What is Adventure Therapy?
Adventure therapy is a type of experiential therapy that uses challenging adventure activities to aid the therapeutic healing process. Adventure therapy helps promote healthy identity development, self-efficacy, grit, and a growth mindset.
At an adventure therapy program, students get the opportunity to engage in various new activities and experience several novel environments during their stay. Adventure therapy activities at ThreePeaks Ascent are facilitated in an intentionally therapeutic manner. Students are doing more than just rock climbing or skiing. They learn to listen, keep themselves safe, learn emotional regulation skills, and develop grit as they push themselves to overcome challenging tasks. The challenges students face through ThreePeaks Ascent’s adventure programming are designed to forge an identity, build resiliency, and improve self-efficacy.
A unique element to ThreePeaks Ascent’s outdoor adventure therapy model is that students do not just participate in the activity; they learn how to do it themselves. This is called experiential learning and has proven effective with teens in crisis. ThreePeaks Ascent students are not just taken mountain biking; they are learning all parts of how to mountain bike.
Other key elements unique to ThreePeaks Ascent is that field guides have been trained to facilitate adventure themselves. The same guides that live with students all week, building rapport and making connections, are then able to instruct students during their adventure activities.
Therapeutic Benefits of Adventure
Each student comes to ThreePeaks Ascent with their own story and challenges. While treatment plans are unique to each student, adventure is a part of all of them.
When we include adventure as part of a nature-based treatment plan, we see several benefits:
- A decrease in symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Increased self-efficacy
- Improved executive functioning
- Improved interpersonal skills
- Identity development
- Improved grit
- Trauma resilience
- Learning to self-advocate for needs
- Accurate clinical assessments
While each student comes with their own story, the adventure therapy model is versatile enough to meet each student at their level.
ThreePeaks Ascent students go through a process of learning, facing challenges, failing, getting back up, and eventually succeeding. This process is then combined with an advanced clinical approach. The combination has proved to be highly effective at addressing a variety of mental and behavioral health issues.
Foundational Principles Behind Adventure Therapy
Adventure therapy is extremely effective at helping clients develop these foundational psychological principles.
Identity refers to one’s sense of as an individual and how they define themselves in terms of values, beliefs, and role in the world. Self-identity in adolescence forms the basis of our self-esteem later in life.
Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our ability to succeed in a particular situation, specifically our ability to meet the challenges ahead of us and complete a task successfully. Self-efficacy plays a role in not only how we feel about ourselves, but whether or not we successfully achieve our goals in life.
In psychology, flow is “the holistic sensation that people feel when they act with total involvement.”
Being in flow means “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Grit is “the combination of perseverance and passion toward long-term goals.” Grit is when you’re able to harness the power of passion and turn it into resolve, persistence, stamina, and tenacity, working toward goals that endure over time. In short, grit is: consistent. hard. work.
A growth mindset is the underlying belief people have about learning and intelligence. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.
A Look at How Individual Adventure Activities Help the Healing Process
ThreePeaks Ascent is unique because it offers a variety of high-adventure activities both on campus and at nearby locations. Please note that not all adventure therapy activities will be available to each student due to a variety of factors weather, season, etc. All the adventure activities are facilitated by experienced field guides. This section will give an overview of some potential ThreePeaks Ascent adventure activities your teen may be involved in:
- Rock Climbing – Climbing puts students into a place where they need to confront their fears, physical challenges, lack of confidence, and many other obstacles to success. They face a seemingly insurmountable wall, and through thorough planning, coaching, effort, and practice, they reach new heights. This is a powerful metaphor for them to generalize to the rest of their life.
- Skiing – Skiing challenges students to think less and be in the moment. Students learn about “flow theory” when they enter a mental state where they react to their changing world without time for anxiety or fear. This natural high is both a healthy coping mechanism and a counter to anxious thoughts.
- Canyoneering – Success in canyoneering is dependent upon teamwork. Team-building and creative problem-solving are critical skills taught to students while canyoneering. Taking the first step in treatment is always the hardest, and stepping into a rappel is an effective way to learn to control one’s fear and trust in oneself.
- Mountain Biking – Mountain biking challenges students to assess risk accurately and pushes them to react to challenges as they approach. Students may find that they do not have the time to think about what the next obstacle in the trail is, and instead, trust their instincts and training. Mountain biking builds trust in themselves and allows them to learn or practice being in the moment.
