Imagine sitting by a flickering campfire, on a little campsite nestled out in the moist, fall woods and only a 20-minute hike from the main road. And while the bright, full moon peeks through the trees on occasion, a short walk from the fire takes you to the lake’s edge, still water reflections of the moon in all her brilliant glory. Someone has put together a couple of smores, toasting to perfection, while the sweet smell of citrus comes off of the oranges gently warming up at the edge of the fire. It’s damp from recent rain. The sights, sounds and smells of the fire, the forest and night whisper softly, “You are indeed outside”.
Now imagine that around the fire are a handful of others, venturing in and out of the firelight, engaging in a conversation about (X) as the need arises or as one’s turn comes.
What is the ‘X’ about?? Maybe it’s about how depression is showing up in your life; perhaps the ways in which anxiety keeps you from living the life (or relationship, or job) you want or need; it might sharing a traumatic story from your past that continues to affect your today.
This is Adventure Therapy (AT) - “... the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by mental health professionals, often conducted in natural settings that kinesthetically engage clients in cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels.” [from Adventure Therapy: Research, Theory and Practice, 2012]
Whether in a group or doing so with only your therapist, you are in a natural setting, sitting around a fire, hiking, walking, etc., and having similar conversations you might have if you were in an office. It is still group or individual therapy, but the WHERE and the HOW therapy happens is different.
AT could also look like:
- a high ropes course, rock climbing or canoeing, while learning how to communicate with others, or learning to trust when someone, or achieving a goal that makes you feel good about yourself (perhaps for the first time in a while).;
- how about sitting on the top of ‘Mount’ Martock on a beautiful fall day, being asked to eat Smarties mindfully, while contemplating what fatherhood means to you before coming back to the group;
- it could also be sitting on a park bench in the Public Gardens, while grieving the death of a loved one.
- it can be as (seemingly) simple as walking and talking.
Some people are better able to access what is going on inside while physically moving; others feel uncomfortable being physically still for a 50-minute hour, or sitting face-to-face in an office with someone trying to share deep or difficult stories.
One other aspect to this work is the powerful use of metaphor in this work – whether a structured activity by a therapist, or simply ‘coming across’ an experience – that can lead to deeper, meaningful learning. Two recent stories emerge here to illustrate:
- Hiking with a couple, using a muddy and rocky section of a trail where they had to ‘support each other through a difficult patch’;
- An urban hike with a client who experienced significant childhood trauma at the hands of an adult – and happening upon a bullfrog that looks to have survived an attack by a predator;
- Sitting on a bench by a pond with a young man dealing with a long-standing difficult relationship with his father - all of a sudden, a father with two young children arrive to playfully catch frogs at the other end of the pond while we watch on.
These stories provided an ‘experience’ from which a deeper sense of meaning was likely arrived at... deeper than I could have arrived at while in our chairs in the office.
So why do I incorporate this type of work into the therapy I do with my clients? More than anything else, it’s about believing in the power of being outside; it’s about seeing another way therapy can happen; and – selfishly – it is literally and figuratively about being in my ‘happy place’. Perhaps it can be so for others as well.