Wilderness Therapy for Depression and Anxiety: Why Is It So Effective?

Wilderness Therapy for Depression and Anxiety | Aspiro Adventure Therapy

Over the past few decades, wilderness therapy programs have become more prevalent, as the demand for effective alternatives in therapy has increased. The popularity of wilderness therapy is due to its ability to help teens and young adults in overcoming depression and anxiety– among other cognitive, emotional, and behavioral issues. The following are aspects that make wilderness therapy programs successful in helping teens and young adults with anxiety and depression.

Exposure to the Therapeutic Wilderness Setting

Living in the wilderness is a big change from the everyday environment that many teens and young adults are used to. The opportunity to become fully immersed in the beauty of the outdoors presents the opportunity for individuals to try new things and overcome obstacles. In addition, research has shown that mere exposure to the outdoors can significantly reduce many depression and anxiety symptoms, including:

  • Better executive functioning
  • Enhanced problem solving
  • Critical thinking and decision making
  • Reduction in the symptoms of ADD/ADHD (which can contribute to one’s depression and anxiety symptoms)
  • Improved clarity

Therapeutic Group Living

The therapeutic group living setting is one of the most effective aspects of wilderness therapy that helps with anxiety and depression. In fact, depression in adolescence often “stems from unresolved developmental conflicts, issues of separation/individuation, the search for identity and the development of the true self” (Norton, 2010). Wilderness therapy is used to address the intrapsychic, developmental, and relational factors contributing to depression. This is achieved through therapy, therapeutic group living, and therapeutic wilderness and adventure activities.

Research indicates that “a primary cause of emotional and behavioral disturbances in youth is the lack of significant relationship with the social and natural worlds’’ (Gass, 1993). Wilderness therapy is powerful in the treatment of adolescent depression as the therapy, therapeutic group living, therapeutic setting of the wilderness, and adventure activities address the learned helplessness, dependency, and feelings of worthlessness associated with depression (Kimball and Bacon, 1993).

Adventure Activities

Adding an adventure therapy component to traditional wilderness therapy programs leads to higher engagement in therapy for teens and young adults, due to the variety of appealing activities.

An adventure component also allows therapists to more effectively target an increase in self-efficacy, as opposed to just increasing self-confidence. Self-efficacy is the belief in oneself to overcome adversity/difficulties in life. This is vital, as research has shown that self-efficacy is one of the most influential predictors of behavioral change. (Wells, Widmer, & McCoy 2004)

Wilderness Adventure therapy utilizes overwhelming mastery experiences to increase self-efficacy and help teens and young adults in overcoming depression and anxiety. The more repetitive a treatment program can be with overwhelming mastery experiences, the better. Clients are more likely to generalize the belief that they can achieve difficult things, and can incorporate this belief into different domains of life: classroom, peers, sports, etc.

For example: If teens and young adults believe they can:

  • Navigate terrain on a mountain bike
  • Rappel a cliff
  • Go skiing down a mountain

They are much likelier to believe that they can:

  • Overcome depression and anxiety symptoms
  • Mend strained relationships
  • Perform well in school/at work

Resources

Gass, M. A. (1993). Foundations of adventure therapy. In M. Gass (Ed.), Adventure therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure programming (pp. 3–10). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Kimball, R. O., & Bacon, S. B. (1993). The Wilderness Challenge Model. In M. Gass (Ed.), Adventure therapy: Therapeutic applications of adventure programming (pp. 11–42). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing.

Norton, C. L. (2010). Into the wilderness—A case study: The psychodynamics of adolescent depression and the need for a holistic intervention. Clinical Social Work Journal, 38(2), 226-235.

Wells, Mary Sarah., Widmer, M., McCoy J.K. (2004) Grubs and Grasshoppers: Challenge-Based Recreation and the Collective Efficacy of Families with At-Risk Youth. Family Relations, Vol 3, 326 – 333

To learn more about how to help your child with depression or anxiety, download our white paper, Depression and Anxiety in Teens and Young Adults below.

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