Adventure Therapy for Addiction

hikers walking a trail for adventure therapy

What is Adventure Therapy?

The idea of utilizing nature and outdoor activity as a therapeutic aid has been around for a long time. The Outward Bound program for young people began in Wales in 1941. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that adventure therapy for addiction began to enter the mainstream of the treatment field. The concept is simple. Most people find comfort and peace in nature, it’s how we are wired biologically. Programs like Outward Bound also leverage the athletic aspects of outdoor activity. Specifically, they engage participants in challenging and strenuous activity designed to both build character and encourage teamwork among other virtues.

Outward Bound is not specifically targeted at addiction alone though. It also falls at the more extreme end of the spectrum in terms of intensity. This type of program is designed to break a person down and rebuild them in a sense. Participants are brought into the wilderness and taught survival skills. They may spend several nights alone in the wild with only basic tools. Other activities will incorporate teamwork, such as rock climbing or obstacle courses with climbing walls.

Benefits of Adventure Therapy for Addiction

Not all adventure therapy for addiction involves these extremes, however. In virtually every type of addiction treatment, people generally find a change of environment helpful. A change of surroundings alone is scarcely enough. But it does send a signal to the subconscious mind that adaptation is required. It can both remove a person from potential triggers and make them more malleable and receptive to new ideas. Studies have shown it takes between 1-2 months on average to form new habits and get them to stick. (1) Any positive change of environment we can introduce in concert with therapy and structure for a sustained period of time can show benefits.

The focus of adventure therapy is on maximizing the results during that time. Research has shown that simply spending more time outdoors, in nature, has positive effects on brain chemistry. (2) When this is combined with physical exercise and team-building activities, these effects can be leveraged. Addiction robs us of many things, self-confidence and esteem are among them. The sense of achievement one receives from simply completing a challenge is good medicine for this condition. The opportunity to overcome a fear provided powerful counteraction for a poor sense of self-worth. Objectives that require cooperation reinforce the ethic of teamwork.

All of these characteristics are vital to enduring recovery. Anyone who has put together significant sober time will tell you that. Adventure therapy can provide parallels to the struggles faced in overcoming addiction. Most people will find the most benefit from beginning rehab in a medical facility first and following the conventional course of treatment with Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient (IOP) care. Once a patient is medically stable and has some time and traditional therapy completed, exploring adventure therapy is a sound idea. We are living in an era of innovation in the science of addiction and recovery. Adventure therapy is one more tool we can use to craft a life of enduring recovery.

(1) http://repositorio.ispa.pt/bitstream/10400.12/3364/1/IJSP_998-1009.pdf
(2) https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/sour-mood-getting-you-down-get-back-to-nature

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