Adventure therapy, as a distinct and separate form of psychotherapy, has become prominent since the 1960s. Influences from a variety of learning and psychological theories have contributed to the complex theoretical combination within adventure therapy.
Spending time in nature through outdoor therapy can improve mental health in a number of ways. For one, time outdoors has been shown to decrease levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Moreover, being outside in nature is proven to reduce stress by lowering the stress-associated chemical cortisol.
Additionally, being surrounded by nature can inspire newfound tranquility and positivity.
Research has found that experiencing awe, such as one might feel while immersed in a lush forest or surveying a scenic mountain landscape, can encourage more generous, positive social behaviors. It also takes us out of our own heads, helping us focus us on something bigger than ourselves.
Furthermore, unplugged time in nature helps regulate mood disturbance and nervous system arousal caused by too much time in front of screens.
“Adventure therapy is a mental health discipline that uses the natural environment to help individuals cope with and overcome cognitive, behavioral, social, and effective disorders. It prioritizes a therapeutic process in which goal setting, personal decision-making, accountability, and achieving outcomes are used to develop positive behaviors.”
Put simply, adventure therapy is about using the wonder and awe of nature to help heal people. Think of that amazing feeling you get when you hike a path you once thought was impassable; or the sense of accomplishment you feel when you reach one of highest peaks; or how rejuvenated you feel after paddling further than you’ve ever gone. Now imagine giving that feeling to someone who is struggling. That’s adventure therapy.
Dr. Christine L. Norton, is a licensed social worker, an associate professor of social work at Texas State University in San Marcos, and one of the leading research scientists with the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Norton has led Outward Bound trips and directed outdoor experiential therapy programs for girls, boys, and transgender people and she values the therapeutic side of experiential learning as much as the fun of being outdoors.
“We’re not just going out and playing games, backpacking or doing a climbing day,” she told Misadventures in a 2015 interview. “We’re actually using that activity and the outdoor context to really enhance and empower the client, and to align the goals with their treatment goals.”
This approach is about creating safe spaces in which clients and instructors—regardless of gender—are supported, respected, transparent, and unafraid of vulnerability. “We all need to be able to say: ‘What level of physical and emotional support do I need in this experience?”
Berman, D. S. & Davis-Berman, J. (1995). Outdoor education and troubled youth.
Gass, M. A. (1993). Adventure in therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure programming in mental health settings. Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.
Parker, M. W. (1992). Impact of adventure interventions of traditional counseling interventions (ropes course). Unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma.