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Wilderness Therapy
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Jon Priest
(jwetzelp) - F

Locale: Central Arkansas
Wilderness Therapy on 05/23/2007 14:25:15 MDT Print View

I want this discussion to be as open and subjective as possible so please read what you will into the following question:

What type of therapy do you feel being in the wilderness/backcountry provides?

Therapy can mean any spiritual and/or mental change/rejuvenation/improvement/re-centering and wilderness experience can mean any backcountry activity (although I expect backpacking will be discussed most).

And while the question is intentionally ambiguous, I'd like for those who answer to be specific in relating the "therapy" they receive from wilderness activities. How do you feel/behave before going and what is different when you get back? What processes do you go through on trips that facilitate this change?

I realize that there are many wilderness therapy programs out there that provide empirically-validated behavioral improvement, but am interested in hearing in a most personal way what the "mechanism(s)" of such experiences is/are for you who seek them so ardently.

john flanagan
(jackfl) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/23/2007 15:03:41 MDT Print View

Jon - sorry, but I have to wonder...why do you ask? My sense from the way you've framed the question is that there is an underlying and unstated professional interest. If that's the case, it would be nice to know up front. If it's not, are you simply asking "why do you love it so?"

Jeremy Weaver
(JeremyWeaver) - F

Locale: Bellingham, WA
Nature's Attraction on 05/23/2007 21:17:10 MDT Print View

I am defiantly part of the desensitized vision generation. When I head out, it is for that absolute hearing. Most people might find that the noises around them in far away nature are scary and chaotic. I find nature quite and understanding. You can hear sound bits of wind, birds, and rain; my actions in that environment make the moment. Every step, every breath.

Jon Priest
(jwetzelp) - F

Locale: Central Arkansas
Re: Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/23/2007 22:29:47 MDT Print View


To be 100% transparent, as a professional counselor I've read much research on the utility of wilderness therapy as a brief experiential therapeutic intervention (particularly with troubled teens). And given that I'm passionate about backpacking and the therapy it provides me personally, I've made it a career goal of mine to design and implement a wilderness therapy program for "at-risk" teens in Arkansas. The trouble with science though is that it can't quantify feelings, and so I'm really interested in knowing what backpacking "does" for people's minds and spirits. I was hoping that I could know some of that through responses to this thread

So, all that is to say, yes, I have a professional interest (as a mental health professional), but that does not change the fact that I have nothing to gain immediately besides getting to know some really cool people and fellow backpackers much better.


Jon Priest
(jwetzelp) - F

Locale: Central Arkansas
Re: Nature's Attraction on 05/23/2007 22:31:55 MDT Print View


So it sounds like it provides kind of a refocusing, or recalibration even, of your senses. It allows you to feel and perceive a more natural way than society/civilization allows sometimes.

Is that it?

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/23/2007 22:56:21 MDT Print View

What I think it does is allow people to fully use their entire mind and body sensory array as it was designed to be used. I think that when we are out there that sense of being "fully engaged" comes out of our clicking into place with the surrounding environment. Even our emotions are shaped by it, hence the initial fear and the feeling of overwhelming bigness that, once we learn to see it and understand its details, becomes an extension of our entire physical being. When you click into place you are no longer just an individual separated from what is around you. You become an aspect of the landscape. To survive you have to understand the landscape. To understand the landscape you have to let yourself and your preconceptions of what you want go. To let go you have to allow yourslef to be smaller than the whole, and that is perhaps what facilitates the healing process. Humility is a great way to learn about peace.

Edited by butuki on 05/23/2007 23:00:12 MDT.

Denis Hazlewood
(redleader) - MLife

Locale: Luxury-Light Luke on the Llano Azul
Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/24/2007 11:28:20 MDT Print View

Being out in the wilderness may take one away from the day-to-day tribulations of ones "other" life. One still has time to agonize over troubling issues while plodding up a steep trail.

In my own experience sailing single-handed in a small boat was the perfect therapy. There was no room in the boat for any shore-side issues. And I was out on the "wilderness" of the wind and water.

David Olsen

Locale: Steptoe Butte
Re: Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/24/2007 12:15:24 MDT Print View

Boy, there is a lot that happens on many levels. Here are
some I can think of.

Daily physical activity will clear out excess adrenaline that causes anxiety and depression.

Chance for at risk kids to get off of cigarettes, coffee,
alcohol, pot etc. and regain a clear head.

With proper guidance, ten group theory suggests social skills can be challenged and improved.

Potential for leadership development in the various

Pride of accomplishment and improved physical health.

Kurt Hahn's philosophy- challenges increase a persons
ability to deal with and survive life's threats and difficulties.

And the mountains speak for themselves.

john flanagan
(jackfl) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/24/2007 14:59:30 MDT Print View

Thanks for that insight. Like Dave, I think that there are so many things going on at so many levels - and many varibles. A few things that I can offer from quick reflection...

