Adventure therapy is a form of psychosocial treatment that pushes the boundaries of traditional in-office and telehealth approaches. Rather than sitting on the couch to discuss thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, clients engage in experiential activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, hiking, and other outdoor experiences to improve psychological, physical, social, and spiritual well-being.1
The intention of adventure therapy is to enjoy nature and push your boundaries to enhance your health and prosperity.
What Is Adventure Therapy?
Adventure therapy was created in the 1960s, introducing a treatment alternative that utilizes nature, community, and exercise as a form of therapy.1 Here, individuals, groups, and even entire families work collectively toward a specific goal.1 The approach is creative, fun, cathartic, insightful, and empowering. Since the focus is on physical activity, clients are more comfortable letting their guard down to be vulnerable enough to access the root of the problem.
For many, the thought of traditional therapy is daunting. They envision the traditional Freudian approach of lying on the couch while the therapist picks their brain. Since then, we have been exploring all-new alternatives and improved versions of the conventional setting. Adventure therapy offers something different.
Benefits of adventure therapy include but are not limited to:1
- Encouraging and promoting a sense of responsibility
- Building positive relationships and learning to cooperate with others
- Acquiring positive social skills like communication and conflict resolution
- Improving self-awareness and self-confidence
- Increasing physical resilience
- Promoting greater engagement with therapy and a therapist
- Encouraging openness and emotional discovery
- Creating meaningful opportunities to face real-life experiences and challenges
- Decreasing symptoms of depression
- Increasing psychological resilience
- Improving self-esteem and emotional/behavioral functioning
- Teaching healthy coping skills, including stress management skills
The approach is hands-on and frequently yields numerous benefits for personal development. Adventure therapy may prove ideal for those who like to dive deep into what they’re doing while escaping the everyday stressors contributing to their problem. It truly is an all-encompassing and comprehensive way to address mental health.
Adventure Therapy Activities
Activities do vary by adventure therapy programs and individual preference. The wide selection of offerings is to help meet clients where they are in life and what they are comfortable doing. Different people indeed like different things. Accordingly, adventure therapy has many options to meet the needs of those participating.
Adventure therapy activities may involve, but are not limited to, any of the following:
- Rock climbing
- Mountain biking
- Challenge/obstacle course
- White water rafting
- Snow camping
Key Concepts of Adventure Therapy
The key to adventure-based therapy is not merely solving a particular problem. Instead, it is about the process. By critically thinking and working through one issue while actively being challenged, clients can apply coping skills to new situations in the future. These concepts are how one becomes autonomous, maintains progress, and even progresses to the point of flourishing.
The five key concepts of adventure therapy include:
- Identity Development: Here, clients learn who they are—preferences, dislikes, strengths, areas of growth, et cetera. While engaging in adventure therapy, clients learn new ways of understanding themselves and developing self-love that help them extend beyond the issues they face in everyday life.
- Self-Efficacy: By achieving success in adventure therapy, clients come to hold themselves in a brighter light. They recognize that they can accomplish many great things by pushing themselves outside their comfort zones. Therapy is built upon the change process, after all.
- Flow Theory: Flow is essentially the point at which we are so actively involved in something that we lose track of time. Everything else becomes secondary while we engage in what we find meaningful and purposeful—allowing negativity to dissipate.
- Grit: Grit, also referred to as stick-to-itiveness, is a valuable lesson in which clients come to recognize those good things in life take time. Rather than giving up right away at the first inconvenience, sticking to it frequently yields positive results over time that may be lasting.
- Growth Mindset: In combination with the abovementioned concepts, inner growth occurs. With a growth mindset, clients become inspired to continue moving forward and become new versions of themselves. When we get stuck, we dwell, which yields a host of negative thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When we believe in our ability to change ourselves and our world, we can become less pessimistic, which increases the likelihood of trying new things to maximize our life experience.
How Can Adventure Therapy Help?
Adventure therapy can help with many emotional and behavioral skills, and participants can benefit even if they don’t have a diagnosable mental health condition. Instead, it only needs those seeking to improve their overall well-being. Consider the positive psychological mindset of continuously progressing rather than living every day merely surviving to thrive. Why live a life rated at a 5 when you can push it to a 6, 7, 8, or beyond?
Adventure therapy can be beneficial for those with any of the following conditions or concerns:2
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Grief & Loss
- Eating Disorders
- Brain Injury
Again, the benefits of adventure therapy are many. If there is anything specific you want to address in treatment, you should speak with a professional to determine whether this is the right approach for you.
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Is Adventure Therapy Effective?
Research has indicated that adventure therapy is—at the least—moderately effective toward changes in people’s short-term ability to manage their behavior, emotions, physiology, and interpersonal relationship more effectively.3 It is important to note that individual results will vary. With anything, gained benefits will require intrinsic motivation to create any influential impact. If one is motivated and puts forth the effort needed to achieve success, participants will maximize results, which is true of any therapy.
