.
Not all adventure therapy is necessarily conducted outdoors. While exposure to nature during high-energy activities (also known as “green exercise”) can yield multiple mental health benefits, some locations simply do not offer much access to that type of scenery. There might not be any real wilderness in the surrounding areas, and no nearby mountains or major bodies of water that would enable patients to take advantage of the fresh air and gorgeous surroundings. When access to such scenery is limited in this fashion, then those who wish to practice adventure therapy will have to resort to alternative means such as indoor rock climbing, ropes courses or other high-energy activities that can be performed at a gym or other location. There may not be much to look at, but patients can still work on their cooperation and trust building while also reaping the physical and mental health benefits of adventure therapy.
Adventure therapy can take many forms. Some of these forms will naturally speak more to certain patients than they do to others. Either way, it is comforting to know that such a beneficial form of therapy can be experienced in so many different ways and can be so effective in treating addiction.