Adventure Therapy for Addiction

by | Aug 19, 2015 | Addiction | 0 comments

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Ropes courses are among the popular forms of adventure therapy. (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post)

Ropes courses are among the popular forms of adventure therapy. (Allen Eyestone/Palm Beach Post)

It is a commonly known fact that rehabilitation centers offer therapy to those who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, so that they may face their inner demons and begin a process of recovery. When you think of therapy in terms of addiction, you probably think of either one-on-one counseling or group therapy sessions. However, there is another major form of therapy with which you might be much less familiar: adventure therapy.

Adventure therapy may not be the most commonly known concept, but it can be a highly important one for those who utilize it. Many treatment centers are beginning to offer adventure therapy to their patients, as it offers a number of key benefits that standard counseling cannot provide quite as easily. For those who are new to the concept, we will begin this article with a brief definition of adventure therapy before discussing its benefits and some of the various types of adventure therapy that are available. We will then discuss some of the very exciting activities that we offer to patients every weekend.

What Is Adventure Therapy?

A backpacker enjoying a pack raft while camping on Culross Camping was one of the first forms of adventure therapy that ever existed. (Ron Niebrugge/WildNatureImages)

A backpacker enjoying a pack raft while camping on Culross Camping was one of the first forms of adventure therapy that ever existed. (Ron Niebrugge/WildNatureImages)

In layman’s terms, adventure therapy is basically a process of getting out and having fun in sobriety. This, however, is something of an oversimplification of the process. In fact, adventure therapy is such a specific form of psychotherapy that one can actually earn a Master’s degree in adventure therapy at some universities. The word “adventure” points to the fact that this form of therapy often involves outdoor activities, usually with some sort of physically demanding component. This is something that many patients at traditional treatment centers will not receive.

There is some crossover between adventure therapy and other forms of therapy, such as wilderness therapy. While both may take place outdoors, wilderness therapy generally focuses on one’s abilities to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings. Adventure therapy, on the other hand, is geared more toward challenging activities and exercises that will allow patients to overcome obstacles while also having a good time. That is not to say that adventure therapy cannot be emotionally challenging; while the activities in question are often fun, some of them may trigger a patient’s competitive side.

This means that, during adventure therapy, those who are unreasonably demanding in their desires for competition or success may find themselves facing some of the same emotional triggers they used to experience while in active addiction. Fortunately for them, they will not be alone. Adventure therapy is not generally done in a one-on-one session. Instead, adventure therapy is conducted in process groups. Also known as “personal exploration groups,” process groups allow patients to engage in trust-building exercises so that they may work on such vital character attributes as honesty, communication, and the ability to put faith in others. But instead of stereotypical trust building exercises such as falling backward into a person’s arms, they will learn to trust each other by sharing activities such as mountain climbing, kayaking, hiking and zip-lining.

Adventure therapy is actually a fairly old concept. Activities such as camping have been used for therapeutic means in one context or another since the early 1900s. Over the subsequent decades, it grew into something more. It also began to embrace a more varied patient population. It began with psychiatric patients. By the 1930s, it was being used to treat troubled adolescents. Over time, it was discovered that adventure therapy could also be used to bring families or spouses closer together. Most importantly for our purposes, it was also discovered that such therapeutic exercises could play a major role in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol.

The best way to look at adventure therapy would be as a mixture between traditional therapy and good old-fashioned fun. Patients will learn about themselves and about each other. They will learn about cooperation and communication. But more importantly, they will be given a chance to have fun and to feel human again. After long periods of crippling addiction, this is a feeling that cannot be overrated. And on that note, we’d like to begin a more detailed discussion on the benefits of adventure therapy.