Here are five major organizations that currently endorse adventure therapy as an effective means of treatment:
- American Psychological Association (APA)
- AEE Therapeutic Adventure Professional Group (TAPG)
- American Counseling Association (ACA)
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Risks of Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy has some inherent risks interested people must consider. While engaging in any type of physical activity, there is the potential for injury. Before working with an adventure therapist, potential clients must consider their own current physical and mental state. Accordingly, we recommend you speak with a physician and mental health professional to determine the most appropriate adventure therapy type.
Criticisms of Adventure Therapy
Although complaints about adventure therapy are limited, it is essential to note that individual results will vary. Some individuals may benefit from focusing solely on the problem in a more traditional setting. Some individuals may have physical limitations that compromise engagement in more strenuous activities, although therapists may modify many adventure activities for accessibility. While you can participate in adventure therapy to improve your quality of life, it is not approved as the only treatment for certain chronic mental health conditions that require lifelong medication, such as schizophrenia.
Adventure Therapy Examples
Depending upon the purpose, presenting concern, or specific diagnosis that brings one to adventure therapy, the experience can vary. The intention is to help individuals work through whatever they seek to work through. Accordingly, adventure therapy varies to meet the complex nature and causes of participants’ needs.
Some examples of adventure therapy may include but are not limited to:
Adventure Therapy for PTSD
Adventure therapy helps one address PTSD by re-engaging themselves in a similar environment they experienced in their trauma. Rather than avoiding various triggering stimuli, clients actively engage with them and reform their thoughts about their traumatic event under the supervision of a trained psychotherapist. Clients can grow self-confidence by facing their potential fears and lessening their fear responses which may have created complications for them in daily life.
Adventure Therapy for Depression
Depression can lead to isolation and lowered activity levels. Engaging in physically challenging activity can help clients build confidence, connection with others, and an opportunity to remember what it feels like to enjoy something. Rather than dwell on the negative, they focus on positive things such as completing meaningful tasks. Task mastery can then lead to a sense of accomplishment, which is empowering.
Adventure Therapy for Addiction
With addiction disorders, clients are encouraged to avoid people and places that promote substance use. Since adventure therapy is immersive and is similar to residential treatment (being removed from the traditional environment), clients can engage in activities far removed from the negative stimuli in their home environment. Prosocial engagement with others helps clients foster healthier relationships in which substance use and other inappropriate behaviors are not the core connection.
Adventure Therapy for Familial Discord
Common problems with families involve boundary setting, communication, and the ability to work together proactively. Adventure therapy provides opportunities for family members to empower themselves individually and work collaboratively toward a common goal. This collaboration comes from adventure group therapy activities that may require the family members to work together to move forward or reach a destination actively.
What to Expect at Your First Session
Adventure therapy is meant to be an enjoyable, enriching experience. Many potential clients are excited to take the first step. However, before beginning any adventure, it is crucial to be assessed for appropriate fitness, as physical and mental health conditions may compromise someone’s ability to participate in certain adventure experiences. Accordingly, a first session may begin like many others, which entails a thoughtful description of the therapeutic process, associated costs, informed consent, and a comprehensive biopsychosocial assessment. From there, the therapist and client work together to determine which form of adventure therapy is the best fit.
In some cases, people may need additional therapy to supplement adventure therapy. These other treatments may include outpatient, intensive outpatient (IOP), and support groups. There are also limitations for what adventure therapy can accomplish for those with chronic conditions like personality disorders. In these situations, adventure therapy may be part of a larger, comprehensive treatment plan.
How Much Does Adventure Therapy Cost?
Unfortunately, adventure therapy is not cheap. A study by All Kinds of Therapy surveyed 28 wilderness therapy programs across 14 different states, costing roughly $558/day with an average enrollment fee of $3,194.4 Though not all managed care organizations (e.g., insurance, Medicare, Medicaid) wholly cover adventure therapy, some will reimburse a percentage of out-of-pocket expenses. Make sure you talk with your coverage provider to know what costs to expect.
How to Find an Adventure Therapist
It can be easy to begin searching for providers by searching online for “adventure therapy” plus the specific mental health concern if there is one, e.g. “adventure therapy for overcoming addiction.” Websites like The Adventure Therapy Collective provide directories for locating adventure therapy programs, organizations, and individual therapists. Other ways to find a therapist include using an online therapist directory or contacting your primary care provider.
Final Thoughts on Adventure Therapy
If you have thought you could benefit from therapy but find the traditional setting and approach daunting, adventure therapy may be for you. It is worth checking whether you are seeking help with something debilitating or simply looking to get to a better place. Begin by conducting some research online and speaking with a professional. If everything comes together and you find yourself so inclined, this approach may be just what the doctor ordered.