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Alternative therapies in drug and alcohol addiction treatment underlie a holistic approach to recovery, which focuses on nurturing the mind and spirit as well as the body. Quality addiction recovery programs offer a number of alternative therapies, including art and music therapy, yoga, acupuncture, and adventure therapy.

As a lesser-known but equally valuable alternative, adventure therapy, takes recovery outdoors and into the wilderness. Adventure therapy often includes camping, kayaking, and hiking, among many other activities. A study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment found outdoor adventures effective for helping to reduce relapse rates as well as leading to significant improvements in alcohol cravings, frequency of negative thoughts, and autonomic arousal, which is related to the “fight or flight” syndrome.

The Goals of Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy’s nature-focused treatment protocol is designed to be used along with traditional “talk” therapies, like cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing, which take place in both traditional indoor settings and in the wilderness. The outdoor activities offer a markedly different – and considerably more inspiring – environment in which to address various issues related to addiction. The environment itself becomes therapeutic and inspires hope, promotes personal growth and self-awareness, and fosters a sense of accountability and belonging.

Trudging through the wilderness or setting up a remote camp among the flora and fauna offer unique opportunities for those in recovery to:

  • Improve their decision-making skills by learning how to make snap decisions that affect both the individual and the group.
  • Learn critical coping skills, such as tolerating stress, solving problems, and venturing outside of their comfort zone.
  • Work on communication skills in order to achieve a common goal.

Components of Adventure Therapy

The Association for Experiential Education identifies five main components of adventure therapy:

  • Direct involvement in treatment – The individual works cooperatively with others and is accountable for his or her own actions as they affect both the individual and the group.
  • Personal motivation – A high level of involvement in the experience and the occurrence of natural and logical consequences of personal choices leads to a higher motivation level in terms of participating in one’s own treatment.
  • Meaningful experience – Participants come to understand, first-hand and in real time rather than through reflecting on the past, that actions have consequences. This leads to a higher level of personal and group accountability.
  • Self-reflection – Reflecting on the adventure experience as it unfolds and in retrospect allows participants to develop a higher level of self-awareness as strengths and weaknesses naturally emerge.
  • Relevance to future experiences – The important and highly personal lessons learned in adventure therapy are applied to future experiences as well as related to experiences in the past.

Adventure Therapy is Goal-Focused

The individual’s treatment goal is the main focus of adventure therapy. The benefits of being in nature are well documented, and adding an adventure component produces an active process that becomes a vehicle for change. The practitioners who lead adventure therapy exercises are focused on helping participants connect the lessons learned in nature to their own recovery while monitoring stress levels and ensuring that participants are making positive gains.

Adventure therapy is far more than a hike in the woods. The environment of play and fun are central to adventure therapy and enhance participants’ engagement in treatment. It offers a break from negativity while helping to break down inhibitions and resistance to change, leading to a more personalized and internalized treatment experience.

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Adventure Therapy: It’s Not Just a Hike in the Woods
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