Wilderness Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Substance use disorders can be crippling and life-ruining conditions. Fortunately, inpatient treatment centers have developed ways of treating addiction that is very effective. These programs usually combine detox from drugs and alcohol with a variety of individual and group therapy techniques. An effective treatment plan not only tackles the substance abuse but also gets to the root cause of addiction in a person’s life. 

In some special cases, addicts need an extra amount of separation from the outside world in order to get away from their triggers to use drugs or alcohol. This is where wilderness therapy for addiction comes in. Wilderness therapy involves removing struggling addicts from the environment that causes them problems, and it supports traits like self-reliance and confidence, which help them to stay clean when they return to daily life.

What is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy is an intensive kind of experiential therapy for addiction. It combines experiences in nature and survival situations with more traditional talk therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. A wilderness therapy outing leader will be a competent outdoor leader, as well as a skilled talk therapist. In wilderness therapy, both the therapists and the environment take part in the addiction treatment process.

The wilderness therapy process begins by assessing an addict’s situation and needs. Next, a plan is made to take the client out into nature with a skilled leader. Wilderness therapy can be a one-on-one experience between a therapist and the patient, or it can be a group outing with multiple patients and multiple leaders. 

There are two main types of wilderness therapy programs: base camp and expedition. In base camp programs, recovering addicts and the program leaders live at a base camp. Usually, talk therapies and other addiction treatment takes place at the camp. Clients and leaders leave the camp to go on wilderness expeditions, which may be short day trips or multi-day events.

In expedition programs, addiction recovery and wilderness skills are both worked on ‘in the field’. Clients and therapists live in the wilderness for the entire length of the treatment program. Therapy sessions and support groups happen in nature. These courses can be up to 8 weeks long, but they usually last around 3 weeks. In some expedition programs, the same group of clients and leaders stay together the entire time. In others, therapists and leaders cycle in and out while clients stay for longer periods of time.

Who Should Try Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy addiction treatment is a good option for anyone who is dealing with a crisis related to substance abuse. Many programs focus on younger addicts. In fact, wilderness adventure therapy is best known for treating substance use disorders in teens. However, it is also a very effective treatment method for adults.

While wilderness therapy can be a powerful tool to use as the first line of treatment, it is usually implemented after traditional techniques have failed. Most of the adults in wilderness therapy programs have already gone through another type of alcohol or drug rehab, and have since relapsed. Addicts who need some extra space from their daily lives and the triggers involved should look into trying wilderness therapy for addiction treatment.

In wilderness therapy, therapists implement common addiction recovery techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy, Gestalt therapy, family therapy, and support groups. But this is only half of the treatment approach. 

The other half involves ‘letting nature do the work’. Activities like hiking, camping, and learning survival skills help to build the confidence of clients. In this environment, they remember how competent they are and they feel happier and more fulfilled. Many studies have shown the positive effect that being in nature has on people’s mental health.

Clients do not have to love being in nature to benefit from wilderness therapy. In fact, people who do not normally find themselves in nature could be even better candidates for this approach. This is because by pushing their comfort zones, they can gain a new sense of confidence and self-responsibility which they can carry with them back into their daily life.

How Does Wilderness Therapy Work?

If it begins to rain during a wilderness therapy trip, and clients choose not to set up a tent or tarp to keep themselves dry, they get wet. This is the beauty of this intense kind of experiential therapy for addiction. Clients in this situation have no one to blame for their discomfort but themselves, just as they have no one to blame for their substance abuse. This is a hard lesson to learn, but nature has a way of teaching it with both harshness and grace.

When combined with traditional addiction therapy methods, this kind of lesson from nature can be very powerful for substance abuse treatment. Usually, wilderness therapy addiction treatment has three main phases. These phases are outlined below:

Phase One: The Cleanse

This phase is pretty self-explanatory. Similar to the detox phase of an inpatient treatment program, the goal of the cleanse phase in wilderness therapy is to remove clients from the environment that supports their substance abuse. In this phase, clients can expect to exercise a lot and learn about survival and outdoor skills. They will be fed a diet that is very healthy. During this phase, toxins are removed from the body, and the resolve of clients is strengthened by exercising and preparing for the nature expedition. 

Treatment such as cognitive behavioral therapy is kept to a minimum during the cleanse phase. During this part of the process, group leaders let the skill-building, exercise, and diet serve as the therapy. Deeper digging into the psyche of clients comes later in the process.

Phase Two: Understanding Responsibility

Remember our rain anecdote from above? This concept is central to the second phase of wilderness therapy for addiction treatment. The lesson of responsibility is taught on a personal and social level. Clients learn that their actions have consequences. The more they are willing to engage in and learn from the program, the more comfortable they will be. 

Furthermore, in group outings, the comfort of the group depends on the same willingness from each person. For example, if it is someone’s turn to cook for the group and they were not paying attention during the fire-building lesson, everyone will be hungry that evening. This kind of social responsibility teaches recovering addicts that their actions have consequences that affect both themselves and others

During this phase, therapy is kept to a minimum. However, group leaders do insert themselves to help clients understand the relationship between the lessons they are learning and their addiction.

Phase Three: The Transition

The transition phase of wilderness therapy for addiction is probably the most crucial step. In this phase, therapists work to help clients understand how to translate what they have been learning in the course to stay clean. This is where therapy techniques come into play to address thoughts and feelings that a client may have about being an addict.

The hope is that clients will have a new sense of confidence and belief in themselves, as well as a new understanding of how their substance abuse affects not only themselves but others. Therapy will focus on the root causes of addiction, and how clients can apply their newly learned skills to avoid relapse.

What are the Benefits of Wilderness Therapy?

This approach is one of the most powerful types of experiential therapy for addiction treatment. There are many benefits for recovering addicts. These benefits include increased confidence, better problem-solving abilities, and a wide range of skills and knowledge which clients can apply to their lives.

In addition, being out in nature for a long period of time gives patients the opportunity to reflect on their lives, and think about what they want moving forward. This space could be just what a client has been needing to gain perspective on their addiction and choose to turn their life around. 

Wilderness therapy can save an addict’s life. Nature is both a harsh and a gentle teacher, and when combined with professional therapy techniques, it can completely change an addict’s path. Still, wilderness therapy is often used as a last resort for teens and adults. Inpatient treatment can be an effective tool as well, and it is common to try a more traditional treatment program before resorting to wilderness therapy.

  1. https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/wrc/Pdf/jeev24-2.pdf
  2. https://obhcouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/article2.pdf
  3. https://www.strugglingteens.com/opinion/wildernesstherapy.html
  4. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/evidence-based-approaches-to-drug-addiction-treatment/behavioral

Written by Spring Hill Recovery Editorial Team

© 2024 Spring Hill Recovery | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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