Wilderness Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Wilderness therapy is an approach to addiction treatment that encourages patients to learn survival skills and reconnect with nature. Being immersed in nature has proven benefits for patients, including increased confidence and improved physical and mental health.

wilderness therapy

Wilderness therapy experts have long stated that nature possesses immense potential to help people recover from addiction. Science now echoes this fact.

Nature offers a reprieve from the busyness of daily lives, even among those who don’t struggle with drugs or alcohol. For those who are battling addiction, wilderness therapy provides an inspiring environment in which to heal.

Wilderness therapy programs teach patients emotional regulation techniques, as well as nature-based survival skills. Team-building activities are reframed as survival tasks, and patients learn to solve problems and build trust among peers.

This form of therapy is part of a broader spectrum of services known as adventure therapy. Quality treatment programs typically offer a blend of both traditional and alternative therapies. At Addiction Campuses, we offer adventure therapy programs in order to meet the unique needs of each patient that comes through our doors.

Find Facilities That Offer Wilderness Therapy.

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What Is Wilderness Therapy?

Wilderness therapy helps people recover from addiction by creating positive experiences in nature. This alternative treatment approach introduces clients to healthy relationship skills, boundaries, and conflict resolution by learning survival skills and spending extended time outdoors.

People who are newly sober may be suffering from feelings of anxiety and stress while in treatment. Substances are often used as a way to cope with everyday emotions, and patients may feel overwhelmed facing life without drugs. Wilderness therapy provides a supportive atmosphere for patients to work through their emotions outside the walls of a treatment center.

Additionally, being outside in an unfamiliar environment can help to instill a sense of humility and willingness among patients who may be resistant to treatment.

In wilderness therapy groups, therapists help patients develop skills that include:

  • fire building
  • trap setting
  • water purification
  • primitive living principles
  • plant and animal identification
  • shelter construction
  • food gathering and meal preparation

Without substances, patients must rely on their survival skills to navigate any conflicts that arise. Focusing on these newfound skills can also help patients to distance themselves from negative thoughts, by bringing the attention back to the present moment (and task) at hand.

Mental health professionals who are trained in wilderness therapy often lead groups before or after an activity, in order to introduce the process of debriefing. Debriefing involves a discussion about any emotions or situations that occurred during the activity. This can be a beneficial skill, especially for those who have spent years numbing their emotions with drugs or alcohol.

Benefits Of Wilderness Therapy In Addiction Treatment

When a person enters addiction treatment, it’s likely they will encounter some intense feelings. They may feel physically depleted from withdrawal symptoms, or anxious about their current situation. Wilderness therapy has a way of freshening a person’s thought routine, by combining recovery with a change of scenery.

Wilderness therapy also instills a deep sense of respect for nature. People who suffer from addiction may be hyper self-focused, and in need of a perspective, shift to see the bigger picture. Nature evokes a sense of awe and wonder, feelings which can be deeply healing to the human spirit.

Time spent in nature has also been shown to change the way the brain responds to stress. Wilderness therapy can be a soothing balm, especially for those who suffer from fear, anxiety and worry. Additional benefits of wilderness therapy include:

Improved Self-Esteem

When a person is in active addiction, it’s difficult for them to feel good about the choices they are making. The pressure of addiction can cause people to do things that are against their values, such as stealing or committing a crime. However, by immersing patients in nature, wilderness therapy inspires people toward a more positive view of themselves.

When we learn a new skill, our brains release hormones like dopamine and serotonin. These are responsible for feelings of accomplishment and pleasure. As patients progress in their newfound skills, these chemical messengers help to improve a person’s self-esteem and self-image. This can also have a positive effect on interpersonal relationships.

Increased Attention

Wilderness therapy has been shown to increase a person’s attention span. By spending time away from screens and the hustle of daily life, people are able to drop into a more mindful state. This increased attention, combined with the manual labor of building fires and setting traps, can help to improve a person’s focus over time.

When we are focused on the here and now, it builds a sense of safety and mental calm. Patients who are attuned to the task at hand can’t stress about the past or worry about the future. The mental concentration that survival skills require helps to bring people back to the present moment.

Positive Thought Patterns

Being surrounded by scenic overlooks and the rhythms of nature can have a significant impact on a person’s mood. Wilderness therapy has been shown to increase positive thoughts and to decrease cravings, specifically among those with alcohol use disorders.

When we are outside with an intentional, positive focus, it becomes harder for intrusive thoughts to surface. If negative thoughts do come up, patients are provided an opportunity to share their feelings in a group session. This allows patients to own their feelings, and receive encouragement from both staff and peers.

Wilderness Therapy For Co-Occurring Disorders

More than 7 million Americans currently suffer from a dual diagnosis. This happens when a person has a substance use disorder and a mental health condition at the same time. Co-occurring disorders can make treatment more challenging, and require specialized programs and treatment plans.

When a person has a mental health condition like anxiety, they suffer from feelings of excessive worry and panic. Wilderness therapy can be an excellent addition to the traditional treatment of co-occurring disorders, as nature is known to create feelings of peace.

Outside of a clinical setting, people with dual diagnosis are provided opportunities to practice new skills in a serene environment. This form of outdoor therapy can also inspire patients toward a more balanced state of well-being.

How Addiction Campuses Incorporates Wilderness Therapy

At treatment centers across the country, Addiction Campuses provide wilderness therapy in conjunction with more traditional approaches. Our facilities also offer dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), trauma grounding, family counseling, and expressive arts therapy.

We offer comprehensive treatment options in order to ensure each patient is provided with the care that best fits their needs. Our wilderness therapy program at The Treehouse specializes in this approach and is designed to help patients build a meaningful life during and after treatment.

To learn more about wilderness therapy for addiction treatment, or to find a rehab program near you, reach out to an Addiction Campuses specialist today.

National Alliance on Mental Illness - https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Related-Conditions/Dual-Diagnosis

National Institutes of Health - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9751006

Partnership for Drug-Free Kids - https://drugfree.org/article/healthy-risk-taking/

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