Wilderness therapy is an outdoor, adventure-based treatment approach that combines experiential learning and various modes of therapy while in a primitive wilderness setting.
Wilderness therapy vs. Boot camp
Another common misconception is that wilderness therapy programs are a type of boot camp. There are many differences between wilderness therapy and boot camp.
Philosophy. Wilderness boot camps utilize a more punitive, military-style structure to gain compliance and eliminate defiant behavior. Wilderness therapy programs, on the other hand, focus on clinical mental health treatment, education, personal and social responsibility, and essential life skills. Wilderness therapy programs do not engage in these types of punitive methods.
Goals. The goal of most wilderness boot camps is to break a student’s defiant behaviors and return them home with an attitude of a “good soldier,” following rules and obeying authority. Boot camps have a one-size-fits-all program and all students must comply with their structure and routine. Wilderness therapy begins with a complete assessment by a mental health professional of the student, their background, their struggles, past treatment, etc. to create individualized treatment goals that they will work towards achieving during their wilderness therapy experience.
Family. Another difference is that boot camp programs often remove the student from their family and deny them access to the family for a period of time. Wilderness therapy sees the student and family as a family system, and therefore family is heavily involved in the treatment process.
Outcomes. Wilderness boot camps have been shown to produce quick behavior change and compliance to avoid punishment. Scare tactics are often used to make students comply, however, this type of strategy does not create a foundation of skills needed for lasting change when the child returns home. Wilderness therapy has been shown to produce more lasting changes by creating a supportive and safe environment, involving the entire family system, and the direct involvement of professional clinical staff to encourage healing the root of what is causing the students’ issues.
A wealth of research exists describing the many benefits of being in nature. One research study at the University of Utah at Salt Lake City looked at and compiled data from existing literature on the mental health benefits of outdoor recreation activities. Their research supported positive mental health benefits from participating in outdoor activities and spending time outside.
This literature review found that more than 80% of the articles reviewed had at least one association between outdoor activity and positive mental health benefits. Most commonly, the benefits that were identified were decreased stress and anxiety, and elevated mood.
A 2015 Harvard health research study looked at healthy people who walked for 90 minutes either in nature or in an urban setting and compared their brain activity. The research showed that people who walked in nature had lower brain activity in their prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is an active part of the brain when someone is ruminating - or having repetitive loops of unproductive and negative thoughts. Ruminating is common in depression, anxiety, and high stress.
Interacting with nature also shows therapeutic benefits. Listening to calming nature sounds can lower blood pressure and cortisol - the hormone responsible for stress. It didn’t matter if the sounds were outside in nature or listening to nature sounds indoors.
Looking at nature, trees, landscape, etc. helps give something pleasant to focus on, which can distract the mind from negative thinking, and reduce worry.
A report published by Scientific Reports in 2017 suggested that listening to nature sounds has a similar effect on the brain’s limbic system. Researchers used MRI to look at brain activity while participants listened to recorded nature sounds vs. artificial environments. The people who listened to nature sounds showed an outward-directed focus of attention, which is similar to daydreaming. The people who listened to artificial sounds showed an inward-directed focus, which happens during anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Another review published in Science Advances July 24, 2019 showed commonalities across the natural, social, and health sciences on the impacts of nature experience on cognitive functioning, emotional well-being, and other aspects of mental health. Here are 3 common threads they found among numerous studies:
Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experience and increased psychological well-being.
Experiences in nature are linked to increased positive affect, happiness, sense of well-being, positive social interactions, cohesion, engagement, a sense of meaning and purpose in life, improved ability to manage life tasks, and decreases in mental distress.
Even more, nature has been shown to have a positive effect on cognitive function, memory and attention, impulse control, school performance, imagination and creativity.
Evidence supports an association between common types of nature experience and a reduction of risk factors and burden of some types of mental illness.
Specifically, experiences in nature are associated with improved sleep and reduced stress, which in turn decrease risk for mental illness.
Evidence suggests that opportunities for some types of nature experience are decreasing in quantity and quality for many people around the globe.
People are increasingly living in more urban areas with less time outdoors, and more time on screens.
Spending time in nature is one of the most effective ways to reduce anxiety and stress. Being in the outdoors helps lift your mood, recharge your mind, and relax your nerves. Combining therapy with the healing effects nature complements and enhances the experience of mental health treatment, allowing a person to connect with a bigger picture, outside of themselves.
The therapists and clinical staff at Blue Ridge are experienced in the therapeutic wilderness model. Many of them have directly experienced the healing and transformation that comes from being in nature. A few of our staff have been clients in wilderness programs themselves! The experience our staff has had allows them to truly appreciate the challenges faced by the teens, young adults, and families we serve.
Who Does Wilderness Therapy Help?
Anxiety is an emotion. It actually serves a positive purpose of alerting the brain to things that are potentially unsafe. A healthy amount of anxiety is what allows people to spring into action and do what is needed to ensure the health and safety of themselves and their family.
If you experience stress and anxiety, then you’re no stranger to how overwhelming it can be. Being unable to concentrate, racing thoughts, excessive worrying, even feeling irritable and restless can all indicate you are experiencing anxiety.
