Outdoor Adventure Therapy – not just a walk in the park

A walk in the park
A walk in the park

As a nation, us Brits are not known for our emotional outpouring. We use a range of euphemisms and platitudes to cover life’s more stressful events, from ‘being let go’ when losing a job, to describing death as having ‘passed away’. But is there more to these oft-used expressions? Are we actually giving a nod of recognition to potentially psychologically damaging situations and giving our friends and family an opportunity to air their thoughts and worries? 

‘Going to get some fresh air’ is another term with connotations - we use it not only for stepping outside, but also to indicate a purposeful action to change our psychological state, get space for reflection, and gain opportunity to regulate emotion. Could this perhaps be intuitive, from an evolutionary perspective, that there is some inherent psychological value with reconnecting with nature? Watching a sunset, running in the rain or spending time in a wilderness landscape can evoke positive emotional states, which can lead to feelings of rejuvenation, help dissipate stress and support refocusing. These and associated wider benefits have become increasingly supported with evidence that activities in natural environments settings help with maintaining our well-being. 

Psychological benefit and development

A more evolved notion of ‘getting some fresh air’ to address psychological functioning has become a consideration for mental health and well-being. The recent terms ‘green prescription’, and the ‘natural health service’ acknowledge that time outdoors can support the National Health Service provision in tackling the ever-increasing demand for mental health interventions, but utilising outdoor spaces for human growth and to alleviate human suffering is not something new. 

There are centuries’ examples of leading people outdoors and into the wilderness for psychological benefit and development, and since the mid-1940s this has been under the guises of more formal outdoor education and adventure learning (of which lots of diverse professional practice is evident today). Furthermore, psychotherapists have been examining the role of the natural environment in human suffering for decades; integrating concepts of eco-psychology into the counselling room. And it was from observations in changes in patterns in eye movement - from an actual walk in the park - that a psychological treatment for Trauma (EMDR) was initially founded, albeit developed as a psychological approach not as such specific to going outdoors. 

The bridging of offering people experiences outdoors (both nature and adventure focused) with ‘talking therapies’ is what distinguishes Outdoor Adventure Therapy from ‘a walk in the park.’ Outdoor Adventure Therapy has developed over many decades, and is a recognised psychological approach to working purposefully in an outdoor setting with the clear intent of tackling and supporting people with mental health distress, problems and illness. It is a dynamic combination of utilising the immediacy of activity and being in outdoor and adventure settings, with the nuances and complexities of psychological/psychotherapeutic theory and techniques, to offer a therapeutic milieu for learning and psychological change. It partly builds upon the innate therapeutic benefits of being outdoors but, as a professional practice, it is more than this. It is a unique blended combination of core psychotherapeutic frameworks and practices, with outdoor adventure facilitative leadership knowledge, skills and abilities.  It unites emotional and physical challenge in an experientially focused setting, integrated with activity and using the natural environment as the therapy room, ultimately “.. bringing back into therapy an aspect of what it means to be human” (McLeod: 2009).  

Fostering insight and psychological change

In this setting, metaphors of personal significance can emerge for the client, coupled with decisions made with real consequences e.g. ‘If I don’t follow the appropriate route I could fall and hurt myself’. Extended emotional challenges mean individuals can experience heightened feelings of risk that brings emotions, feelings, and behaviours to the forefront, in conjunction with meditative qualities from immersion in nature. There could be times when talking therapies is taken from the outdoors to indoors– it is not activity in and of itself; but the blended combination of experience and process. 

All of this helps individuals to observe and gain insight into current difficulties, longstanding behavioural and emotional habits; fostering insight and psychological change, and helping to develop more effective coping strategies. The activity in the setting itself also helps individuals to tap more readily into psychological motivations, and the therapist’s response to the dynamic outdoor environment also helps to demystify the therapist as all knowing; they too can trip over a rock on a path, and get wet and cold when it rains. 

In terms of outdoor and adventure therapy practices these can vary in approach. Someone might have their regular counselling session in an outdoor space not in a room (commonly referred to as ‘walk and talk’ (Revell & McLeod, 2015)), or in contrast it might be someone goes on an extended wilderness journey with a collective group of clients and therapists (commonly referred to as ‘wilderness therapy’). It could be someone rock climbs a mountain with a therapist (commonly termed ‘adventure therapy’) or it be might the therapy room space is mirrored with a boundary space set out in a forest or local parkland environment (often termed ‘nature therapy’). 

Different terms represent slightly different emphasis of the applied practice but overarching talking therapies as we might commonly understand them co-exist during these activities as an integrative outdoor counselling and psychotherapy approach. Given this it adheres to a range of ethics and standards. 

So, if something claims to be an outdoor or adventure therapy of some sorts – check out its credentials. Is the collective team qualified from both a psychotherapeutic/psychological, as well as outdoor leadership perspective?  If not, then perhaps it’s a bit like retail therapy outdoors – i.e. of therapeutic value in that moment, but not of psychotherapeutic substance and therefore, literally, just a walk in the park. 

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