Adventure Therapy

It’s not hard to believe that adding a bit of adventure to your life might make you feel better. I’m sure you’ve had that moment when you’ve finally won your first game of tennis against someone you’ve never beaten. You took strategic risks that pushed you out of your comfort zone and could have ended in disaster, but didn’t. Your opponent was unable to predict your game and you kept him off balance and won the key points. It was exciting. Exhilarating. An adventure.

I’m not a great tennis player. Calling my tennis, “not great” is being generous, but I do enjoy hitting the ball around every now and then. The people I play with don’t keep score, but we are still competitive. We want that feeling that we made a great shot even if the shot was insanely stupid. As long as it’s in the lines, it’s good. Sometimes the goal is to see who can win the point with the craziest shot. You have to put all your pride and common sense aside and commit to the insanity. Take a chance because sometimes it pays off.

Most of my adventure comes from the outdoors. If you’ve read my past blogs, you’ll know this already. I find the outdoors a great place to push my boundaries both physically and mentally. I enjoy that moment when I’m completely engaged in an activity and have to think on my feet to quickly solve a problem or face the consequences in the form of scrapes or bruises or being a little lost. For example, knowing how much speed to use on a mountain bike descent so I don’t get bounced around like a bouncy castle in a windstorm or route finding when I’m scrambling so I don’t end up with a helicopter ride home (i.e. being rescued by helicopter).

These moments of being engrossed in an activity that pushes limits are called “flow” experiences. I’ve talked about them before in Surfing and Respite from PTSD. People who enjoy flow experiences on a regular basis live happier lives than people who do not. As the foremost leader in flow research, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explains in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

With this in mind, does it surprise anyone that adventure has become a form of mental health therapy?

Research out of the University of New Hampshire suggests that adventure therapy may be helpful in stress management. The researchers, led by Haley Koperski, looked at the impact of adventure therapy on stress, coping skills, and how well participants and therapists worked together.

So, what is adventure therapy? At its most basic level, it’s helping clients overcome or manage a mental health issue by placing them in unique environments and having them complete a challenge. It creates a setting where the therapist has more opportunities to have meaningful interactions with their clients, thereby increasing the effectiveness of their sessions. Through this process, participants learn coping strategies that they can apply to their everyday lives.

The adventure therapy study consisted of 31 predominantly female (71 percent) and Caucasian (84 percent) participants with an average age of 41 years. Participants were receiving counselling at a community mental health centre in Florida for relationship issues, work related stress, and major life changes.

The researchers tracked participant progress by administering surveys that measured stress, coping skills, and participant experiences with their therapists.

Adventure therapy took the form of problem-solving games and initiatives, and outdoor adventures such as sailing, kayaking, canoeing, or tree climbing. The activities allowed therapists to create a positive or beneficial type of stress called eustress by placing participants outside of their comfort zone. The activities allowed therapists to assess participants’ coping strategies by helping them recognize how they currently cope with stressful situations, identifying situations when they need to change strategies, and practicing what they have learned. Furthermore, participants were allowed to choose their goal for the session and type of activity.

Participants had two 50-minute sessions and one 90-minute session per month – activities would range form 30 to 90 minutes within the session.

The results of the study showed that participant stress levels decreased after engaging in adventure therapy and they improved their coping by using a mixture of strategies to alleviate negative stress. Furthermore, adventure therapy contributed to positively influencing the working relationship between participant and therapist, which has been shown to enhance the effectiveness of a therapy. The researchers believe that the experiential nature of adventure therapy empowered the participants to take more responsibility for their change – as opposed traditional therapist-centered therapies – resulting in meaningful and effective change.

Now this wasn’t a perfect study due to the small sample size, gender and ethnic bias: remember 71 percent were female and 84 percent Caucasian. These all contribute to the study not being representative of the overall population. Furthermore, there was no control group (for example, one group would receive adventure therapy and the control group would receive a different therapy or no therapy at all), which is helpful in identifying if the results occurred by chance (if the same number of people in both groups had similar results, then the therapy would be considered ineffective) and if the effects of the therapy were significant when compared with people who did not have adventure therapy.

However, the results do show promise for adventure therapy. Anecdotally, my experiences having adventures in the outdoors have provided me with plenty of physical and mental health benefits: being out in nature makes me feel calm, navigating challenging terrain improves my problem solving and coping skills, and it keeps me physically fit and healthy. It’s just the right amount of eustress.

My recommendation to you is to get outside and have an adventure. Do it with people you trust and make sure they know what they’re doing if you don’t, and don’t go beyond your comfort zone. Push your limits, but don’t traumatize yourself. Remember, it’s supposed to be a positive experience.

Rodney Steadman 20 August 2015

Works Cited

Koperski H, Tucker AR, Lung DM, & Gass MA (2015). The Impact of Community Based Adventure Therapy on Stress and Coping Skills in Adults. The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology, 4 (1), 1-16.

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