Adventure Therapy For Addiction Recovery

02/04/20: Addiction Recovery
Life throws way more curveballs at you than you could ever expect to see in a treatment center. Naturally then, addiction recovery should be more than just detox + structured counseling sessions. This is where experiential therapy and holistic treatment methods shine. Experiential therapy uses various tools and activities as a means of accessing one’s emotions and thoughts from past and recent relationships and experiences. The patient should begin to identify emotions associated with success, disappointment, responsibility, and self-esteem through their participation in the activity. With the help and guidance of a trained, licensed therapist, the patient can explore these thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise and apply what they learn to their healing journey. Adventure Therapy is one of these experiential therapies. Adventure Therapy combines physical activities, structured counseling, and pure fun with the healing properties of the backdrop of nature to boot. In this article, we will talk more about this revolutionary form of therapy and how it is changing the lives of those struggling with mental health and addiction issues.

The Roots of Adventure Therapy

Camping programs for “troubled” youths began popping up in the 1930s, following the philosophy of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey. These outdoor programs stressed cooperative, democratic learning environments through interactive processes. Perhaps the most marked beginnings of adventure and wilderness therapy became apparent through the conception of the Outward Bound programs, developed by German educator Kurt Hahn in the 1940s. Hahn’s goal was to weave hands-on experience and life skill building into education. He believed strongly in the importance of the development of character and resilience through education. Following Outward Bound’s popularization in the U.S. in the ’60s, new outdoor and adventure programs began popping up throughout the country, leading to a movement to expand the reach of this type of experiential therapy.

What is Adventure Therapy?

The term adventure therapy is often used interchangeably with outdoor therapy and wilderness therapy. However, researchers have made some distinctions between these three terms, and they do have variations in one way or another. Wilderness therapy usually refers to using primitive methods within wilderness backdrops, which require adapting to one’s surroundings and adopting coping methods for stress. Outdoor therapy is “rehabilitation, growth, development, and enhancement of an individual’s physical, social, and psychological well-being through the application of structured activities involving direct experience” (Ewert et. al., 2001). Adventure therapy involves clients participating in activities that pose a real or perceived risk and uncertainty, that require decision-making and often teamwork to accomplish certain tasks. These physically and emotionally taxing activities often take place outdoors, but can also occur indoors under certain circumstances. Adventure therapy can be used as a form of brief intervention or extended into a long-term, broader case management approach.

The Benefits of Adventure Therapy

The goal of adventure therapy is to encourage mindfulness during fun, challenging physical activities so that patients can connect life experiences and employ skills learned in therapy to tackle challenges and regulate their emotions. In addition, participants will gain a sense of confidence in their decision-making skills and capabilities to navigate stressful situations. Those who have participated in adventure therapy activities have cited increase problem-solving abilities and newfound strength to face fears. Addiction Center lists other poignant benefits of adventure therapy:
  • 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 resiliency
  • 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

Who Can Benefit from Adventure Therapy?

Adventure therapy can be an amazing, life-changing experience for people with a wide variety of mental health and addiction issues. However, there are some people for whom these types of programs would not be ideal. For example, those with more severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, or degenerative diseases like dementia are not good candidates as they often require more specialized, structured treatment. People who can benefit from adventure therapy include:
  • Adolescents, teens or adults with substance abuse problems
  • Juvenile delinquents
  • Adolescents, teens or adults with behavioral issues
  • People with anger issues
  • People with mild health issues
  • People with anxiety problems
  • People with emotional issues
  • People with eating disorders
  • People dealing with the loss of a loved one or who are aggrieved
  • People recovering from Post Traumatic Stress disorder
  • People recovering from trauma
  • Teens with conduct disorders
  • People or children with developmental delays or problems
  • People with issues of codependency
  • People with relationship problems
  • People who are depressed
  • Individuals with low self-esteem
  • Individuals with confidence issues
  • Families with conflicts

The Effectiveness of Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy draws on aspects of cognitive-behavioral, systemic, existential, psychodynamic, and occupational therapy to address and treat client issues (Association for Experiential Education). Though it is still a small field, the research that has come out regarding the effectiveness of adventure therapy is pretty solid. One study did a meta-analysis of 197 other studies of adventure therapy program outcomes and found that adventure therapy is effective in bringing about positive, short-term improvement in psychological, behavioral, emotional, and interpersonal areas of one’s life. In a study done on wilderness therapy in 2004, it was found that out of 88 surveyed kids and parents, 83 percent of participants were doing better and 58 percent were doing well or very well. Only 17 percent were cited to still be struggling following the wrapping up of the program. 81 percent rated outdoor behavioral healthcare treatment as effective.

Types of Adventure Therapy Activities

Adventure therapy can consist of a wide range of activities. Usually, these activities have some elements of problem-solving, trust-building, outdoor pursuits, and high adventure. For example:
  • Rock climbing
  • Ropes courses
  • Cycling
  • Scavenger hunts
  • Obstacle courses
  • Backpacking/hiking
  • Camping
  • Kayaking
  • Canyoneering
  • Caving
  • Skiing/snowboarding
...And virtually any physical activity you can think of!

Three Phases of Adventure Therapy

Most experiential therapy programs for addiction treatment follow these three phases:

Cleansing Phase

The cleansing phase is the first step to entering an adventure therapy program. The goal of this phase is to remove clients from their previous environments and put them into a new environment that is more conducive to healing. In certain programs, this phase might include a physical fitness regimen or a diet plan. The treatment staff usually steps back during this stage to let participants have time to adjust to active living. This phase is sort of an ease-in to the main phase of the program.

Personal and Social Responsibility Phase

This is the main part of the treatment, where clients learn accountability for their actions through peer interaction and natural consequences. During the challenges and activities in adventure therapy, clients must choose to take responsibility for their choices or suffer the consequences. This experience also helps teach them that self-care and personal responsibility are essential for their wellbeing. It shows participants that their actions have consequences to themselves and others outside of treatment.

Transition and Aftercare Phase

This is the final phase of treatment. This step is a continuation outside of the program to help the client transition back into their regular routine and environment. The professionals on staff work with clients so that they may continue to process the lessons they’ve learned in the program, and teach them how to apply those lessons to their day-to-day life.

How to Find an Adventure Therapy Program

Not all adventure therapy programs are created equal. Each one has its own way of doing things, so if you’re interested in participating or having a loved one participate, you will want to do some extensive research. However, good programs will have:
  • A clearly-defined, safe operational structure in place
  • Trained, licensed, and highly qualified staff and proper equipment to meet your needs
  • Staff that acts in accordance with state regulations
  • A deep understanding of the mental health issue or issues you or a loved one are seeking therapy for.

Is Adventure Therapy Right for You?

Adventure therapy is a great alternative to conventional forms of treatment, especially for those who haven’t seen much success with other more common types of therapies. Plus, the evidence we’ve seen coming out of recent studies shows that these programs can be really, really life-changing! If you are interested in this type of therapy, do a Google search and see if they have opportunities in your area. We recommend our partner, Scottsdale Recovery Center, which offers excellent programs consisting of group hikes, team-based challenges, and all levels of physical challenges. Adventure therapy programs are becoming more and more popular, so you are bound to find one that suits your needs!

Content for Arizona Addiction Recovery Centers created by Cohn Media, LLC. Passionate and creative writing and broadcasting, covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best. www.cohn.media


If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email info@arizonaaddiction.com to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

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