Adolescents and young adults who struggle with anxiety may cope by avoiding social or other positive activities, avoiding school by refusing to go altogether, skipping classes, or getting in trouble for defiant or aggressive behavior. They may also sleep too much or not be able to sleep at all.
Wilderness therapy, including Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, considers the program itself as effective treatment for anxiety because it involves regulated sleep hours, daily exercise and healthy food.
Depression is a mental health disorder that is characterized by a persistently depressed mood, loss of interest in activities, and affects a person’s ability to function in their day-to-day life. Depression affects the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves.
Depression is often described as a feeling of intense sadness, hopelessness, and/or worthlessness that lasts for an extended period of time. Clinical depression is more persistent and often more severe than an episode of depressed mood caused my circumstances that may last a shorter period of time.
Bipolar disorder is another type of mental health disorder that involves a person having periods of time when they have symptoms of clinical depression as well as hypomanic episodes.
The wilderness and wilderness therapy has many benefits for adolescents and young adults who are depressed or have bipolar disorder. The routine and rhythm of the wilderness therapy program is itself effective in that it incorporates a regular sleep schedule, daily physical activity, and nutritious food.
In addition to a healthy schedule and sleep pattern, wilderness therapy provides immersion in nature, which has been shown to have significant positive effects on teens and young adults with depression. A 2012 research study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders shows that interacting with nature improves cognition and mood for individuals with depression. Participants who walked for 50 minutes in a nature setting showed significant increases in memory compared to the participants who walked in an urban setting. This study concluded that interacting with nature may be useful as a supplement in the clinical treatment of major depressive disorder.
Clinically, depression is often treated with short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical-behavior therapy (DBT), interpersonal therapy, and psychodynamic therapy. Mental health clinicians also emphasize the importance of daily exercise and healthy diet as a component for all levels of depression.
Wilderness therapy has become a leading treatment option for depression and anxiety in teens and young adults. The ability to immerse in nature and interact fully alongside a treatment team of licensed mental health professionals creates a perfect recipe for treatment, growth and long-term healing.
Stress is a familiar struggle that most teens, young adults and adults face throughout their lives. When people talk about stress they are usually referring to feeling pressured as well as the way their body responds to the pressure, which could be many things from appetite to memory.
Stress triggers a response in the brain, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. In simple terms, stress triggers a “danger” response in the brain, which makes a person go into an automatic fight, flight or freeze response. This response is automatic and serves the purpose of protecting you from a perceived threat. Like anxiety, stress response is very useful and helpful when it’s necessary to be on high alert or protect yourself, such as when you see a snake or hear a sudden loud noise.
The same type of fight, flight, freeze response is triggered when faced with some type of non-life-threatening difficulties, such as school deadlines, peer conflict, family problems, etc. The world we live in now has teens and young adults in front of screens, dealing with social media pressures, packed schedules, performance, grades, expectations, and many more daily life events that trigger the same stress response. When that stress response is triggered repeatedly, teens and young adults can experience harmful physical and psychological consequences.
Data collected by the American Psychological Association for a survey on Stress in America showed that teens experience stress at the same levels as adults. The teens identified that they know their level of stress is unhealthy, but also did not fully understand the impact stress has on their emotional and physical health.
Here are some of the statistics that teens identified concerning their levels of stress:
Main sources of stress:
83% said school
69% said getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school, and
65% said financial concerns for their family
In response to stress during the last month:
35% reported lying awake at night due to stress
26% reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods due to stress
23% reported skipping meals due to stress
40% of teens felt irritable or angry
36% felt nervous or anxious
36% felt fatigued or tired
31% felt overwhelmed due to stress
26% reported that they snapped at or were short with a classmate or teammate when stressed
51% said someone tells them they seem stressed at least once a month
Teens also reported their average level of stress during the school year as 5.8 out of 10. Their average level of stress in the summer was 4.6.
Why are teens so stressed? Here are some of the common triggers for stress identified by the Stress in America Survey:
Academic stress includes the many pressures of school from pressure to get good grades, pleasing teachers and parents, time management skills, and many more.
It’s not a question that teens put a lot of value into their relationships with their friends. Conflict with peers, family conflict, dating relationships, and pressure to fit in all contribute to the amount of overwhelm teens feel.
Adults that are stressed will inevitably have stressed out kids. When tensions rise in the home it has an effect on the entire family.
Social media also brings with it nonstop access to news and world events, and not always from reliable sources. Hearing about scary news causes concern for personal safety and about the health and safety of family and friends.
Traumatic events have a very deep and lasting effect on teen stress levels.
Major life changes
Moving, divorce, re-marriage/blending families all create a change in daily life and trigger stress for teens.
So, how can wilderness therapy help teens and young adults who are overwhelmed with life and can’t find balance between the pressures of daily circumstances and living a balanced and healthy life?
It turns out that simply being in a forested or wooded area has stress reducing and calming properties. A 2010 study that was published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine had participants walk through a forest or an urban area. The participants who walked in the forest had lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels (the hormone associated with stress).
