Wilderness therapy gives me feelz. Visions of me running through a field of lavender, floral dress and sun hat in tow. Or skinny dipping in a moonlit lake, my shimmery skin merging and emerging like an extra from a D&G Light Blue ad except without David Gandy (hey, you can’t have it all). I realise I’m romanticizing.
Wilderness therapy is something that’s been around for donkey’s years but is now gaining popularity with retreats and programs popping up all over the country. But what is it exactly? It’s a form of psychotherapy that uses adventure activities as part of the therapeutic process. Instead of sitting back weekly and chatting with a therapist one-on-one, wilderness therapy helps you identify and work on unhelpful psychological patterns while nestled amidst a decent view. It is done in groups with typical activities including hiking and camping.
Traditional Psychotherapy is much less involved. You turn up each week and talk about whatever is on your mind at the time. You choose what to bring to the table but you don’t really get the chance to practice new behavioural patterns in a setting that’s natural. Wilderness therapy is thought to simulate the pressures of the family unit. Basic activities like setting up camp and finding your way home are thought to provoke visceral feelings that can offer real insight into your way of being – your reactions, what makes you tick and how you communicate with others. The group setting makes it a little less intimidating and interactions with lots of different people gives a more rounded opportunity for insight. Overcoming the challenges of outdoor living helps build confidence and learn new coping skills. Top that with the healing nature of being burrowed in the outdoors and you’re onto a winner.
So what happens during a session? Your first step will be to have an assessment with a mental health professional. This allows them to create a customized session for you and place you in a group that fits with your current challenges. There’s not point stuffing you in a group with a bunch of people who will do very little to challenge you. The individual sessions will help you identify your core values so that you can begin to live life in line with these. The group sessions will allow you to explore group and family dynamics and to really begin to grasp your way of communicating with others. Communication is such a fundamental part of managing relationships and building solid connection but something we often overlook. Group sessions help bring this to the forefront.
Wilderness therapy can be used in addition to other therapies and it works for so many reasons. For a start it’s empowering. You’re meeting new people, learning new skills and exploring new places. It’s the perfect prerequisite to building confidence. On top of that you’re actively engaged throughout the process – building fires, prepping food or just generally figuring stuff out. Because of this you’re engaged cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally which is great for personal development.
The nature of the group means that those involved can begin to build trusting relationships with the professionals and the other members of the group. Because everyone is starting from the same point there is a certain level of honesty and openness that’s rare to come across. It also means that you meet all kinds of people who are likely to mirror back to you things that remind you of others close to you or that you may not like about yourself. Because of this you gain multiple perspectives and personal insight that can help you more forward.
But the best (or worst if like me your tendency is to run like Forrest Gump when faced with the emotional stuff) thing about Wilderness therapy is that you can’t escape from your feelings. There’s nowhere to run so you have to deal with them head on. You can’t lose an hour playing with FaceApp or peaking into everyone’s life on Insta Stories, you simply have to deal with it, because once you see, you can’t unsee.
The concept of Wilderness therapy is not groundbreaking, nor is it new. But it is in contrast to standard talk therapy which is today’s world when phones and netflix take priority might just be the welcome relief you need.