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What is Adventure Therapy?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Adventure therapy is a form of experiential therapy and mental health and addiction therapy that came fully to the fore in the 1940s with the emergence of the outward bound movement.

An outdoor therapy, experiential adventure therapy is aimed at improving your physical, psychological, social, and spiritual wellbeing through a combination of the following:

  • The healing power of nature
  • Evidence-based experiential therapy
  • Recreational activities
  • Community-based problem-solving

What’s involved in this form of experiential therapy, then?

How Adventure Therapy Works

This form of experiential therapy stresses personal growth and development through the direct experience of challenging outdoor activities.

Through these structured activities in combination with traditional therapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), adventure therapy can be a valuable component of a comprehensive addiction treatment program.

Adventure therapy is frequently used in a group or family setting. Harnessing the challenges of the environment, you’ll engage with cooperative games, problem-solving activities, outdoor pursuits, and trust games.

Following each activity, you’ll have a group debriefing or processing session. Processing allows you to work with the facilitator so better internalize the experience. You’ll also be guided in relating this experience to your therapeutic goals.

Some of the more common activities used in adventure therapy programs include:

  • Rock climbing
  • Caving
  • Kayaking
  • Paddle boarding
  • Surfing
  • White water rafting
  • Canoeing
  • Rafting
  • Swimming
  • Camping
  • Skiing
  • Rope challenges
  • Trust falling
  • Orienteering
  • Geo-caching

These activities are exhilarating without straying into danger. You’ll learn how to ask for help and you’ll learn how to help others more effectively. You can hone your communication skills and you should see your self-confidence soar as you thrive outside your comfort zone.

Where did this form of therapy spring from, then, and is it a new type of treatment?

History of Adventure Therapy Programs

The first roots of adventure therapy can be traced back to the early twentieth century. The advent of tent therapy saw some patients removed from rooms in psychiatric hospitals to tents outside. Some early studies seemed to indicate tent therapy could show promise, but there was insufficient evidence to prove efficacy. Tent therapy died out by the early 1920s.

Toward the end of the 1930s, camping programs for troubled adolescents started gaining currency. These programs embraced adventure therapy by watching and diagnosing participants, and also by the application of psychotherapy.

These programs were best exemplified by the Outward Bound movement, created by Kurt Hahn in the 1940s. This movement sprung up in the United States – first in Colorado – during the 1960s.

6 Benefits of Adventure Therapy

1. Adventure therapy works well for a variety of ages and applications

2. Experiential therapy can remove you from a toxic environment

3. You can experience the therapeutic properties of the great outdoors

4. Hone your interpersonal and communication skills

5. Enjoy the benefits of physical exercise

6. Take the chance for self-reflection

1) Adventure therapy works well for a variety of ages and applications

Adventure-based therapy is suitable for a wide range of age groups from adolescents through to active seniors.

This form of therapy works well for treating alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder, especially when utilized alongside medication-assisted treatment and psychotherapy.

Adventure therapy can also be effective for treating a range of mental health conditions, again when employed as a component of a comprehensive treatment plan. From depression and anxiety disorders to PTSD and eating disorders, experiential adventure therapy is extremely versatile.

When used as part of a suite of mental health resources, this form of experiential therapy can also work for supporting bereavement or relationship therapy.

2) Experiential therapy can remove you from a toxic environment

One of the key benefits of adventure therapy is the way it can remove people from debilitating and toxic environments.

From escaping the pervasive negative influence of a peer group to removing the daily stressors and triggers for substance abuse, this aspect alone of adventure therapy can make it powerful for individuals with a volatile home environment.

3) You can experience the therapeutic properties of the great outdoors

By unplugging from our connected world and embracing the great outdoors, you should feel a sense of calm and tranquility, even if your life feels like it’s in a state of upheaval.

Drinking in the scenery rather than a bottle of vodka can help to reduce stress, as your body will produce less of the chemical cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.

If you are pursuing adventure therapy to treat a mental health condition, being exposed to nature can help regulate your mood.

4) Hone your interpersonal and communication skills

The group activities forming the core of adventure therapy will help you work on your problem-solving skills alongside others. This will also help you to sharpen your communication skills and to learn how to better respect the personal boundaries of others. You can take these skills and build on them in a real-life setting after adventure therapy ends, too.

5) Enjoy the benefits of physical exercise

Mental and physical health are closely linked. Exercising can improve your wellbeing and mood by positively impacting serotonin levels.

Even if you’re aware of this, it can be tough to get enough exercise if you’re not used to being active. With adventure therapy, you’ll get the chance to raise your heart rate in a controlled and enjoyable setting.

6) Take the chance for self-reflection

Journaling after adventure therapy can help you to more effectively internalize what you’ve learned in sessions.

Even if you don’t write down what you experienced, you’ll have ample opportunity for self-reflection, and you should learn a variety of highly beneficial skills for your sustained recovery.

Is Adventure Therapy Effective?

While there is still some debate about the effectiveness of adventure therapy due to a lack of research, the existing research indicates generally favorable outcomes.

It’s vital to use adventure therapy as one cog in an overarching treatment plan rather than relying on this form of experiential therapy to operate as a magic bullet.

Experiential Adventure Therapy at Renaissance Recovery Center

If you’re struggling with alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, our addiction treatment programs here at Renaissance Recovery Center utilize experiential therapy to complement medication-assisted treatment and psychotherapy.

For anyone with a co-occurring mental health condition, we offer integrated dual diagnosis treatment. Attacking both substance abuse and mental health simultaneously is proven to be the most effective approach.

Our inpatient and outpatient treatment programs incorporate adventure therapy along with other holistic therapies. Think of your recovery as a process rather than an event, and build a strong and stable foundation to work from here at Renaissance Recovery Center. To get things started, call the friendly team today at 866.330.9449.

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Pat C

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country