Nature slows people down and awakens their senses. Being in the woods, away from distraction allows the mind and body to focus on the sights, sounds, and smells of the natural setting around them. When a person’s focus is on nature, it’s not on stressful, negative, and unproductive thoughts.
Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness designed the program to include daily exercise, a regular sleep schedule and healthy food. When teens and young adults include daily exercise, a healthy diet and are getting sufficient sleep, they start to feel better about themselves and about their bodies.
Mindful eating is a daily practice at Blue Ridge. The intention is for students to slow down, taste the food, know why they are eating it, and enjoy it. Mindful eating allows students to become more aware of their bodies and how the food makes them feel. The opposite of mindful eating is “mindless” eating. Mindless eating means the person ignores their body’s “full” signals, stress eating/emotional eating, or eating on auto-pilot.
Exercise is a part of the wilderness therapy program at Blue Ridge. Groups hike almost every day and an exercise session is offered at least once per week. Hiking and exercise are always supervised by staff who guide the students on proper form, purpose of movements, modifications, and motivation. Blue Ridge students are taught the purpose of physical activity and why it is important for personal health and wellness.
Blue Ridge values the important role of nutrition in the whole health of our students. Blue Ridge supports local farmers to provide fresh meats, cheeses and produce for our students. We minimized using big box food suppliers and grocery stores and provide locally grown produce. We believe that positive changes to the students’ diet and our emphasis on holistic nutrition will undoubtedly have a positive impact on our students both physically and emotionally.
In a wilderness therapy setting, students are removed from their comfort zone and immersed in a new culture. Therapists and field staff provide lessons mirroring the larger universe in which they live.
Teens and young adults often have unhealthy problem solving skills and become stuck in unhealthy thinking patterns. Certain strategies work for them in their home environment and patterns of communication are difficult to break. Some teens avoid problems, responsibility, and consequences altogether and this is their way of coping with conflict and difficulties.
The wilderness is an interesting and fascinating facilitator in learning healthy ways to solve problems. The wilderness environment involved removing distractions (peers, TV, phones, social media, etc.) and avoidance strategies. What happens in wilderness therapy, when issues and behaviors arise that are similar to situations that happen at home, students usually find that blame-shifting that worked for them before does not work in the wilderness.
Nature does not respond to attempts at manipulation. Wilderness therapy involves immersion in a primitive wilderness experience. Shelter building, backpacking, daily chores, group cooperation, relationships skills, and problem-solving are taught in the moment. Through their experiences and obstacles in the wilderness, students learn new communication skills, greater sense of responsibility, sense of control, and develop confidence. Students learn to take responsibility for their choices and communicate openly and more assertively.
These essential communication skills translate back to the family as improved conflict resolution, better relationships with family members, better family communication, and an overall understanding for one another.
Wilderness therapy is often confused with Wilderness Experience Programs (WEP). WEPs are defined as, “organizations that conduct outdoor programs in the wilderness or comparable lands for purposes of personal growth, therapy, rehabilitation, education or leadership-organizational development” (Friese, Hendee, & Kinziger, 1998, p. 40). These are non-therapeutic programs that offer experiential learning and leadership development.
Wilderness therapy vs. wilderness experience programs
Both wilderness therapy and wilderness experience programs immerse participants in nature. In many ways being in nature acts as a co-therapist. The student in nature creates a type of partnership that creates meaningful, therapeutic and healing benefits.
Dr. Christine Norton, Ph.D., LCSW and Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Texas State University, is considered to be a specialist in adventure therapy. The difference between the two types of wilderness programs is what she refers to as “a continuum of care.” This is how she describes it: “On one side of the continuum there are programs like Outward Bound, that provide adolescents with therapeutic adventure experiences for personal growth and development… On the other side of the continuum are programs that are known as Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare, a modality of mental health treatment in which clinical staff provide therapy in a wilderness context.”
The main differences between a true wilderness therapy experience and a wilderness education program? There are 3 main differences:
Staff. Wilderness therapy programs’, like Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, staff consist of licensed mental health professionals. Professional staff include therapists, physicians, and psychiatrists. The clinicians who work in a wilderness therapy program are trained and highly skilled in helping students set and achieve clear goals for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
Goals. The overall goal of each of these types of programs is different. WEP programs aim to address specific personal and life issues, but not specific to mental health treatment. Wilderness therapy, on the other hand, involves intentionally incorporating wilderness environments and tailoring the experience to the students’ individual treatment plan. Dr. Norton describes it like this: “Wilderness therapy makes very intentional use of the outdoor wilderness environment, and ties this environment to previous and future therapy.”
Follow Up. Students who complete a wilderness therapy program such as Blue Ridge are given referrals and a plan for aftercare, or a plan for ongoing treatment. Programs for wilderness therapy students may also vary in the length of time they are in treatment, depending on the specific situation. In a non-therapeutic WEP program, students have a specific start and end date to the program and will exit their program with coping skills and strategies.
At Blue Ridge Therapeutic Wilderness, we provide mental health treatment with clinical staff in the context of a primitive wilderness experience as part of our wilderness therapy program.