Wilderness Therapy: an Alternative Approach to Mental Healing

By Julie Kucks


In 2020, I completed my first ever 2-week hike on a portion of the Appalachian Trail. What I remember the most was how real and important everything I did felt – setting up the tent each night, building a fire, hiking 10 miles a day, shouldering my ridiculously heavy backpack every morning. At the end of each day, I thought, “I made it. I made it again.


Young people crave a sense of importance and necessity, a sense that they are needed in the world. Lacking this degree of worth can leave a young person feeling isolated, depressed, and desperate. Wilderness therapy provides an organic, hands-on, guided setting where a young person has the experience that they can rely on themselves and others, that both their internal and external resources can provide what they need.


What is wilderness therapy?


Wilderness therapy is an experiential therapy where an experience is created to teach the participant about their subconscious patterns of response and emotion. This type of therapy is based in Gestalt therapy which investigates a person’s relation as a part of their greater whole.

Wilderness therapy is often considered most effective as a supplemental therapeutic form.


How does it work?


Wilderness therapy is not simply “being outside in nature.” The experiences are guided by a trained therapist. Typically, participants are engaging in outdoor activities such as ziplining or hiking expeditions and are also engaging in team-building exercises. There is often a specific therapeutic goal being worked toward. For example, different team-building experiences can be effective challenges for those who struggle with feeling isolated to learn that they can cooperate and engage with others.


Why is wilderness therapy effective?


Michael Cohen is the founder of the American Project NatureConnect, a non-profit that promotes applied ecopsychology. Cohen believes that time spent in nature is helpful because it presents us with a totally different sort of civilization. He understands modern-day society to operate in techno-logic whereas nature operates in bio-logic. Techno-logic teaches us to use language and symbols to represent our natures. Bio-logic teaches us to lean into our sensory capabilities and intuitions, closing the divide between representation and reality. There are a few concrete ways wilderness therapy achieves the closing of this gap.


Concentration


Being in nature teaches us how to connect with our innate knowledge of survival and creativity. There are no distractions present to remove us from ourselves or our connection with what is immediately around us. This allows for tapping into the finer senses and intuitions we are often separated from in our techno-logic civilization.

Wilderness therapy’s practices are very similar to those of mindfulness practices – training oneself to be fully present with what is. By training the brain to disconnect from all of its automatic whirring in order to direct focus on one object and accept what is helps relieve feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, and self-dislike.



Reconnecting with Natural Rhythms


The body is attuned to the rhythm of nature, whether we follow those tunings or not in daily life. Being in nature allows the body to relax into these inherent rhythms, resetting our body’s internal clock. Researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, Kenneth Wright, conducted a study on the effects of camping on people’s sleep cycles back in 2013. By measuring participants’ melatonin levels (the hormone that readies the body for sleep) before and after the experiment, Wright found that campers’ biological clocks were delayed by two hours in their day-to-day lives – a time lapse that causes sleep issues and mental health distress.

By a young person retreating from the overt distractions of the world and reconnecting with the natural flow of day into night, season into season, they create the opportunity to reset their body’s internal timepiece. Routinely “resetting” by being in nature releases mental strain and heals exhaustion.


The Bigger Picture


It is easy for any of us to habituate a feeling that we are the center of the universe. Our society today tends toward an individualistic bent that can sometimes become isolating and suffocating to young people. Being in nature with others helps young people internalize the feeling that they are one piece of a larger, unified picture. Seeing their place in nature can both empower them to interact with the world and relieve them of an aggrandized sense of self. Having the opportunity to face challenges alongside of others also teaches them how to ask for help and give assistance which enforces a belief in human connection.

Wilderness therapy can be an extremely effective way for a young person to get out of their mind and into their body. Action and movement are essential factors for mental healing. It gives them space to better be able to pay attention to their subconscious behaviors, connect with others, and understand the larger scope of the world as well as their place in it.


NJIN exists to help young people translate what they learn in an education setting into their personal lives through real action. We want hands-on, experiential learning of all kinds to become the norm that our young people deserve.


Julie Kucks is a freelance content writer for New Jersey Institute of Nature and Cedar Hill Prep. Her work has also been featured in Fine Living Lancaster. Julie's writing interests include sustainable living practices, permaculture, mental health, and the power of breathwork. She also enjoys piano tuning, singing and songwriting, playing mountain dulcimer, hiking, and carousing with her kittens, Nike & Lionne.



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