The Development of Resilience in Wilderness Therapy

Posted by J Huffine, Ph.D., Owner, Clinical Director and Therapist at Cascades on January 13, 2017

1j resizedI have worked as a Wilderness Therapist for over 18 years. I have seen Wilderness Therapy grow from a “boot camp” model, primarily working with conduct disorder types of problems, to a clinically sophisticated model that incorporates individualized approaches for clients with a myriad of problems, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse/dependence, history of trauma, emotional dysregulation, social difficulties, academic failure, school avoidance, and others.

I have witnessed significant improvement in clients in Wilderness Therapy who had been struggling emotionally and behaviorally for some time. This progress did not occur immediately, but clients visibly improved in their ability to sustain effort in difficult situations, increase task persistence and completion, and continue to improve in these areas even when demands increased. A gradual and significant reduction in negative, maladaptive responses to emotional, interpersonal, and physical challenges occurred.

There are many elements of Wilderness Therapy that I believe contribute to positive and lasting changes. One concept that seems to incorporate a number of elements into one pervasive ingredient for successful change and adaptation is the concept of resilience.

If you Google “psychological resilience,” you will get around 17,500,000 results from which to choose. Much has been written, and there are disagreements about what exactly comprises resilience.

In pop psychology, it may be defined in everyday terms, as in this definition in Psychology Today: Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make someone resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after misfortune, resilient people are blessed with such an outlook that they are able to change course and soldier on.

In articles by the American Psychological Association, resilience is defined as: the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means, "bouncing back" from difficult experiences.
Research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary. People commonly demonstrate resilience. One example is the response of many Americans to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and individuals' efforts to rebuild their lives.
Being resilient does not mean that a person doesn't experience difficulty or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma in their lives. In fact, the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress.
Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.

A definition that appears in scientific research includes the concept of psychological equilibrium, a “biopsychospiritual homeostasis” or emotional balance that is necessary to maintain in order to function effectively. Resilience is the capacity to maintain some degree of emotional balance during adversity and return to this psychological homeostasis even when life difficulties and challenges knock one off balance. So it’s not just a “bouncing back,” but also an ability to better manage adversity when it is happening.

Whoever said “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” was incorrect. There are four possible responses to adversity: (1) indeed with some individuals in coping with difficult events, there is an adaptation to the disruption in emotional homeostasis, leading to a stronger emotional balance and an increase in resilience, (2) a return to baseline in an effort to get past or beyond the challenging event, (3) recovery with loss, establishing a lower level of functioning, (4) a dysfunctional state in which maladaptive strategies (e.g., self-destructive behaviors, withdrawal, avoidance, substance abuse, acting –out behavior) are used in an attempt to manage stressors. Of course, the majority of clients who attend Wilderness Therapy tend to fall in categories 3 and 4.

Ideas abound about what factors constitute resilience. There is evidence that some are constitutional, that there are biological factors innate in some people which help with emotional reactions to stress. Some individuals are clearly wired in ways that are less reactive, and they return to baseline more quickly. Clearly there are those who, neurologically, is not as “laid back.” Moreover, many are biologically predisposed to reactivity (e.g., those with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, genetically predisposed for anxiety disorders, etc.). Nonetheless, as mentioned by the APA, resilience “involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed by anyone.” Resilience is not simply genetic.

Of the dozen or more factors identified as part of resilience, four are most highly found in individuals who demonstrate patterns of resilience.

  1. Having a social support system.
  2. Having a positive mindset.
  3. Being an effective communicator.
  4. Being an effective problem solver.

I believe Wilderness Therapy helps promote resilience so effectively because it incorporates direct ways to assist adolescents and young adults develop in these four areas.

The support system is “built-in.” One of the most powerful therapeutic aspects of Wilderness Therapy is the benefit of positive peer culture. Constant efforts are made by instructors and therapists to encourage and promote a group culture of mutual support and respect. One important element of this culture is called “emotional safety.” Having empathy, allowing others space to open up, talk, and be vulnerable creates the opportunity for clients to heal, recover, and better manage current challenges. The support system, the community, is an integral part of Wilderness Therapy.

