Adventure Therapy for Addiction: Everything You Need to Know About AT & WT

Adventure therapy is a powerful treatment for breaking restrictive beliefs during addiction recovery.

However, adventure therapy is a more structured experience than just exploring the great wide outdoors.  This non-traditional therapy comes in many forms.

At Next Step Recovery we’ll walk you through all the core elements of adventure therapy for addiction recovery.

In this article, we’ll explore questions such as:

  • What is adventure therapy?
  • Are adventure therapy and wilderness therapy different?
  • How does adventure therapy help people in addiction recovery?
  • What skills do individuals in recovery learn from adventure therapy?
  • How does adventure therapy relate to the continuum of addiction care?
  • What should I know before starting adventure therapy for addiction recovery?

What is Adventure Therapy?

Adventure Therapy (AT) blends hands-on physical and mental activities to overcome obstacles.  It is a talk therapy based on experiential therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Most AT programs, like wilderness therapy, use outdoor tasks as a metaphor for personal hurdles in an individual’s lifestyle.

Adventure therapy puts clients in challenging situations to discover ways to heal.

In addiction, adventure therapy is used to guide clients towards healthier sobriety.

For this dialogue, we’ll focus on adventure therapy for recovery from addictions.

Individuals with addictions might work through adventure-based therapy during or alongside traditional therapy.  These therapies may include the CBT or DBT model.

Adventure therapy can help individuals in recovery if they:

  • Have struggled to finish out daily activities due to their addictions.
  • Feel unable to talk through their thoughts and feelings in traditional therapy.
  • Behave uncontrollably as a result of triggers to their addictions.
  • Experience social difficulties due to thoughts and emotions.

Before diving in, we should clear any confusion between AT and related therapies.

Difference Between Adventure Therapy and Wilderness Therapy

Adventure therapy and wilderness therapy differ a bit despite using similar methods.

Adventure therapy is an umbrella term that can include wilderness therapy.  AT uses obstacles in outdoor and indoor settings to tackle a client’s physical and mental roadblocks.  AT may use varied combinations of man-made and natural challenges.

Wilderness therapy (WT) is a subtype within the scope of adventure therapy.  WT is based around all-natural outdoor activities. These experiences task clients to adapt and endure hardships of weather and terrain.

Adventure therapy works fairly well for many individuals without some risks of WT.   Wilderness therapy tends to be more immersive in specific skills and treatments.

Adventure therapy programs are a common complementary treatment to traditional therapies.  Clients that make little progress in traditional therapy may benefit from AT.

Adventure Therapy for Addiction Recovery Explained

Adventure therapy for addictions gives real-world context to rehabilitation.

Components of AT methods are varied, but are mostly focused on:

  • Hands-on experience via experiential therapy.
  • Talking through challenges via cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Each form of adventure therapy program carries a similar layout for treatment.

Format of AT is psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy.  The therapist works through observations and discussions of the client’s behaviors and thoughts.

Structure is driven by goals set by the client.  As a client moves through activities, they unpack solutions.  These parallel potential fixes for their addiction-related issues.

Length can vary between specific programs.  Duration runs from one to three weeks for adventure therapy.  However, it can be six to ten weeks for wilderness therapy.

AT programs tend to be a group-based connection, but some variations do exist.

Types of Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy can be modified to serve individuals with unique needs.

These variants of adventure-based therapy can include:

Group adventure therapy gathers peers seeking addiction sobriety.  Clients gain social support from sharing experiences and learning from each other’s struggles.

Family adventure therapy treats a recovering individual’s immediate family unit.  This AT type confronts triggers and underlying issues in their home environment.

Individual adventure therapy offers intimate one-on-one sessions.  These are less common, but have risen in availability as time has passed.

Despite differences, each type is focused on a similar skill set for coping with addictions and upholding sobriety.

Skills Learned in Adventure Therapy

Life skills are essential for those with addictions to enter a healthier life.

AT clients learn to embrace social support and healthy decision-making.  Clients mindfully face roadblocks to a sober life through connecting activities to their life.

Adventure therapy programs teach clients these skills for long-term sobriety:

  • Confidence to be honest and trust one’s self.
  • Self-awareness to be capable of reflecting on one’s self and others
  • Communication to cooperate and resolve conflict with others in healthy ways.
  • Relationship-forming to redefine beliefs on the traits of positive relationships.
  • Consistency to push forward with action even if clients don’t feel their best.
  • Leadership to assist and guide others in their own journey
  • Open-mindedness to new experiences and changing unhealthy beliefs.
  • Perspective shifting to be more aware of others’ thoughts and feelings.
  • Emotional intelligence to manage how clients interact with their own feelings and those of others.  This reframing occurs internally and externally.

Adventure activities support these skills with a number of therapeutic roles:

  • Physical activity has been evaluated by the NCBI as a valid treatment for depression.  This benefit also helps other symptoms of many addictions.
  • Nature exposure has also been found to be useful for lowering stress levels.  By treating symptoms, clients can bypass emotional walls to self-reflection.
  • Therapy in a real-world context draws parallels from addiction struggles to the adventure tasks.
  • Collaborative social connections teach clients to embrace help in AT activities and in their recovery.  Peer support shows clients that they are not alone.

Each AT session is designed to build and reinforce these recovery skills.

Adventure Therapy Sessions Explained

AT sessions concentrate on the client’s relationship to obstacles, the therapist, and the adventure group.

The client gets guidance by facing challenges related to struggles in addictions.  The therapist observes clients and guides reflections of both the client and the group.

Sessions can range from tame to rigorous, both in activity types and environments.  Some programs are in city parks while others take place in rugged wilderness.

