The Benefits of Adventure Therapy in Treatment of Severe Mental Health Disorders

The healing power of adventure therapy has long been known but is now increasingly confirmed by empirical research. By exploring the types and benefits of this unique modality, you can gain a clearer understanding of how integrating adventure therapy within a comprehensive treatment plan can open the door to profound transformation for people with severe mental illness.

Joe Torrey still remembers the first time he went rock climbing. More specifically, he remembers wanting to come back down but not knowing how. His brother, sensing his fear, guided him through it, asking questions and giving hints as Torrey slowly returned to the ground. The experience was exhilarating and instilled in him a passion for climbing that has only grown with time. Yet even today, Torrey employs the same motivation technique his brother used as he teaches new climbers to overcome their fears. “[You can] stop at any point, but [you want] to do it. That is why rock climbing can be a powerful metaphor for other goals and challenges in one’s life,” he says.

Indeed, countless climbers experience this same sense of climbing as symbolic of overall life challenges, and it’s not uncommon to hear people say climbing is their therapy. As Jenna Sarr, a Portland-based climber, explains:

Climbing forces you out of your comfort zone and in turn you learn how to manage your fear and anxiety when you’re physically strained, which translates into other things outside the climbing world.

Others say the act of climbing produces a kind of inner stillness that gives them respite from everyday stressors. “One of the coolest things about climbing is that when you’re doing it right, it quiets every other thought and the noise of day to day life dies away,” says Max Tepfer, a former rock climbing instructor at the University of Oregon Outdoor Pursuits Program. Psychological tranquility and acute focus are common threads as climbers verbalize the attraction of the sport, and this may help explain why both indoor and outdoor climbing has exploded in popularity recently.

But while more people than ever are having private therapeutic experiences through adventure-based sports like rock climbing, such activities are also increasingly being incorporated in formal mental health treatment settings as a form of adventure therapy. This innovative experiential modality is opening up new pathways to healing for people struggling with severe mental health disorders.

The Benefits of Adventure Therapy in Treatment for Severe Mental Health Disorders

Natural environments and physical challenges have been incorporated in various forms of mental health treatment facilities for centuries. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the wilderness-based therapeutic programs that emerged in the United States during the 1960s. However, empirical evidence of efficacy has only emerged in the past several decades.

In 2015, researchers at Stanford University discovered that “people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.” Likewise, psychologist Terry Hartig found that people who spend 40 minutes hiking in a natural area experience better cognitive performance, more positive emotions, and less anger than people who walked in urban environments. “Nature restores mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies,” explains Adam Alter in The Atlantic. “While man-made landscapes bombard us with stimulation, their natural counterparts give us the chance to think as much or as little as we’d like, and the opportunity to replenish exhausted mental resources.” In other words, participating in therapies within natural settings, as most adventure-based therapies are, can be healing in and of itself.

The benefits of more physically challenging adventure-based activities are also gaining empirical backing. In 2015, the first controlled study of the impact of bouldering (a form of rock climbing) on depression was published. It indicated that subjects who participated in climbing saw significant improvement in depression symptoms. Earlier this year, a follow-up study re-confirmed the pilot study results, revealing that bouldering led to a drop of one severity grade on the Beck’s Depression Inventory, moving participants from moderate to mild depression. “Bouldering, in many ways, is a positive physical activity,” says Eva-Maria Stelzer, lead author of the study. “There are different routes for your physical activity level, and there’s a social aspect along with the feeling of an immediate accomplishment when bouldering. You have to be mindful and focused on the moment.” Meanwhile, studies showing that high-ropes courses can reduce anxiety, trapeze classes improve mental health, and orienteering supports psychological well-being have all been published in recent years.

Types and Benefits of Adventure Therapy

The growing evidence of efficacy is spurring more evidence-based treatment programs to add nature-based adventure therapy modalities to their curriculums. These include rock climbing, ropes courses, orienteering, mindfulness hikes, sea kayaking, paddleboarding, aerial skills, skydiving, and outdoor skills. By combining physical and mental challenges with natural environments, participants derive benefits such as:

  • Increased confidence and self-efficacy
  • Decreased anxiety and rumination
  • Enhanced self-awareness
  • Augmented resilience and distress tolerance
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills and cognition
  • Improved physical condition
  • Heightened mind-body connection

Participants in adventure therapy as a form of group therapy also benefit from improved social integration, communication, and more positive social relationships.

The most important relationship adventure therapy helps you nourish, however, is the one with yourself. By engaging mentally and physically in challenging situations, you tap into parts of yourself you may never before have explored and find previously undiscovered strengths. You learn both specialized skills and broader life lessons that imbue you with a sense of mastery and accomplishment, enhancing emotional regulation and autonomy. “Oftentimes, people are caught between a desire to perform a challenging task and a physiological repulsion to that activity,” says Torrey. “Practicing a tolerance for uncomfortable situations and emotions is what makes us more adept at performing in those situations in the future, and grows one’s self-efficacy and grit.” For people struggling with severe mental illness or low function, learning how to overcome internal obstacles to external obstacles can be an empowering and profound experience.

Integrating Adventure Therapy in a Comprehensive Treatment Plan

While adventure therapy holds tremendous promise for psychological improvements, it is not a standalone therapy for people living with severe mental health disorders. However, it can be a vital component of a comprehensive treatment plan, allowing you to engage in therapeutic forms that go beyond talk therapy and invite participation in novel, non-verbal ways.

By connecting with a treatment program that offers adventure therapy as an optional subprogram, you can experience the benefits of adventure and nature-based therapies while getting the support you need from pharmacotherapy and talk-based modalities. In this context, a spectrum of empirically-supported modalities work together to unlock your potential and allow you to more deeply engage in the recovery process. With the guidance of highly trained therapists who understand your personal needs, you can safely participate in transformative activities that help you heal mind, body, and soul.

Mikayla, a young woman who uses indoor skydiving to cope with her severe depression and self-injury, says it best:

I’m really scared of heights and I’ve only been on a plane once. I know that if I can overcome that, I can overcome all these other things in my life. [When] I’m in the air, I need to focus on how my body is moving and how I’m going to go up in the air. You’re mindful of what’s going on right in front of you and you don’t need to worry about anything else.

BrightQuest offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our innovative program and how we can help you or your loved one start your journey toward recovery.