5 Ways Wilderness Therapy Aids Recovery
Oxford Treatment Center’s Young Adult Program for ages 18-25 includes Wilderness Therapy. Our therapy team brings together mental-health training and outdoor skills to help people learn and grow more quickly.
The centerpiece of the Wilderness Therapy program is our weekly overnight camping trips to Tishomingo State Park. The 1,500-acre park in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains offers a wide range of activity options — from hiking and rock-climbing to fishing and disc golf — letting therapists tailor the program to each group’s abilities and therapeutic needs. Most young adult patients have the opportunity to participate in a camping trip during their stay on the Etta campus.
Wilderness therapists also lead activities like kayaking and mindfulness meditation on the Etta campus and at nearby Puskus Lake in the Holly Springs National Forest.
“From the outside, it simply looks like fun activities,” said Troy Young, M.Ed, MA, NCC, who founded the center’s wilderness therapy program in 2015.
“What it’s really about is providing an experience where people forget they’re in therapy. Out here, their real issues come to the surface much more quickly.”
That effect is key among young adults, he said. They often enter addiction treatment because of family pressures or legal problems — rather than deciding on their own to get clean.
“Most people — especially young people — perceive therapy as very sterile,” Young said. “They imagine they’re going to be sitting in an office with somebody who’s going to psychoanalyze them and ‘fix’ them. They’re resistant already. But wilderness therapy breaks down those barriers.”
Therapist Katherine Westfall, MSW, joined Young in the wilderness therapy program in 2016. The program grew from day trips to overnight excursions, with camping groups separated by gender week-by-week.
The therapy team also spends time with the group before departure, setting expectations and intentions for the therapy experience.
“We’ve found our groups get more out of the experience when they understand on the front end: This is not just a camping trip with their buddies. We’re doing therapy,” Westfall said. “Even though we’re not sitting down with them in a counselor’s office, we are doing work. It is fun — but it’s not just for fun.”
Here are five ways wilderness therapy works to advance recovery from drug and alcohol addiction at Oxford Treatment Center:
1. Being engaged outdoors makes you focus outside yourself.
There are few things more dangerous to recovery than anxious, repetitive thoughts — and the habit of turning back to drugs or alcohol for comfort. That’s why mindfulness — the practice of being fully present in the moment — is increasingly being used as a tool in treatment and recovery.
“When we’re being active outdoors, we are intentionally focused on the world outside of us, rather than what’s in our own mind,” Westfall said.
2. You have to find ways of working through being uncomfortable or frustrated.
Whether it’s disc golf for young men or strenuous hiking for young women, the physical activities built into wilderness therapy trips are designed to be challenging. They offer a real-world exercise in dealing with frustration, while also opening up a world of metaphors for the recovery journey.
“When you make a bad throw in disc golf, you have a choice between getting mad or shrugging it off and trying to do better next time,” Westfall said. “We spend time working on how to overcome these little struggles, so that they can apply the same perspective to handle the bigger struggles in life.”
On hiking trips, the length and difficult of the trek is designed to push the group’s endurance.
“We take it at their pace and take as many breaks as we need to,” she said. “But there’s only one way to get to the end: Just keep walking.”
3. The discovery of positive ways to spend downtime and have fun.
“I never knew you could have this much fun sober.” That’s a common refrain for young people at Oxford Treatment Center, where therapeutic activities open the door to meaningful pastimes after treatment.
While the Young Adult Program is heavily structured, wilderness therapy excursions intentionally include some downtime.
“The challenge of being bored can be very dangerous in early recovery,” Westfall said. “We allow some time to simply let them practice making good choices about how to spend their time, whether that’s hanging out with their peers, reading a book or going fishing.”
4. Hard work and responsibility come before rest and fun.
Even with all the tools and support available today, lasting recovery from drug or alcohol addiction will not come without hard work. Therapists intentionally make the chore of setting up camp the first activity of the trip.
“The delayed gratification is purposeful,” Westfall said. “Not everything can be immediate. Sometimes we have to work hard or struggle for a little while to enjoy what we’ve worked for.”
Likewise, at the end of the trip, the entire group takes part in unloading equipment and putting it away as soon as they return to the treatment campus.
“They’re ready to get back to their cabins for a shower, but first we have to unpack and clean out the coolers,” Westfall said. “It’s important to include them in as much of the process as we can.”
5. There’s no place like a campfire for open, honest conversation.
It would take a traditional therapy group many weeks to reach the level of openness achieved by Oxford Treatment Center’s wilderness therapy excursions. The trips offer a chance to accelerate and deepen patients’ learning after they have already been treatment for 20 to 25 days.
“Around the campfire, the walls between people are literally and physically gone,” Westfall said. “People will be a lot more open there than they would in other settings.”
Therapists act as facilitators for the group, helping members take the lead and stay on track. The group chooses its own topic for sharing, and members encourage one another.
“I’m always impressed by how much the guys especially are willing to share,” Westfall said. “They are so open and vulnerable, and genuinely want to help each other. They know that by helping each other, they can help themselves.”
What is Experiential Therapy?
At Oxford Treatment Center, experiential therapies are an integral part of treatment, not an extracurricular activity.
In addition to traditional talk therapy in an office or classroom setting, patients work with therapists in ways that let them to learn by doing, not just talking. Equine therapy is a hallmark of the program, and therapy horses are used both for riding and demonstrations.
Art, music, wilderness, ropes course, yoga and mindfulness are also part of the program. Our experiential therapists have both mental health training and expertise in those different fields. The activities open the door to therapeutic conversations, and provide metaphors that give patients a new perspective on their addiction and recovery.
It’s difficult to explain the power of experiential therapies — until you actually experience them. It’s the difference between studying plant biology in class and growing your own garden. When you put the theory and the practice together, you’re building skills for a strong recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.