- Backpacking/Hiking/Navigation – Backpacking is a fundamental outdoor activity at ThreePeaks Ascent. It teaches grit and can be used as a platform to build a group culture. ThreePeaks Ascent students can improve their interpersonal and social skills as they experience what it is like to be a part of a group that works together to complete a common goal like reaching the top of a 10,000 ft peak.
- Challenge Course – ThreePeaks Ascent’s on-site challenge course is a low ropes course that strengthens group cohesion and teaches social-pragmatic skills. Student groups work together through a series of challenging tasks. All tasks require effective communication, leadership, listening, and cooperation to overcome. Through failure, coaching, and perseverance, students learn what it takes to be a team player.
A Look at How Adventure Therapy Helps Common Mental Health Struggles
Adventure therapy is highly versatile in treating a variety of mental and behavioral health diagnoses. This unique approach is useful in different ways for people struggling with different challenges.
Anxiety and Depression
For students struggling with anxiety and depression, adventure can be an essential avenue for treatment in part due to the benefits of physical activity on their mood. For people struggling with depression and anxiety, bringing exercise into their routine has been shown to create better treatment outcomes and improve physical health. At ThreePeaks Ascent, students develop good habits surrounding the daily exercise routine as they learn how to do a variety of adventure activities. ThreePeaks Ascent students walk away with the skills to continue any of the activities in their post-treatment lives. They will also be able to experience the benefits of physical activity on their mood.
Students struggling with anxiety and depression show particularly good treatment outcomes when incorporating adventure activities that trigger flow theory concepts. Mountain biking and skiing meet many of the requirements to regularly trigger a mental “flow” state where students learn to eliminate the thought cycle between sensory input and action. They read and react to the terrain in front of them without worrying about possible outcomes. This is nearly the opposite of anxiety. Mountain biking can create a borderline euphoric experience that is highly effective at treating depression and anxiety.
Further, overcoming seemingly impossible challenges like climbing a rock wall or rappelling off a cliff helps these students build self-efficacy. Increasing self-efficacy is one of the building blocks that can contribute to teens overcoming anxiety and depression.
Adventure therapy is well suited to address poor self-esteem/self-efficacy. For a variety of reasons, youth often struggle to see themselves in a positive light. They may have developed self-defeatist internal narratives or learned to dislike themselves. They may have learned an attitude of helplessness in life and expect to fail.
Adventure therapy has consistently shown to improve self-efficacy through a process by which youth are exposed to seemingly impossible challenges, in novel environments, and through guidance, hard work, and grit, they can find success. This process is backed up by several studies. Including one that showed statistically significant positive outcomes over 3.5 times greater than alternative therapy methods in the area of self-concept. Another study showed that improvement in self-efficacy translated from the outdoors to academics.
This suggests that adventure therapy’s outcomes are generalizable to other aspects of life. A foundational work on self-efficacy indicates that efficacy beliefs are the best predictor of future performance; therefore, by addressing these issues through adventure therapy, one can effectively improve the chances of future success.
Relationship Issues & Family Conflict
Relational conflict can take many forms, but one of the most common is conflict within the family. Family units are the most important structures for youth as they develop into adults. Maintaining positive and healthy relationships within a family unit, while at times challenging, is critical to overall healthy development. When relationships are unhealthy, it may be time to seek help.
ThreePeaks Ascent addresses relational and family conflict through the adventure therapy model. Recent research has shown that adventure therapy has a positive effect on outcomes for overall family development. These positive effects were greater than other alternative therapies. Clinicians at ThreePeaks Ascent take a whole family approach and try to facilitate healing on behalf of students, parents, and other family members.
Identity development is a crucial step for youth and is tied closely to ideas of self-concept and social development. Developing a clear concept of who you are, your values, and where you fit into the social world is central to achieving success and happiness. Many young people find that they struggle to define these areas and may fall behind in terms of identity development.
In a recent study, adventure therapy was shown to have significant positive effected outcomes on factors that contribute to identity development. These include; social development, self-concept, and morality & spirituality. Further, these positive effects were more significant than non-adventure-based therapies. Finally, these effects show no post-treatment regression.