Having a positive mindset has been discussed for years and documented as crucial to coping with adversity. Believing that “things will work out in a positive way” enables people to keep trying. High self-efficacy and low fear of failure are seen in high achievers. Hopeful and optimism promote goal-directed behavior.

Life can be challenging, however. There are those who have been less than successful in generating desirable outcomes in their lives. Unfortunately, many have had struggles, been victims of trauma, had difficulties in school because of learning differences, had less than successful social relationships, family issues, loss, etc. The negative impact on confidence and faith in one’s self and the world can be severe.

The antidote for these pessimistic expectations is in developing a sense of internal control, a belief that it is within one’s power to accomplish goals, be successful, have friends, be happy. To adequately or even effectively deal with life’s challenges, setbacks, and failures. Wilderness Therapy is designed to set individuals up for success, to help clients learn to succeed with physical, emotional, mental, and interpersonal challenges. This is accomplished by direct teaching of concepts, tools, strategies, formulas, and recipes, by breaking down tasks into manageable steps. It is necessary to apply these strategies and practice repeatedly. It is impossible to help a person change one’s mindset to a more positive, hopeful, and optimistic one unless that person experiences, through personal effort, enough success to believe they can do it. Wilderness Therapy helps accomplish this change in mindset.

Effective communication involves being able to talk to people so they hear and understand you. Almost everything we do is a form of communication. In Wilderness Therapy, assertive communication is taught, role-modeled, and constantly developed with clients. They learn the difference between passive, passive-aggressive (sarcastic), assertive, aggressive, and assaultive communication. At Evoke, students learn the basic “I feel” statement, which is profound in its simplicity but not necessarily easy to learn. The “I feel” statement offers a way for students to effectively communicate their feelings and hopes. Students learn a formula for giving others feedback in a manner that is respectful and assertive. These tools are used and practiced multiple times daily.

The last of the four most important elements of resilience, being an effective problem solver, is also crucial to managing and recovering from adversity. Wilderness Therapy is first and foremost an “experiential “ form of therapy, that is, “learning by doing.” It is on the job training for developing tools to successfully navigate life’s difficulties. When problems arise, whether physical, mental, emotional, or interpersonal, the reactive patterns are interrupted. New ways of problem-solving are suggested and demonstrated. These new ways are then implemented by students at the moment, practiced, and integrated. Many times poor problem solving is due to either lack of awareness of the steps involved to succeed, or the confidence to keep trying, or both.

The development of resilience is an important part of the overall outcomes in Wilderness Therapy. Wilderness Therapy helps develop resilience in ways discussed above. These sets of behaviors and ways of thinking are developed rather than facts that are merely learned and stored. Intentional strategies are required to help clients develop the four essential elements of resilience. And practice. And practice. The strategies help them develop the ability to do the therapeutic work involved in recovering from difficult events in their pasts. It helps them develop the ability to more effectively navigate future difficulties.

There is much to be learned about the nature of resilience and how to help people develop in that arena. Resilience is essential in managing the emotional, social, academic, and occupational challenges of life. It is necessary in recovering from more serious trauma. Empirical research on the development of resilience, utilizing Wilderness Therapy, will likely prove beneficial in delineating and helping focus on the most important aspects of this process.


It was recently suggested to me that resilience was genetic. That you are either resilient or not. I disagreed but of course did not have this wealth of information at my fingertips, let alone the ability to explain it so eloquently. Thank you! For your work and taking time to explain this! It helps me understand so much...

Posted by Annie

Thanks, Annie, for your comments. I thought the same thing which prompted me to do some research. It allows us to directly work on developing resilience with our clients in the field. Thanks, again.

Posted by J Huffine, Ph.D.

That’s a great article J. You explained so well the need for wilderness therapy and all the good that can come out of it. I love the section on having a positive mindset. Sounds easy right? Just be positive. Well for some it is not easy. With life situations and traumas being positive can be so hard. But in wilderness you can start having positive experiences that are a direct reflection of your actions. It slowly builds up self confidence. Its a great program.

Posted by Whitney

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There are many elements of Wilderness Therapy that I believe contribute to positive and lasting changes. One concept that seems to incorporate a number of elements into one pervasive ingredient for successful change and adaptation is the concept of resilience.