Many different terms have been used to identify the diverse methods of treatment in the wilderness environment. Two of these methods of treatment are wilderness therapy and adventure therapy. According to Sanjana Gupta at Very Well Mind, wilderness therapy is an experiential form of therapy that combines outdoor experiences and therapy sessions. “Wilderness therapy is most often used for at-risk adolescents that are placed in environments that are supposed to mimic the challenges within their natural social structures,” says Sabrina Romanoff, Psy.D., a psychologist in private practice.

Romanoff outlines these forms of therapy and what they involve:

  • Wilderness therapy: This form of therapy involves outdoor activities and focuses on perseverance and flexibility.
  • Adventure therapy: This form of therapy includes adventure activities. It is about pushing yourself and taking both physical and emotional risks.

According to Ewert, A., McCormick, B., & Voight, A. (2001), there is a distinction between adventure therapy, wilderness therapy, and outdoor experiential therapy. According to them, adventure therapy uses outdoor activities involving risk with both physical and emotional challenges. Wilderness therapy may use the concept of adaptation or the ability to cope with an environment. Outdoor experiential therapy utilizes the outdoors as a treatment modality to promote “rehabilitation, growth, development, and enhancement of an individual’s physical, social, and psychological well-being through the application of structured activities involving direct experience”. The latter may be part of a residential treatment program.

Adventure therapy is a type of experiential therapy that uses challenging adventure activities to aid the therapeutic healing process. Adventure therapy helps promote healthy identity development, self-efficacy, grit, and a growth mindset.

More recently, adventure therapy has evolved to include the use of adventure activities supported by traditional therapy. Often, adventure therapy is conducted in groups or families, although it is increasingly being used for individuals. Adventure therapy approaches psychological treatment through experience and action within cooperative games, trust activities, problem-solving initiatives, high adventure, outdoor pursuits, and wilderness expeditions. Some believe that in adventure therapy, there must be a real or perceived psychological and or physical risk, generating a level of challenge or perceived risk. Challenge can be viewed as significant in eliciting desired behavioral changes. Positive behavior changes, which are synonymous with psychological healing, can occur through a variety of processes. For example, through the use of vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and overwhelming mastery experiences, participants’ efficacy in the adventure activity may be increased. These increases may then be generalized to treatment outcomes within and across life domains. Five factors can be used to promote generalization of efficacy across domains: overwhelming mastery experiences, identification of similar sub-skills, co-development of sub-skills, cognitive restructuring of efficacy beliefs, and generalizing sub-skills. Debriefing or processing provides a context for implementing therapeutic techniques related to the desired outcomes. It typically involves facilitators leading a discussion to help participants internalize the experience and relate it to therapeutic goals.

Benefits of Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy is a powerful treatment approach for anxiety, depression, trauma, PTSD, grief, loss, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders. It can be an exciting and productive element of family or relationship therapy. Adventure therapy has shown to be beneficial for the treatment of schizophrenia. It is highly beneficial for adolescents, teenagers, young adults, and individuals with various mental health concerns.

The benefits of adventure therapy are far-reaching. It gives participants the opportunity to experience positive and negative natural consequences of their decisions, and it increases engagement in the treatment process. According to researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, engaging with nature alone reduces anxiety and depression, improves cognitive function, and increases creativity.

Different types of adventure activities produce different types of benefits. For example, cooperative activities promote trust, mutual respect, positive interactions, and deeper relationships. Initiative activities require participants to take the initiative to communicate, solve problems and make decisions together, and they promote cooperation and communication skills, coping skills, and problem-solving skills. Trust and support activities involve situations where participants aren’t in total control and must therefore rely on others to accomplish a task. These activities promote healthy boundaries and the development of self-confidence in one’s ability to support others in a positive way. They also enable participants to experience the positive effects of a trusting relationship.

According to the Institute for Outdoor Learning, general adventure therapy benefits include:

  • Relief from mental fatigue
  • Better concentration and focus
  • Better physical and mental health and wellbeing
  • A more positive outlook
  • An enhanced ability to cope with stress and negative emotions
  • Realistic goal-setting
  • Improved management of impulsive behaviors

A high-quality adventure therapy program will be facilitated by a trained, experienced adventure therapist, and it will follow the best-practices guidelines set forth by the Association for Experiential Education.

Adventure therapy is a fun, engaging, and worthwhile treatment therapy that can have a long-lasting impact on individuals who participate.