This study attributes the lasting positive change effects to the adventure therapy model. It also singles out experiential education’s “active and direct use of client participation and responsibility” as a critical treatment element. The study indicates that key programmatic elements for adventure therapy included
- the presence of, and interaction with nature,
- use of perceived risk to heighten arousal and to create eustress (positive response to stress)
- meaningful engagement in adventure experiences
- solution-based focus on positive change (present and future functional behavior)
- ethic of care and support holistic process and effect on participants.
School Anxiety, Refusal, or Failure
Understanding how adventure therapy can apply as a treatment for school failure means looking beyond academic failures and delving into the reason behind them. School failure can be a symptom of a variety of issues, from anxiety to depression to trauma.
While each case of school failure is unique, adventure therapy has shown to be an effective treatment. In a large study, adventure therapy had a statistically significant positive impact on school failure. Further, the impact was over four times greater than that of alternative, non-adventure model therapy. School failure can be a significant barrier to future success, and the adventure therapy model has shown to be a highly effective treatment.
The adventure therapy model at ThreePeaks Ascent is grounded in creating seemingly impossible challenges, and guiding students through the difficult, but rewarding process of overcoming those challenges. Studies have shown that this process has led to “large to very large, statistically significant improvements in behavioral and emotional functioning.” Behavioral issues can vary widely. However, the adventure therapy approach appears to be versatile in meeting each student where they are at.
Autism and Other Neurodiverse Conditions
All of the adventure activities at ThreePeaks Ascent are conducted in a group setting including group therapy. They all require cooperation, communication, collaboration, and conflict resolution. These are all skills that many of our neurodiverse students are working on while at ThreePeaks Ascent.
Whether a student is struggling with symptoms associated with being on the autism spectrum, or from another neurodevelopmental disorder like a non-verbal learning disorder, ThreePeaks Ascent can provide individualized treatment plans to meet them where they are at. The adventure therapy setting creates authentic social interactions that can be tailored by staff to meet the group’s needs and allows for processing and debriefing of behaviors. Karoff et al. break down the reasons that adventure therapy is effective for youth on the autism spectrum or with other neurodevelopmental disorders into three elements:
- Adventure therapy is inherently unpredictable. This provides ASD youth with frequent opportunities to engage with peers in an authentic, uncontrived way. They can engage with peers in the way while in an environment of support and trust.
- Adventure therapy is a group-driven process that is, by nature, flexible and adaptable to the specific needs of the group and individuals within it.
- Adventure therapy is a here-and-now approach that creates space for youth to cognitively process how behaviors and feelings experienced in the moment relate to participants’ lives beyond the treatment setting.
Karoff et al. sum up the value of Adventure Therapy in treatment for those on the autism spectrum writing, “The power of Adventure Therapy lies in experiencing real behaviors, in real-time, and reflecting on how they are either helpful or limiting to a participant’s life, and then learning new ways of behaving, thinking or feeling, and providing a space to practice those new behaviors before trying them out in the real world.”
Eating disorders present unique clinical challenges and are often difficult to manage in the home. While the presentation of eating disorders can vary, a common thread is often an issue with body image.
Adventure therapy can be an effective treatment option for eating disorders with proper planning and supervision of eating habits to address and mitigate health concerns. A research journal article (focusing on women) describes the nature-based treatment process as an opportunity to reconnect with one’s physical body.
The author emphasizes that “the nature experience alone is not sufficient to create a major transformation. Other critical elements are the therapeutic effect of the group process and risk-taking activities, such as hiking and team-building exercises, which contribute to breaking down the stereotypes concerning women and their bodies.”
Eating disorders present unique treatment and health challenges, but evidence supports that adventure therapy is an effective therapeutic intervention for various presentations.
Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs)
Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) are known to cause behavioral, cognitive, and executive functioning impairments. Cognitive rehabilitation for TBIs traditionally consists of a context-sensitive method like the Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) approach.
Context-sensitive approaches aim to enhance the quality of life and minimize problem behaviors by expanding the patient’s range of behaviors. These approaches emphasize that cognitive rehabilitation must take place in natural environments. Adventure therapy can effectively facilitate cognitive rehabilitation by allowing students to practice behavior skills in novel environments.
One study on treating TBIs with an adventure therapy model indicates that “adventure therapy relies on teaching through experience in natural contexts and, consequently, can also be considered a contextualized intervention.”
