What Is Adventure Therapy And How It Works For Abuse Disorders?

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

What is adventure therapy? True to its name, adventure therapy is the approach of using various types of adventure as a form of experiential therapy in the treatment of certain health conditions and disorders. The idea behind adventure-based therapy suggests that it should be done outdoors, but some of the activities involved can be carried out indoors too. Take a look at the origins of adventure therapy and how it can be applied in treatment plan for substance abusers and other health disorders.

The History Of Adventure Therapy

The history of adventure therapy programs can be traced as far back as the 1800s – although in a slightly different approach than is common today. During that period, only a few mental institutions and hospitals believed in allowing patients to recover in a “more natural and holistic environment.” Leading the pack in this direction was Friends Hospital, Philadelphia. The hospital was founded in 1813, and they were known for pushing the narrative that anybody can lead “a moral, ordered existence if treated with kindness, dignity, and respect.” To back this up, the hospital started providing pet therapy for patients from 1830, and by 1880, there were greenhouses that the patients could visit and tend to.
In the early 1900s, another American hospital – The Manhattan State Hospital East ideated tent therapy for patients. Initially, the purpose of the approach was to isolate patients suffering from specific disorders from other patients. Then it was found that the nature therapy program had healing benefits of its own. During the same period (1906 specifically), the San Francisco Psychiatric Hospital deployed the same form of adventure therapy for patients, following an earthquake in the city.
By the mid-1900s, Kurt Hahn, an educator, opened a program known as Outward Bound in Wales. This program gave young people the opportunity to experience outdoor therapy activities in a properly structured and safe environment, similarly to therapeutic milieu. A Colorado extension of the program was established in 1962, and it spread to other parts of the United States after that. In more recent times, adventure therapy has become so widely known and applied that there are actual degrees for adventure therapy.
patients relaxing on top of a mountain

The Types And Elements Of Adventure Therapy Program

A downside of the emergence and growing popularity of adventure therapy is that it can be hard to pick a credible program that is most suitable for the needs of the individual. However, a credible program must – in all cases – adopt a hands-on approach that will aid the participants in learning new and healthy behavioral and emotional skills.
The inclusion of the following elements can judge the measure of an effective adventure program:

Clinical Support

This can be done in the form of weekly individual or group substance abuse therapy sessions. Each approach has its own merits. Mental health group activities for adults, for instance, have the advantage of helping participants meet people that may be struggling through similar problems. The effect of empathy on the participants’ recovery can prove to be very useful in these cases.

Wilderness Environment

Exposure to an outdoor environment alone is sometimes enough to trigger a number of emotional and psychological benefits. These benefits are usually the hallmarks by which the success of an adventure therapy program is judged, so they must not be underestimated. For participants that come into the adventure therapy program feeling lost or stagnant in life, putting them in these outdoor environments as part of a therapeutic adventure program can be very effective.
 group of people having fun in therapy success

Sequenced Adventure Activities

These include physical activities such as kayaking, horseback riding, rafting, surfing, backpacking, etc. While engaging in these activities, the participants are encouraged to deal with situations and obstacles that are unfamiliar. Thus, completing the activities gives them a new perspective about facing challenges and other difficult situations in life.

Cultural Immersion (Optional)

This is a less common feature among adventure therapy programs, so the lack of it is not necessarily a drawback. However, it can be a good addition where present.
The idea is to remove the participants from their comfort zones and place them in a situation where the culture and values are different from what they are used to. For example, if a participant is in a situation where things that are seen as basic (such as good, clean water or standby healthcare) are a luxury, it serves as a cause for reflection and a better appreciation of the situation that they are accustomed to.

The Benefits Of Adventure Therapy

Adventure therapy has quite a number of fantastic benefits for individuals of all age groups. It is particularly useful for individuals that are dealing with some mental or psychological stress or mental health challenges. Some of these benefits include:

  • It helps the participants to gain first-hand experience of adventure therapy and the healing effects of nature as a form of therapy.
  • It encourages participants to take part in real-world, engaging experiences.
  • It helps the participants to shed some bad habits while they develop new ones from the adventure therapy activities that they partake in. This is due to the fact that behavioral patterns are easier to change when the host is removed from the environment that fosters those patterns and habits.
  • It is a great opportunity for self-reflection and personal development. It gives the participants ample room to work on themselves.
  • It encourages the participants to stay active physically, leading to an overall improvement in the physical condition.
  • It enhances problem-solving and cognition skills through participation in tasks that require mental exertion.
  • It encourages an overall improvement in the participants’ outlook on life and a more positive attitude in facing challenges and fears.
  • It helps to build self-confidence and interpersonal communication skills.
  • It gives the participants a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses that they possess.
  • It builds trust in oneself and in others.

Health Disorders That Can Be Managed With Adventure Therapy

As suggested earlier, adventure therapy can be very effective as a natural mental health treatment option for managing a number of health disorders. It is generally useful for people who are struggling with different sorts of challenges and problems in life. The approach can be adopted in the treatment of cases such as:

  • People dealing with anxiety disorders
  • People struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • People dealing with substance abuse
  • People struggling with codependency
  • People recovering from trauma caused by events that occurred to them
  • People dealing with relationship problems with other people
  • People struggling with anger management
  • Adolescents struggling with behavioral or emotional problems – a situation that is not uncommon among people at that age
  • People suffering from depression
  • People dealing with the loss of a loved one
  • People struggling with low self-esteem or self-confidence
  • Families or close friends dealing with conflict

Integrating Adventure Therapy Into A Treatment Plan

Despite the fact that the effectiveness of adventure therapy in managing these health disorders is established, it should be noted that it should not be deployed as a standalone treatment. Adventure therapy works best as part of a broader, more comprehensive non-12 step treatment program – particularly when dealing with people with severe mental health disorders.
Woman giving five to a friend
The key here is to enroll in treatment programs that have adventure therapy as an optional extension of the more-extended program. Ideally, the comprehensive program should include something along the lines of talk-based therapy and pharmacotherapy as the major approach, if it is not a short term residential treatment program. These options working hand-in-hand with adventure therapy programs will provide the best combination treatment for a wide range of health disorders listed earlier.
Finally, it is important to stress the adoption of individual treatment. While group session has its merits, taking time out for extra individual sessions will help the adventure therapist to create the best-personalized approach for treating each individual.

Page Sources

  1. Ralf Christopher Buckley, Paula Brough, Nature, Eco, and Adventure Therapies for Mental Health and Chronic Disease, August 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573430/
  2. National Institute of Mental Health, Psychotherapies, November 2016, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/psychotherapies/index.shtml
  3. Evan Mayo-Wilson, Sofia Dias, Ifigeneia Mavranezouli, Kayleigh Kew, David M. Clark, AE Ades, Stephen Pilling, Talk Therapy – Not Medication – Best for Social Anxiety Disorder, Large Study Finds. September 2014, https://www.jhsph.edu/news/news-releases/2014/talk-therapy-not-medication-best-for-social-anxiety-disorder-large-study-finds.html

Published on: November 5th, 2019

Updated on: July 6th, 2020

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.


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