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Why Wilderness Adventure Therapy is So Effective in Helping Self Medicating Young Adults

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Wilderness Adventure Therapy programs have become increasingly prevalent over the past few decades. The popularity that these outdoor therapeutic  programs have gained is due to their success in helping adolescents and young adults who are grappling with various mental health, emotional, behavioral, and developmental issues. Adventure therapy is an excellent choice for young adults who are self medicating to compensate for these issues, because of the following factors.

Takes Young Adults Out of a Toxic Environment

One of the most influential factors in the success of adventure therapy is taking young adults out of the toxic environment in which they live. Whether it is the influence of a negative peer group or the difficulties that come along with everyday life, adventure therapy takes young adults away from the stressors and influences that encourage self medicating.

This really allows young adults to look at choosing a positive path/environment in the future. Separating themselves from a toxic environment or influence allows young adults to focus on finding themselves and living a healthy, substance-free lifestyle.

Adventure Therapy Activities

Incorporating adventure therapy activities into treatment leads to an increased “buy in” to therapy with young adults, largely due to the variety of appealing activities. Aside from more actively engaging young adults in treatment, adventure therapy allows young adults to adapt and thrive in a variety of settings, activities, and adventures. Confronting challenges helps to build on each student’s strengths and aids in identity development, which many of these struggling young adults need help with.

In fact, according to Dr. Mark Widmer, a leading researcher in the area of wilderness adventure therapy, adventure therapy activities “provides opportunities for exploration, commitment, interrelatedness, and feedback; all of which serve essential identity development functions.” (Duerden, Widmer, Taniguchi, McCoy) Much of the success of adventure activities in aiding identity development, according to Widmer, is the fact that adventure activities are “a context outside of the bounds of traditional school and peer group activities and thus may be less encumbered by stereotyped peer group and identity affiliations.” (Duerden, Widmer, Taniguchi, McCoy)

In addition, each new skill learned (i.e. surfing, rappelling, rafting) is a new potential hobby. Learning healthy, physical activities that these young adults can continue to participate in, long after treatment ends leads to a healthier, more active lifestyle in the long run. Rather than self medicating, the adventure activities provide young adults the opportunity to get a “high” doing something totally healthy. By building on each individual’s strengths, adventure therapy allows young adults to learn new, healthy coping strategies, behavioral and emotional regulation skills, leadership skills, and life skills. Field staff and therapists help young adults develop a higher level of self-efficacy by using their strengths to build a strong foundation for the future.

Nature Is a Powerful Healer

While many people know the benefits that getting outside and being more active can bestow, there is more contemporary research being conducted about the benefits of time spent in the outdoors. In the book, Your Brain on Nature, the author discusses the research being conducted in Japan. Doctors there are prescribing a walk in the park everyday.  The sights, smells, and sounds have various physiological benefits, including a decrease in cortisol levels. The doctors have observed that patients in a hospital rooming on the the side of the hospital with a park even heal faster!

Research suggests that mere exposure to the outdoors also has many psychological and emotional benefits, including:

  • Improved clarity
  • A reduction in ADD/ADHD symptoms
  • Improved critical thinking and decision making
  • Enhanced problem solving abilities
  • Better executive functioning

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“Adventures in identity development: The impact of a two-week adventure program on adolescent identity development”  (Taniguchi, Widmer, Duerden, and McCoy)

Your Brain on Nature, Alan C. Logan, N.D.

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