Wilderness Therapy: Nature’s Helping Hand

Nature can have a restorative effect on even the most citified or hardhearted person. When we escape into nature, something in our evolutionary history comes to the fore and we feel free. It is one of the only times that many people lose that “searching for something” feeling that we all have now and again.

Some wilderness enthusiasts will tell you that this is because a clean, natural landscape is the only place in our modern world that is capable of connecting us to something larger than ourselves.  Surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers, we forget what trees and flowers look like when they’re not surrounded by mulch. Eating fast food and prepackaged meals, our bodies have forgotten what it is like to take sustenance from the pure, un-preserved forms of food found in the wild.

If you find yourself feeling continually bored, lethargic, stifled, moody, or stressed out, mother nature may be able to help you. There is a new school of thought about the benefit of outdoor exposure, and it seems it may be even more helpful than we at first thought.

Wilderness therapy is the moniker given to the many forms of controlled outdoor exposure. There does not have to be an underlying therapeutic objective, although some programs are designed that way. Simply being in a wilderness setting as part of a group is often enough.

In 1999, psychologists Frederickson and Anderson took two groups of twelve female participants on either a six-day backpacking trip through the Grand Canyon or a seven-day canoe trip through the Minnesota wilderness. Some of the women were from high-stress corporate settings and some were full-time homemakers; all were struggling with stress or depression in various forms.

During the course of the trip, the participants all became visibly more relaxed. Many cited the purity of the outdoor environment as a large part of the cause. They felt that the solitude they were able to enjoy in the wilderness gave them time to ponder some of life’s more difficult questions, and added to their spirituality. As one woman said, “I express my spirituality when I am deeply in tune with the forces of nature and feel a certain interconnectedness with all other living things- that is when I am experiencing my spirituality to the fullest.”

Many studies echo the findings of this one. Wilderness experiences can reduce depression through relieving stress and stimulate the body physically, which can also energize the mind. All of the participants felt that they were able to abandon the perplexing social rules and restrictions they were obliged to follow in their daily lives for a feeling of acceptance and freedom seldom felt anywhere else.

You may question the lasting effects of such a trip, but in a follow-up interview conducted 30 days after the initial experience, 92% of participants still felt a reduced level of stress from the time before the trip. Many of the women also stated that, when they did feel stressed or depressed, they were able to use the uplifting feelings they had on their trip as a meditation tool to help them feel better again.

Types of wilderness therapy are many and varied. There are trips that are designed specifically for men and deal with some of the issues that commonly cause stress and depression in men, as well as general trips for men and women that simply rely on outdoor exposure to be the healing balm. Many small, independent companies offer these types of programs in all regions of the country, and provide a more personalized experience. You can find these companies in your area by doing an internet search for wilderness therapy, or by visiting www.wildernesstherapy.org, a non-profit website that offers people helpful and accurate information on agencies that offer wilderness therapy programs.

Larger companies such as Outward Bound use wilderness therapy to help adolescents cope with difficulties in their lives or behavior problems by using the natural landscape as a teaching and learning tool. Perhaps the largest-scale organization,  National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) has classes ranging from 10 days to several months, where intense outdoor survival skills are taught in an effort to heal the earth and humanity as one.

There is no question that NOLS students learn the hardest and longest-lasting lessons about the wilderness. Students learn to practice Leave No Trace, an environmentally-friendly practice that means whatever you pack in, you must pack out, including trash and feces (don’t worry, there are special bags and containers for this purpose!) They also learn how to live off of nature, navigate the wilderness, and study the flora and fauna of the environment. Many former NOLS students learn a rewarding way of life that they adopt as a permanent part of their lives, and most leave NOLS with such a deep love and respect for the wilderness that they return year after year.

Even if you are not looking for such an intense or time-consuming experience, there is no population on earth that cannot benefit from some form of wilderness exposure. It has not only been clinically proven to help reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and a variety of social disorders, but it also has enumerable positive physical effects, increases overall life-satisfaction, and can help your corporation achieve goals and increase productivity in a fun and team-building way. Co-workers who undergo a wilderness experience together emerge feeling part of a cohesive team, valued for their individuality and experience.

If you undertake a wilderness experience, you may get wet, dirty, have to do your business under a tree, and at times be bone-weary, but you will feel a sense of personal satisfaction and achievement that no modern diversion can offer. No matter how uncomfortable you may be at times, when it is all over you will fervently wish to return to the woods.

As the veteran of thousands of hours spent in the wilderness, I can say with authority that firsthand knowledge of the ageless healing beauty of nature really can enhance your everyday life.  Simply being aware that there is something larger out there is enough to give life more meaning, for you will have seen firsthand how we are all a part of one whole, striving for common goals. It helps us realize that the decisions we agonize over are really not life-or-death. Knowledge of the wilderness puts things into a grand perspective and affects an attitude change whose effects are omnipresent. Outdoor exposure is the healing panacea that we modern humans have been searching for, and it has been firmly beneath our feet since the dawn of time.

Works Cited

Fletcher, T. B., & Hinkle, J. S. (2002). Adventure based counseling: An innovation in counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80(3), 1-15.

Frederickson, L. M., & Anderson, D. H. (1999). A qualitative exploration of the wilderness experience as a source of spiritual inspiration.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 19, 21-39.

Glass, J. S., & Myers, J. E. (2001). Combining the old and the new to help adolescents: Individual psychology and adventure-based counseling. Journal of Mental Health Counseling, 23(2), 1-9.

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