Many of us are drawn to recharging by spending time in nature. Sitting underneath the trees and listening to the wind can help calm our nervous system. Standing on top of a mountain and overlooking a huge area of land can put all our problems into perspective. Exploring the outdoors is fun. From kayaking to ropes courses to rock climbing, or just simply taking a walk, there is something for everyone in the great outdoors.
The wilderness offers peace and contemplation, which is why an adventure/wilderness therapy program can be very effective for teens.
The Reason We Feel Better When We’re in Nature
Our bodies react to nature in many ways that can affect and improve our state of mind. When you’re in a natural environment, out from under the fluorescent lights and moving around in the daylight, you can naturally reestablish your circadian rhythms.
Camping can particularly help with this, as getting up with the sun and sleeping while it’s dark reestablishes healthy sleep patterns. James Nippert, lead field therapist at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy, said, “Sleep patterns will deeply impact appetite, activity, depression, and anxiety in teens.” Prolonged time outdoors helps reset our nervous system to its natural state.
2 Ways Nature Affects Our Mental State
When you’re free from distractions, you can focus on the basics and what really matters. Getting teens outdoors allows them to reflect. Nippert explained:
“They’re able to think about the answers to all sorts of questions. Are my needs met? Do I have enough? Am I OK in this moment? They can check in with their body, their temperature, and their wellness.”
One other major benefit of enjoying the outdoors together is that being in others’ company, accomplishing something together, and experiencing the same thing helps establish a strong connection. Nippert said, “Particularly in this last year of isolation that we’ve lived through, there’s a real need for richer human connections than those that come from electronics.” A deep sense of bonding occurs when we do activities together and have to rely on people to get through the experience or activity as a group. Outdoor activities allow for experiential learning, helping us to learn from each other, expand social skills, and build trust and a sense of safety through teamwork.
The Dual Benefits of Adventure/Wilderness Therapy
Some adolescents and young adults may be nervous about the wilderness. The noises, the discomfort, and the challenges can seem scary or daunting.
But in overcoming those worries during adventure/wilderness therapy programs with mental health professionals, they’ll naturally build self-confidence and feel more comfortable facing difficult things with adaptability. Through experiencing that they’re stronger than they thought, they’ll gain the sense of self-reliance and safety that are integral building blocks for emotional wellbeing.
Adventure/wilderness therapy is also a very practical teacher. Nippert explained:
“(Nature is) not aligned with what you feel emotionally. It’s going to show up how it’s going to show up. Your feelings won’t change the fact that it’s too warm or too cold.”
Nature can teach young people that their rage or any other negative feeling isn’t useful in that moment. “Learning to take life on life’s terms becomes really apparent in the natural world,” Nippert said.
He added, “The distance from electronics also helps teens settle in and gets them ready to do the deeper therapeutic work that’s often necessary.”
What Conditions Does Adventure/Wilderness Therapy Help Treat?
Adventure/wilderness therapy can help participants with mental health issues, including:
- Trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Reactive attachment.
- Online or gaming addiction.
- Eating disorders.
- Drug addiction.
When teens don’t feel OK on the inside and don’t know how to navigate that, being out in nature helps them learn how to take effective action. What’s effective action in practice? Nippert explained:
“I don’t feel good in this moment. I’m cold. What do I do? I take effective action. I put on an extra layer so I can get through this hike.”
Adventure through experiential therapy teaches teens the basics of learning how to push through a struggle. If a teen with depression believes that they can’t do anything or that their actions are meaningless, when they learn to push through during adventure therapy, they learn self-efficacy and how to “do hard times better,” as Nippert put it. He added:
“All too often in therapy, kids are coming in, and they’re thinking ‘I’m supposed to feel good — I don’t feel good,’ but what they’re actually struggling with is how to be OK when things don’t feel good.”
Adventure/wilderness therapy teaches them how to handle the things they find challenging, like avoiding substance abuse during an emotional time or getting out of bed and facing their peers while experiencing social anxiety.
It teaches us resilience and develops our strength and self-esteem. Adventure therapy helps treat mental health conditions that can lead to seeking numbness and avoiding the act of feeling. Whether it’s depression, drug addiction, or gaming addiction in teens, they’re coping in ways that allow them to not deal with the world.
“Adventure therapy treatment programs demand that we step up to the plate and start experiencing and dealing with the world,” Nippert said. They do so by giving teens an avenue to develop the tools they need to deal with their own life experiences, and within the context of relationships, as they’re doing it beside people that they learn to trust. “It shows us that we’re not alone in dealing with our experiences and feelings, which is a key element of trauma therapy,” he added.
Getting Outside More
From teaching problem-solving to improving physical health, the positive outcomes of engaging in outdoor adventure are numerous. Physical challenges build self-awareness, improve decision-making skills, and enhance the therapeutic process or mental health treatment.
If you want to encourage your child to get outdoors more, some simple tips include:
- Make it a routine or tradition. From Sunday afternoon bike rides that end at an ice cream store to an annual family backpacking trip, by making outdoor activities a regular thing with your loved one, it can become something that they start to look forward to or at least come to expect.
- Hone in on their interests. Choose activities that they’ve shown an interest in or that they like. If you’re having trouble getting your teen away from technology, appeal to that interest. Nippert suggested allowing them to take a camera or their phone to take photos to show their friends what they explored.
- Let them bring a friend. Especially as children get older, they want to spend more time with their friends — you can use that to your advantage. However, make sure their friend’s parent or parents understand the activity and challenge level to ensure they’re prepared and OK with their child participating. Your child and their friend may become adventure activities buddies, which will make getting them outside even easier.
When engaging in those activities as a family or one-on-one with your child, you can use these opportunities to talk to them. Nippert highlighted that nature offers a lot of metaphors for thinking about life and how we deal with aspects of it. He said:
“For example, if you’re exploring a dark cave, you could start talking about how the cave is a lot easier to explore and less scary when we turn on our flashlights. Ask them to think about what ‘our flashlights’ are in our life.”
It’s a safe inroad to look for metaphors to try to create a dialogue around emotion. Getting teens out and doing something new provides the opportunity for a corrective emotional experience. Novel experiences allow them to do and talk about things in new ways.