The critical elements of adventure therapy that make it an excellent option for the treatment of TBIs are:
- That the client becomes a participant rather than a spectator in therapy.
- Therapeutic activities require client motivation in the form of energy, involvement, and responsibility.
- Therapeutic activities are real and meaningful in terms of natural consequences to the client.
- Reflection is a critical element of the therapeutic process.
- Functional change must have present as well as future relevance for clients and their society
Adventure therapy is, therefore, able to leverage its fundamental components in a way that makes it an excellent option for those looking for a contextualized intervention based in cognitive rehabilitation for traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that can significantly impact youth’s lives. ADHD is often associated with academic issues and school failure, relational issues, and behavioral issues. Evidence has shown that adventure therapy is both an effective treatment for ADHD, and for many of its associated issues.
A study assessing nature interactions and ADHD found that 7 out of 13 high-quality studies identified a significant relationship between increased nature interactions and decreased ADHD symptoms. Further, the study found that increased accessibility to nature showed significant positive findings in six out of nine cases and that increased exposure to nature showed significant positive findings in seven out of nine cases.
While this study looked at the overall efficacy of including nature in treatment for ADHD, other studies look more closely at some of the issues associated with ADHD and treating them with experiential therapy. One of these studies found that adventure therapy had significant positive outcomes on academics, behaviors, and social development. It is, therefore, possible to address both ADHD directly, and many associated issues in a adventure therapy model.
When someone experiences trauma, they can get stuck in what is called a heightened or arousal state. They start to feel a heightened state of fear similar to that that was felt at the time of the initial trauma. Many people hold on to that state of fear and do not have a chance to finish the arousal cycle. This is supposed to be four stages ending in a stage where they feel safe again.
For those who get stuck in this fear stage, high-adventure activities can be an effective treatment. They can mimic feelings of fear and anxiety, by introducing perceived risk, and then help students complete the last phase of that cycle to where they feel safe. Any adventure activity that provokes this fear response, including rock climbing, skiing, canyoneering and mountain biking, is particularly useful in treating trauma.
One study on treatment of posttraumatic chronic stress disorder found that Nature Adventure Rehabilitation (NAR), a component of adventure therapy, had positive impacts on:
- perceived control over illness (PCI)
- emotional and social quality of life
- and functioning
Further, the study indicated that NAR “seems to work through a process of behavioral activation, desensitization, gradual exposure to anxiety-evoking situations, and gaining control over symptomatology.” By engaging in outdoor the
Substance Abuse & Addiction
Adventure therapy is an excellent tool for addiction treatment because it provides healthy, non-substance, natural high for the student. These are skills that the student can take with them into their post-treatment life. It is a healthy alternative to substance-seeking behaviors and often lets them access a new network of friends who are also participating in the adventure activity. This can draw them away from negative influences that may encourage substance abuse relapse and assist in addiction recovery.
Adventure therapy has proven effective in treating youth with addictions. This is particularly effective in raising awareness of strengths, allowing for a healthy dialogue between students struggling with similar issues, promoting positive family relationships, and increasing resilience related to maintaining sobriety.
Opposition and Defiance
Adventure therapy has proven highly effective in treating oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), It provides space separation to members of the family unit, slowing down the parent-child communication process, and makes room for relationship resolutions and restoration. Further, this research has shown that in strong-willed adolescent males, especially those with co-occurring ADHD, ODD can emerge in an environment where parents are unable to hold firm boundaries or set clear expectations. At ThreePeaks Ascent, guides can provide those clear instructions, set achievable goals, and allow natural consequences to take effect. This, combined with the other factors mentioned above, contributes to the efficacy of adventure therapy for youth struggling with oppositional and defiant issues.
ThreePeaks Ascent’s adventure model effectively addresses a variety of mental and behavioral health issues with a particular emphasis on increasing levels of self-efficacy, identity development, resilience, and grit. By achieving a seemingly impossible goal, students learn to push themselves to new highs. If you can climb a mountain, what challenges can’t you overcome?
About ThreePeaks Ascent Nature-based Therapy Program
ThreePeaks Ascent’s Adventure Therapy program was uniquely crafted to assist students and their families in creating lasting, life-long emotional changes through compassionate, intentional, research-backed, and safe outdoor adventure therapy programs. The professionals at ThreePeaks Ascent understand individuals don’t come with instructions, and every student is unique, capable, and amazing in their own right.