AT activities can be simplified to experiential therapy’s four-stage cycle:

  • Concrete experience involves “doing” something new.
  • Reflective observation “talks about” things noticed before, during, and after.
  • Abstract conceptualization “synthesizes” new experiences into old beliefs.
  • Active experimentation “applies” the reformed beliefs into the client’s life.

Activities used to put this cycle in action include:

  • Cooperative games support teamwork like mohawk walk and group juggle.
  • Problem-solving objectives like stream crossing and triangle traverse.
  • Trust-building tasks like “leap of faith,” trust falls, and flying squirrel.
  • Elevated constructions embrace physical heights like pamper pole climbs.
  • High adventure has more risk like rock climbing and white water rafting.
  • Low adventure lowers risk like hiking, kayaking, archery, and skiing.
  • Wilderness expeditions such as backpacking, camping, and canoeing.

Addictions are the main focus of AT for recovery.  However, the activities can apply to a diverse set of challenges that may extend beyond addictions.

Other Conditions Treated by Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy can benefit many conditions that surround addictions.

Other conditions may have similar root issues, especially in dual diagnosis.  When clients treat the origin of their disorders, other challenges may be helped as well.

Some AT-treatable conditions are:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia

Some clients discover hidden issues leading to dual diagnosis and further treatment.  As such, AT entry and engagement can fall all throughout the continuum of care.

How Adventure Therapy Relates to the Continuum of Addictions Care

Recovery begins at detox but maintenance will run the course of a client’s entire life.

The continuum of addictions care (CoC) equips clients with the tools of sobriety.  Its series of interwoven, gapless treatments allow clients a clear path out of addiction.

Detox onboarding begins a progressive step-down from addiction into independence.

NCBI states that the continuum of addiction care stages are:

  • Level 0.5: early intervention services
  • Level 1: outpatient services
  • Level 2: intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization services
  • Level 3: residential or inpatient treatment services
  • Level 4: medically managed intensive inpatient treatment services

Adventure therapy serves a role of lightweight intervention.  So, severe conditions will need to get treated before enrollment.

Detox is always advised before any therapy begins.  Once sober, IOP or other intensive treatments may be advised before attempting adventure therapy.

Consider AT if the client has already embraced the journey to sobriety and are involved in outpatient services.

What to Know Before Starting Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy may not be for everyone, so clients should consider it carefully.

Here are some key things to think about:

Extent of current addictions should be stable within reason.  Usually, this would mean the client has detoxed and is in outpatient status.  Adventure therapy tends to be offered alongside IOP and other outpatient programs like sober living.

Physical limitations may hold some clients back from full AT participation.  Most clients should be capable of the physical demands in AT activities.  However, any points of concern should be discussed with a qualified professional before enrolling.

Existing phobias and mental traumas may make AT difficult for clients.  Some may fear heights or have abuse trauma that will be aggravated by hands-on approaches.  In these cases, it may be wise to have traditional therapy before or during AT.

In addition, some clients may have to look beyond local areas to find an AT program.

When Might I Consider an Out-of-State AT Program?

Out-of-state AT programs bring more opportunities and options to clients.

OoS adventure therapy benefits can include:

  • Distance from at-home triggers helps clients be free of distraction.  Remote AT clients can “detox” from overindulgence and negative influences.
  • Treatment commitment increases the chance that clients will finish the program.  Intentionally joining OoS treatment.
  • Higher quality programs can be found when searching outside of local options.  Some programs have more resources to better meet clients’ needs.
  • Location-specific atmosphere can help clients connect with their treatment.  Destinations like the mountains may help city residents feel closer to peace.

For clients who have commitments to family or friends, OoS may not be ideal.  Caretaking for children is offered in some programs but is not always available.

For most clients, it can be a hurdle to leave life’s obligations for a few weeks.  Any out-of-state client is always advised to weigh options carefully.

Note that clients can vet any program with the right questions during their search.

Questions to Ask Before Choosing an Adventure Therapist

Prospective AT clients should always check that their therapist will meet their needs.

To help with this process, here are a few helpful questions:

Are you professionally licensed by the state you serve in?  State licensing acts as proof of being educated and qualified.  AT does not require credentials, but it’s wise to choose a therapist trained in helping clients navigate thoughts and behaviors.

Will my insurance cover my AT sessions?  Non-traditional therapy like AT and equine therapy is less likely to be covered versus more intensive programs.  Clients should prepare for any out-of-pocket costs their treatment may cause.

How does this program handle deep trauma or fears?  Social trust and head-on fear confrontation are important in AT programs.  While clients engage in activities to face these issues, some may have more resistance to treatment.

Are you trained to endure and take precautions in this program’s activities?  Especially in wilderness therapy, adventure therapists must tend to the safety of all clients.  Therapists should know the risks and guide clients accordingly.

Takeaways on Adventure Therapy

In summary, adventure therapy can be a great rehab tool in addiction recovery.

By now, there are a few key takeaways you’ve learned:

  • Adventure therapy is an activity-based treatment that mirrors life’s challenges.
  • Adventure therapy acts as an umbrella term that includes wilderness therapy.
  • Individuals recovering from addictions learn healthy life skills in AT.
  • AT clients become more confident, self-aware, and emotionally intelligent.
  • Adventure therapy is usually an outpatient treatment program in the CoC.
  • Adventure therapists should be licensed and trained in program activities.

Ultimately, adventure therapy helps clients see their addictions more clearly as they build a skill set for sobriety.

Know someone who could use information about adventure therapy for addiction?  Please like and share this post with them.  Or, leave your questions or comments about the continuum of care below!  We’re always looking for ways to keep the conversation about recovery going.  Education is one of the most powerful tools we have to fight addiction.

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