Benefits of Adventure Therapy

Many forms of adventure therapy are water-related, allowing you to reap the health benefits of the sea air. (Photoxpress)

Many forms of adventure therapy are water-related, allowing you to reap the health benefits of the sea air. (Photoxpress)

There are some who have questioned whether or not adventure therapy promotes any efficacy as a modality for treatment whatsoever, but studies have shown that it can be quite effective. One study conducted early in the millennium showed that adventure therapy can be particularly effective amongst adolescents, delinquents, and those who are “emotionally or physically challenged.” This is quite telling, given that addiction is a disease with both physical and emotional (not to mention mental and spiritual) components. At the time of this study, however, it was concluded that more research was needed in order to make a full assessment.

That brings us to a more recent study conducted in 2013, which lumped the effects of adventure therapy into several outcome categories. It was found that, to some extent, adventure therapy had the capacity to yield benefits concerning morality and spirituality. There were equal outcomes for physical health, which is sensible considering that many forms of adventure therapy involve some level of exercise. There were also proposed benefits to academic performance, family and social development, and overall behavior. The second-highest number of measured outcomes concerned self-concept, indicating that adventure therapy has the capacity to increase the patient’s self-perception, self-control, and self-efficacy. Most measured outcomes, however, were clinical.

Clinical outcomes mostly concerned mental and psychological health. This feeds into the aforementioned self-control, which is a major facet of addiction recovery. It was also found that adventure therapy can help to decrease the patient’s anxiety. Since there is usually a mild level of risk involved in some activities performed through adventure therapy, it is not uncommon that patients will have to learn how to face their fears in order for this therapy to be successful. This is important, given that anxiety is one of the major co-occurring disorders associated with drug and alcohol addiction.

While it was not studied in terms of adventure therapy, we’d like to make a brief mention of what certified hypnotist John Mongiovi refers to as the “Tetris effect.” Mongiovi writes about a 2012 study which found that drug cravings could be decreased by playing the video game Tetris. As for why this works, it is believed that the rote actions performed in a game of Tetris can condition the addict in such a way as to achieve symptom substitution. The game stimulates the user’s brain in a fashion which is actually quite similar to the neural stimulation experienced when a craving takes place.

The reason that we mention this effect is that, although it has not yet been studied, it seems probable that symptom substitution could arise from repeated adventure therapy as well. Addicts who engage in adventure therapy learn skills such as cooperation and trust while engaging in activities that might cause them to feel self-conscious under normal circumstances. A person with low self-esteem might easily become anxious when engaging in physical activities within a group, because they are inclined to feel at risk of looking inferior. But adventure therapy takes these anxiety triggers and substitutes them with fond memories of having fun and making friends. In the same way that cravings can be replaced by Tetris, anxiety and low self-esteem can be replaced by a drive to socialize and simply enjoy oneself. As addicts, we can be very high-strung; therefore, this ability to relax and make friends while engaging in healthy activities is one of the strongest benefits presented by adventure therapy.

Types of Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy doesn’t always have to take place outdoors. Indoor activities can deliver many of the same benefits. (Photo via The Digest Online)

Adventure therapy doesn’t always have to take place outdoors. Indoor activities can deliver many of the same benefits. (Photo via The Digest Online)

There are many different types of adventure therapy. As we stated previously, some involve a mild level of risk. The amount of risk involved will likely depend on where the adventure therapy is taking place, as well as who is participating. Some venues that offer adventure therapy will really not offer any risk at all, while others might offer such activities as mountain climbing, mountain biking, or skiing.

As we have already mentioned, camping was more or less the original form of adventure therapy. Many other types of adventure therapy will offer very similar activities, such as hiking, backpacking and zip-lining. Notice that most of these activities are somewhat expeditionary, which is common among many types of adventure therapy. Depending upon the location, some courses may even offer activities such as dog sledding.

A fair number of adventure therapy courses take place in, on, or around water. Such activities may include fishing, wakeboarding, canoeing or sailing trips. The number of adventure therapy activities involving water is not too surprising when you consider that water is generally considered to improve mental health. This is particularly true of activities that involve the ocean. Census studies have shown a correlation between a person’s health and their proximity to the sea. Not only does the sea air appear to have many physical health benefits, but being near the ocean can reduce stress while also promoting physical activities such as swimming and surfing.