At ThreePeaks Ascent, we focus on helping adolescents and their families through difficulties that occur when various emotional, behavioral, cognitive, or developmental issues are present. Research shows that engaging individuals on a personal level with strategic and intentional activities will aid in developing the tools and skills necessary to engage life in a healthy and positive way.
Benefits of a Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment Program
Being immersed in nature can have a profound impact on a teenager. It improves their mental, emotional, and physical health. Combined with a proven clinical approach, a therapeutic experience helps teens heal. Here are specific benefits your family can expect to see while your teen is in nature-based short-term residential treatment.
The first stage of effective short-term residential treatment focuses on assessment and stabilization.
By observing your teen in a novel environment, our experienced therapists gain a deep understanding of what is really happening with your child. Research indicates accurate mental health assessments can lead to a 20% reduction in the number of days in treatment.
Mental health stabilization provides a safe environment to deescalate your teen’s level of distress and/or reduce their acute symptoms of mental illness. Until teens feel genuinely safe, they cannot begin to heal. One therapeutic modality emphasizes that “Cues of safety are the treatment” and “safety is defined by feeling safe and not simply by the removal of threat.” It is not enough to merely tell a teen in crisis that they are mentally and emotionally safe, they must actually feel and believe it.
Once your teen feels safe, our wilderness-based residential treatment program provides a novel and challenging environment that disrupts their unhealthy patterns and behaviors. Behaviors that either:
- cause your teen's mental & emotional health struggles
- or that your teen has developed as a negative way of coping with their struggles.
The second stage of an effective residential treatment program focuses on engaging teens in the therapeutic process and empowering them with the skills needed to thrive.
1. Engaging Teens in Therapy (even if they’ve been resistant to it before)
The ThreePeaks Ascent treatment program is designed to re-engage teens in healthy adolescent development. When your teen attends a short-term residential program, they are taken away from negative distractions they may have at home. They engage in treatment in a way that would not be possible in any other setting.
Your teen will participate in individual, group, and family therapy sessions while in treatment. This allows them to process their behavior as well as make changes in their personal life and family relationships. They are also able to learn from their peers, realize they are not alone in their struggles, and gain motivation to make changes.
We've found that by the time of discharge, 90% of teens were actively engaged in treatment. When contacted six months after treatment, most of these teens maintained the motivational progress they made during treatment.
2. Empowering Teens Through Skill Development
As your teen engages in the therapeutic process, they’ll start to see huge progress. But for long-term healing, it is not enough to only alleviate your teen’s struggles, we must also empower them with the skills needed to thrive in life. These skills include:
- Self-awareness skills like a growth mindset, identifying one's feelings, developing interests & sense of purpose
- Self-management skills like emotional regulation, self-motivation, resilience, setting & achieving goals, planning & time management
- Responsible decision-making skills like showing curiosity & open-mindedness, anticipating & evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, internal locus of control
- Relationship skills like communicating effectively, seeking & offering support, resolving conflicts constructively
- Social awareness skills like showing empathy & compassion for others, taking others’ perspective, recognizing strengths in others
Your teen is powerful, intelligent, and capable. They are among the leaders of tomorrow. That is why the third stage of our short-term residential treatment program focuses on helping teens redirect their previously misused potential toward developing mastery in life.
Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed years ago, “Happiness is the feeling that power is increasing—that resistance is being overcome.” When teens develop competence and mastery they:
- gain self-reliance and self-confidence
- become more resilient
- have a greater sense of meaning and purpose
- and better resist negative emotions.
Overall, building mastery helps teens develop a positive mindset. Because they feel competent and in control, they go from feeling, “I’m not capable” to “I can do this!”
Additional References & Mental Health Resources
About the Author
Steven DeMille, Ph.D. LCMHC
Steven DeMille is the Executive Director of ThreePeaks Ascent. He is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. His educational experience includes an MA in Mental Health Counseling and a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision. His research focus is on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment, nature, adolescent development, and counseling ethics. He is actively involved in the counseling and psychology profession and holds regional and national leadership positions. He publishes and presents on Nature-Based Short-Term Residential Treatment and the use of the outdoors. This is done around the world at the national and international conference levels.