My most profound experiences has occured under a fairly narrow set of circumstances. They are often when alone (even if taking a short solo when traveling with a group). They often involve heightened appreciation of beauty that I can't reach when socially distracted. These become important emotional / intellectual touchstone "images" that I can return to years later. The experience is typically deeply medative and center on tiny landscape details such as grass bending in the rain or light through a river wave.

They often (not always) occur on longer trips after the flushing some of the "life at home" worries out of my system. Sometimes it takes a few days to get re-sensitized.

One aspect of solo travel that I think is useful, though tough to build into a program, is full ownerships of decisions made. If I'm wrong about the weather holding on a ridge walk...I own it.

Conversely, most of the metaphor that I use in my work as a trainer / educator is rooted in group travel. Situations where real or perceived risk is involved are especially fruitful. Different activities lend themselves to different insights. River travel => "focus tightly on where you want to go, not where you want to avoid," "if you aren't going to make the line you wanted, commit passionately to the one you've got," etc. Climbing => "one step at a time," "master the detail." And so on.

Again to mirror Dave and paraphrase Kurt Hahn - "the foremost task of education is to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all compassion." The wilderness is a magnificent labratory for discovering / building on these capacities. I would add to that the capacity for perceiving beauty and being enriched by it.

Jon Priest
(jwetzelp) - F

Locale: Central Arkansas
Good Stuff! on 05/24/2007 23:22:50 MDT Print View

This is great stuff, guys!

Miguel, you make a good point when you speak of how backpacking puts in sharp relief just how we fit into the natural world. I think that flows well into the point Jack made about the wilderness being a wonderfully unforgiving and honest lab in which to experiment different ways of interacting with something larger than oneself.

And, Jack, you are right that building full ownership of consequences into a therapeutic intervention is very difficult. But I think that with truly empathic experientially oriented therapy, we can actually best experience consequences in a very temporal way. And group outings such as those used in wilderness therapy programs often intentionally allow one's decisions to affect others so that the impact on the system the client is a part of can be easily seen and experienced.

Keep it coming!

Just as a hypothetical example

Brian UL

Locale: New England
Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/25/2007 00:45:46 MDT Print View

To answer this question one would lapse into poetic prose like Emerson or Blake ! But I think we should remember that we were designed (evolved) in mind/body/spirit to live in the natural enviroment. As a genaration Xer the escape from Mtv,Good moring America,Opera,Springer and the endless Anthropological/Marketing Graduate students, ceasless loud and invasive manipulating corprate/politcal propaganda, identity politics and the manipulation of identity through the politics of rebellion/conformity and the CO-Option of all rebellion by the mainstream, and the generall apathy and stupidity post-modern civilization provides- its more nessasary for us to be centered and shed the offensive patronizing artifice of society and return to the "source" so to speak. In other words, in terms of at risk children I think the outdoors removes them from the conflicting messages and influence of the "media" or "society" or what ever you want to call it and enables them to develope in a healthy natural enviroment where they are surronded not by the things I listed but "reality" (nature) and reality brings one of the most importent gifts of all - knowledge, perspective.
-I would add to clarifiy what was said, that in everyday life especialy in the city one has to tune out and contantly filter out what one sees and hears (advertisments, strangers) to keep sane as its mostly offensive/manipulating! The opposite is true in the country, one opens up and becomes what feels like hyper-sensitive to the enviroment and you find beauty and wonder in everything you see and hear ! "The mind-forg'd manacles I hear" - William Blake 'London'

Edited by MAYNARD76 on 05/25/2007 01:14:03 MDT.

john flanagan
(jackfl) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/25/2007 08:18:02 MDT Print View

There's a mouthful...Brian though I basically agree with you, that's a lot of weight to ask someone to carry.

In my experience, youth at risk programs run something like this. Kids are having a tough time, for lots of reasons. Some are good kids whose life sucks and they react self-destructively. Some I am sorry to say are simply rotten people (and yes I know that there is another point of view on that). They are offered a chance to be part of a program. Sometimes its either that or detention. Some of them are desperate and really want help. Others are just PO'd and want nothing to do with it. They are pulled into a group led by a well intentioned and generally skilled instructor who leads them through charactor forming experiences. Typically, their packs and gear are heavy and institutional. They are not inclined to pack them carefully. They do not have outdoor oriented clothing - often their parents do the best they can with what they have. They find themselves walking up a long hill with a heavy pack on a hot day in blackfly season. They struggle with discomfort that you have come to accept as part of a routine or learned how to avoid. For most, it is not an idyllic experience. The instructor / therapist takes the reactions to all of this and processes it in the hopes that they can "transfer" what is learned back to 'normal' life (at a minimum, it is a great way to learn endurance and perserverance). A few resonate to it and others can't WAIT to get back to their gameboy - and in fact have to watched 24/7 or they're gone in the night. My point is that you really can't compare this experience to your own in the wilderness - it's not apples to apples.

