Wilderness Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image Issues

Overcoming body image issues in a Wilderness Therapy Program | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

I became passionate about treating eating disorders and body image disorders almost 15 years ago while working in residential treatment. It’s not an easy area of practice because progress can be slow and sometimes almost imperceptible. Studies show that it takes an average of 7 years to fully recover from an eating disorder. But over long periods of time, I watched men and women emerge from the fog of addiction and reclaim their lives. That work, for me, is rewarding.

As you can imagine, after 15 years, I had strong opinions about the best path to recovery, the best mode of therapy, and had my preferred treatment methods for helping people struggling with eating disorders. A few years ago, wilderness therapy was not one of the types of treatment on my radar to use with this population.

Fast forward to the present moment: my perspective has changed. I have learned much more about how wilderness therapy is precisely the tool that many of my clients have needed to overcome some major hurdles in their fight for recovery.

Several years ago, when I entered the world of wilderness therapy, I believed that while working in this setting, my work with people struggling with eating disorders and body image would be put on hold. But then came client after client that had “past eating disorders,” young adults with undiagnosed eating disorders, or adolescents with symptoms of anorexia nervosa, bulimia or binge eating struggles. Body image issues often appeared to be, or were secondary to, the problems that led them to wilderness therapy. I rapidly gained an education on how wilderness therapy is a positive tool for overcoming body image issues and eating disorder struggles.

Here’s what I learned:

1. In Wilderness Therapy Eating Disorder (ED) Behaviors Become More Obvious and Easier to Tackle and Treat.

Wilderness therapy provides an environment in which underlying or lingering eating disorder (ED) behaviors become more obvious and therefore easier to tackle and treat.

When a person enters a wilderness therapy program, they lose the ability to utilize most of their past methods of avoidance (video games, screen time, isolating, drugs, alcohol, friends, dating relationships, etc) and they are then forced to deal with their emotions in a new way. If a person has a tendency to rely on food as a coping mechanism–it quickly becomes obvious in the wilderness.

As they enter wilderness treatment and their anxiety increases, they will likely resort to the method of avoidance that can still be relied upon in that setting: body image and eating issues. This provides fuel for therapy, giving the client and therapist a clear path and setting in which to target and explore some important themes.

2. Wilderness Therapy Provides Insight Into the Effects of Eating Disorder Behaviors

Wilderness therapy provides insight into the ways “minor eating disorder behaviors” continue to significantly disrupt a person’s effort to achieve their personal goals.

If an ED is viewed as “minor” or is said to have “mostly passed”, it is often dismissed by the treatment team or accepted as an issue of the past. However, even “minor” ED or body image concerns can have a huge impact on an individual’s life. In wilderness therapy, “minor” behaviors show up and can then be addressed and improved upon in significant ways.

3. Wilderness Therapy Provides Space to Heal

Wilderness therapy gives space from social media, mirrors, trendy clothes, and makeup; as well as space from cultural or family emphasis on appearance.

This allows the individual to develop better awareness and insight into just how much these external factors impact their own beliefs about their body and health.

The absence of these things from a person’s life (albeit temporary) can give just the kind of break a person needs to get clarity and become more objective about their treatment and the types of shifts they need to make for the next step of recovery.

4. In Wilderness Therapy We Can Observe and Treat Negative Eating Patterns

Wilderness therapy provides an avenue to observe and treat negative eating patterns or eating impulses. In the wilderness therapy setting, food choice and amount is limited to a healthy and necessary selection of foods.

There remains a choice in eating (which is essential in the recovery process) but not an overwhelming or unlimited amount of choices as one can find at home with the selection of stores and restaurants available. This limited choice provides some structure that can aid in recovery, without allowing too much freedom that can be detrimental in recovery for people starting to understand and develop a new type of relationship with food.

I’ve been humbled joining the ranks of these mental health professionals as a wilderness therapist. I have discovered I was wrong about my previous beliefs that wilderness therapy would not be an effective treatment program for some of my past clients struggling with these treatment issues.

It is true that wilderness therapy is not the place for someone whose current eating issues are putting them at risk medically, and it is not the place to treat severe ongoing eating disorders

  • but it IS the place to do continued work on overcoming lingering eating disordered thinking and impulses
  • It IS the place for overcoming body image issues
  • it IS the place to explore the family dynamics and the role it has played in the ED and body image beliefs,
  • and it IS the place to begin to understand why ED and body image issues continue to take a toll on a person’s life.

In my time as a wilderness therapist, I have seen great success with my clients working through their strained relationships with food as well as their negative beliefs about their bodies and themselves. I look forward to my continued work in the wilderness and to many more years of watching people develop a deeper belief in their self-worth and a love and appreciation for their bodies.

Janna Dean, LCSW, a Therapist at Aspiro Wilderness Therapy Specializing in eating disorders

By Janna Dean, LCSW

Janna is a therapist at the Aspiro Wilderness Adventure Therapy program. Click here to learn more about Janna.

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