An experiential therapy is designed to manufacture experiences that result in participants experiencing certain feelings, attitudes, and beliefs that are normally below their immediate level of awareness. The stimulation of these experiences is therapeutic.
There are a number of different types of experiential therapies. All of these therapies have their origin in the experiential schools of psychology that include Gestalt therapy and the humanistic paradigm in psychology. These paradigms encourage change in individuals by having them examine their emotions, intuitions, and other tendencies regarding certain types of situations.
Despite the particular activity being used, the aim of wilderness therapy is to use the experience of participating in these events to reach some therapeutic goal. Individuals learn to interact or cooperate with others in situations that carry some type of risk. The particular type of risk used in wilderness therapy is not designed to be dangerous or potentially harmful, but instead designed to challenge the person to examine and gain insight into their own feelings and beliefs as they relate to the particular issue at hand. For example, many individuals with substance use disorders are isolated, believe they have to rely on themselves, and do not trust or know to communicate with other people. Wilderness therapy can be used to challenge these individuals to cooperate with others to reach a goal, such as working with a team to engage in moderate-level survival skills on a camping trip. By actually experiencing group cooperation, trust, and the need to confide in others, the individual can also address their issues with substance abuse in the therapeutic environment.
It is important to note that wilderness therapy is not designed to be a primary therapy or a standalone treatment for serious psychological issues, such as substance use disorders.
Instead, wilderness therapy is a complementary form of treatment designed to assist in a more traditional type of treatment (e.g., formal Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for substance use disorders).
It is typically part of a multidisciplinary team approach to the treatment of an individual where the individual participates in traditional individual psychotherapy, may participate in group therapy, may participate in social support groups, and participates in wilderness therapy.
Wilderness therapy is delivered by a person trained in this type of therapy.
Wilderness therapy offers a number of potential avenues to get people involved in self-discovery. For the most part, wilderness therapies are delivered to younger individuals, most often adolescents and young adults. In some cases, adults will participate in wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy is often an excellent mode of intervention to get individuals with substance use disorders to open up and freely express themselves.
Some of the different types of activities that are used in wilderness therapy include:
When the activity is completed, each participant meets with their therapist in either an individual or group session and discusses aspects of their experience. These aspects of the individual’s experience are related to the person’s issues (e.g., having a lack of trust, being suspicious of others, etc.). The discussion is designed to foster the therapeutic end of the experience for the client. The actual activities are a means to self-discovery; they are not an end in their own right. Without the therapeutic application and reflection of the experience, wilderness therapy would not qualify as a formal form of therapy.
The key to the therapeutic intervention in wilderness therapy is the therapist’s ability to help the client reflect on aspects of their experience and directly apply them to other areas of life, such as their substance use disorder. This type of intervention requires specific training and focus. In addition, wilderness therapy is not often viewed as “therapy” by those that participate in it. Instead, they often view it as a break from therapy, when in fact it is a form of therapeutic intervention that is designed to help individuals experience themselves and engage in self-discovery.
Wilderness therapy may not be appropriate for certain individuals, however.
Wilderness therapy is an adjunctive therapy that may be extremely useful in the treatment of substance use disorders in certain types of individuals, particularly young people or adolescents who are isolated and uncooperative in their treatment. Wilderness therapy attempts to challenge individuals to achieve goals and work together. This fosters communication, openness, and self-examination.
While wilderness therapy can be a useful complementary treatment, it is not designed to be a standalone treatment or the sole focus of treatment for an individual with a substance use disorder or other psychological problem.