Not all adventure therapy is necessarily conducted outdoors. While exposure to nature during high-energy activities (also known as “green exercise”) can yield multiple mental health benefits, some locations simply do not offer much access to that type of scenery. There might not be any real wilderness in the surrounding areas, and no nearby mountains or major bodies of water that would enable patients to take advantage of the fresh air and gorgeous surroundings. When access to such scenery is limited in this fashion, then those who wish to practice adventure therapy will have to resort to alternative means such as indoor rock climbing or other high-energy activities that can be performed at a gym or other location. There may not be much to look at, but patients can still work on their cooperation and trust building while also reaping the physical and mental health benefits of fun and exercise.

Yes, adventure therapy can take many forms. Some of these forms will naturally speak more to certain patients than they do to others. Either way, it is comforting to know that such a beneficial form of therapy can be experienced in so many different ways.

Having Fun at Amethyst Recovery

Paddle boarding is one of the many adventure therapy activities that has been offered at Amethyst. (Nicholas A. Collura-Gehrt/Flickr)

Paddle boarding is one of the many fun and exciting activities that has been offered at Amethyst. (Nicholas A. Collura-Gehrt/Flickr)

At Amethyst Recovery, we relish in the ability to offer our patients several fun and exciting activities to increase their enjoyment of sobriety. We have activity trips every Sunday, and are actually planning a camping trip for this coming weekend. The types of activities that we offer our patients are multitudinous to be certain, although we certainly favor more than others. This is largely because many of the activities included in our activity regimen are related to our surroundings. Here at Amethyst, we have the benefit of a gorgeous seaside locale near Florida’s Treasure Coast. We’d be insane not to take advantage of it.

Among our most popular outings are paddle boarding, kayaking, and other water-based activities. In fact, we went on a deep sea fishing trip just this past Sunday. We also have athletic activities such as volleyball and ropes courses. On the lighter side of things, we have some low-risk activities that are not too strenuous (but that still allow our patients to have a good time in sobriety). One particularly interesting example is walking through a labyrinth maze. These are just a few of the incredibly fun activities that we offer each weekend at Amethyst.

We don’t want you to get the wrong idea. Those who enter our programs are not on vacation. The bulk of the week will be hard work, and will take a lot of self-discovery and honesty with oneself in order to succeed. Recovery is not easy. It can, however, be rewarding. And this is the case with our weekend activities. Those who enter our sober living facilities after treatment will likely have close friends, as our weekend activity trips will provide them with unique bonding opportunities that they might not get at many other treatment centers.

Normally, we’d try to end on a strong selling point about our activity regimen and how it adds to the Amethyst experience. This time, we’re going to do things a little differently: we’re going to say nothing at all. Instead, we’ll leave you with some pictures of this past weekend’s deep sea fishing trip. This is just one example of the type of memories that patients can hope to build at Amethyst Recovery. Because no one ever said that treatment can’t be enjoyable. Treatment is a major turning point in every patient’s life. May as well make it a memorable one.

The lines are baited and cast. Time to wait.

The lines are baited and cast. Time to wait.

When the lines aren't pulling, our patients have some time to enjoy the beauty of the water.

When the lines aren’t pulling, our patients have some time to enjoy the beauty of the water.

Believe it or not, this was one of the smaller catches of the day.

Believe it or not, this was one of the smaller catches of the day.

There aren't too many treatment centers where you can catch a fish like this.

There aren’t too many treatment centers where you can catch a fish like this.

Treatment doesn't give you a lot of time to watch TV, so we have to make our own Shark Week.

Treatment doesn’t give you a lot of time to watch TV, so we have to make our own Shark Week.

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Beautiful. Just beautiful.

Even without the fishing, nothing beats a nice boat ride.

Even without the fishing, nothing beats a nice boat ride.

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