To your point about culture - it's nothing if not absorbant. One of the short-comings of programs is that no matter how successful, the children typically return to whence they came - and many revert to the coping behaviors that got them in trouble in the first place.

So Jon - my opinions for what little they are worth:
- focus both on the wilderness experience and the home environment. The best chance of success is to intervene in both

- accept that it won't work for all. Let kids wash out if the approach won't work for them. Seek an alternative of better fit

- be iterative; use a series of experiences over time. You've got to keep tapping the wheel to keep it rolling. Remember that even for those who love wilderness travel, some trips are better than others

- reward success; build to capstone experience (a trip to the rockies?)

- provide decent equipment. See the recent dialogues about NOLS shift toward lighter gear. It does matter. Note that in most programs instructors do not use the gear that they provide students. Why do you think that is????

- incorporate the opportunity to overcome fear but don't over-rely on it (typically this looks like ropes courses or rock climbs). I think that the notions of "challenge by choice" is empowering - being too heavy handed in 'encouraging' kids through these activities is counter-productive. It also probably quickly approaches ethical boundaries.

- I find real value in the "comfort zone/discomfort zone/danger zone" learning model. It is that most learning occurs when you are uncomfortable, and not when you are either too comfortable or in a high degree of real or perceived danger. You've asked for input from a group whose comfort zone in the wilderness is very wide. It's important to recognize that your clients have a MUCH narrower band. So for example, in a mixed group a teen-aged girl having her period may feel at terrible physchic risk. Someone who has never seen a tick may freak out...even if they don't say anything about it; going to the bathroom becomes an act of courage. In fact, I think that you may be able to frame wilderness therapy as helping kids to change their reactions to uncomfortable situations, develop a wider perception of what is safe, improve judgement / discernment about what is dangerous and provide constructive options for response.

For what it's worth :~)

Edited by jackfl on 05/25/2007 09:52:07 MDT.

john flanagan
(jackfl) - F

Locale: New England
Re: Re: Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/25/2007 10:12:23 MDT Print View

Wait - there's more. I'm not sure that what we get out of it has to be the same as what they get out of it. Think about Maslow. We go to the wilds for self-actualization. I gotta say that's not likely where they're coming from.

And the term youth-at-risk. One could ask "at risk of what"? The common response might be "of jail time and a crappy life." But that's looking past a child's horizonline. It doesn't compute. More likely they're at risk of getting the bejesus beat out of them, or losing the few friends they think they have if they give up their bad habits.

So wilderness time for them may provide something as simple as a break from the threat of violence. Or the opportunity to make new friends in a constructive environment. You may hope to get them to a place where they have the same spiritual gain that the BPL "we" experience, but I'd be satisfied with / define success a little be closer to your clients day to day reality.

Edited by jackfl on 05/25/2007 10:13:21 MDT.

Ken Spry
(spryken) - F

Locale: North Carolina
Re: Wilderness Therapy on 05/25/2007 12:59:59 MDT Print View

Let me approach this from a couple of angles.

First, for myself...I go to the outdoors, backpacking specifically, to unwind, rejuvenate, unplug, commune with nature and recharge. Like a lot of people, I work in an office and sit in front of a computer all day. Getting out allows me to "escape". I purposefully leave my mp3 players, cd players and radios at home. I love music, but when I hike I want to leave that all behind.

I tend to "zone" out while hiking. My brain disengages and wanders where it will. Sometimes that will be working out problems at home/work, but usually it just runs wild.

Second, I am a Scout Master for a local Boy Scout Troop and I often take a group of boys out for backpacking. Their responses constantly amaze me. We do not allow electronic devices, except for GPSr's. At first, the enforced disconnect from the technological world usually had them complaining. Now, the older boys insist on it.

I took a group to Philmont, NM in 2005, mainly 15 year olds. I overheard them on the return talking to others about the "favorite" part of the trip. I expected some of the activities to be high on the list, burro racing, shooting, etc. But no, almost everyone talked about the sunrise from the ridge, or the number of stars. They talked in hushed, awe filled voices. Sure they overcame hardships. WE (adults) were led by them. They had to make the decisions. We did not rescue them. They misread maps, got "lost" for a while, but overcame every obstacle.

Therapy for the boys was growing in self-reliance. Therapy for me was getting back in touch with the quietude of nature. We shared and grew together.

Dang, I can never get it right. Every time I try to explain to family or friends, I only get part of why I do it. I do know it is therapeutic for me. I do know that if I don't get out for a period of time, I crave it.

Maybe it is an addiction instead of therapy.