If you've ever felt emotionally moved after completing a day hike, or sending a challenging climb, you're probably familiar with the healing effect that the great outdoors can provide. Spending time in nature is good for you, and there are numerous studies to prove it. But more mental health clinicians are using and prescribing outdoor activities as a therapeutic tool to help treat people's various needs.
This practice is called outdoor adventure therapy, outdoor behavioral healthcare, or wilderness therapy, and it's defined as the use of outdoor experiences and activities to kinesthetically engage people on cognitive, behavioral, and somatic levels, explains Christine Lynn Norton, PhD, LCSW, associate professor in the school of social work at Texas State University, San Marcos. "It's that use of nature, the group challenge and adventure, mindfulness, and a therapeutic relationship, that all kind of come together to really help the client feel improved."
A typical session could entail anything from going on a hike and meditating to stand-up paddle boarding, explains Alex White, CMHC, an outdoor adventure therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah. People might meet one-on-one with a therapist, go with a partner, or participate in a group community-centered activity. A clinician might stop you at certain points in the activity and ask you what the experience is bringing up emotionally. But often "the dynamics that are bringing people into counseling are going to show up in the activity," White says.
Wilderness therapy is not what you remember from the problematic '90s show Brat Camp, in which troubled teens were shipped out to the middle of nowhere to cope with their serious mental health issues. While some people might benefit from an intensive program, outdoor adventure therapy can be used a mental healthcare tool that helps to address issues and prevent them from getting worse, Dr. Norton says. The bulk of people come to Dr. Norton with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and substance abuse issues, she says. And research suggests that this kind of therapy could be beneficial for trauma survivors. "If a lot of trauma gets deeply embedded somatically in the body, then, it doesn’t make sense to sit and do talk therapy," she says.
Researchers have identified the variables that make wilderness and outdoor adventure therapy so effective: being in nature; the physical aspect of activities; group engagement; and mindfulness. But what makes outdoor adventure therapy really different from talk therapy, besides the obvious, is that people have the opportunity to literally work through their issues. "Rather than just talking about the thing that's going on, we’re working with the dynamics right there in the moment, and they have the opportunity to practice that skill," White says.
Whether you're backpacking, rock-climbing, kayaking, doing a ropes course, or geo-caching, you're doing something that engages the body, which is key, Dr. Norton says. "It's an opportunity for people to expand their comfort zone and do something they don't always do," she says. And really, all wilderness therapy helps you foster reconnection to your self, others, and the natural world, she adds.
If you're eager to explore wilderness therapy on your own, Dr. Norton suggests finding a program that's accredited by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council or a practitioner who's affiliated with the group. You can also contact the Association of Experiential Education for recommendations. Wilderness therapy is more common certain areas, such as Colorado or California, where there's more access to nature, but there's hope that more therapists will catch on, White says.
But if nothing else, use this as a reason to book a hiking trip with friends, or explore some of the outdoor excursions are available in your region. "In a nutshell, people are just really disconnected right now," Dr. Norton says. Getting outside and out of your comfort zone could have a profound effect.