I was recently talking to a friend of mine, Rachel, who works in the field of higher education at the University of Utah, and I mentioned a presentation that I was beginning to prepare for on the role that technology plays in the mental health of young adults. My co-presenter (Tim Mullins with Evoke Therapy) and I had come up with some ideas that we wanted to explore and flesh out, and I was talking to Rachel about these still unhatched ideas. She was very excited to hear of the topic we were presenting about, and she told me of a book that she had recently read called iGen by Jean M Twenge. Let me clarify: Not only did she tell me about it, but she also said I HAD to read it. So read it I did.
Why do some people succeed while some who are equally talented do not? What is it about wilderness that can produce such dramatic results? The foundation from which both answers arise is one of mindset. Mindset, in this case, refers to the mental, emotional and cognitive structures used to process one’s experience. Another way of understanding this idea is asking this question: “What kind of meaning is being created out of any given experience?” Yet another question to help clarify is: “Is learning occurring from a given experience?” The concept of mindset is germane to both answers.
Without fail, my clients come to me having lost traction in the world. They are locked into patterns of behavioral stagnation (i.e., narrowed or limited behavioral repertoires), wherein they’ve become disconnected from what they want most in life, aside from relief from psychological pain. The reason most often given to explain this stagnation and paralysis is that they just don’t “feel” like they can move effectively in the world; their feelings of depression and/or anxiety dictate their behavior (or lack thereof). The implicit agreement they’ve made with themselves and the world is that they have to “feel” a certain way before they can act a certain way. “Once my depression/anxiety goes away, then I can live the life I want,” is the underlying agreement or assumption. It becomes an “if only…, then…” situation.“If only my depression would get better, then I could live the life that I want.” I’m reminded that my Zen teacher, Daniel Doen Silberberg, would often talk about this “If only…, then…” approach to the world. He would say, “We live our lives this way: ‘If only… If only… If only… If only….’ Dead.” Doen was referring to our relationships to both our external worlds (e.g., “If only I could have that house or car I want, then my life would be better.”) and our internal worlds (e.g., “If only I could make my depression go away, then I could live the life that I want.”), but it’s particularly poignant and pertinent when considering the impasse that many of my clients have come to in their young lives. Again, the implicit agreement they’ve made is “If only my bad feelings would go away, then I could live the life that I want.” It’s as though they’re waiting for the world-- someone or something--to come along and change their feelings so that they can begin living the lives they want. From this position, until their feelings change, they are doomed to lives of inertia and behavioral stagnation. The absence of “good” feelings (or the “right” feelings) becomes the reason for their paralysis.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a therapeutic model that lends itself particularly well to facilitating change in a wilderness context. In my experience, ACT and wilderness come together seamlessly, in fact, and seem to amplify each other’s potency. While the effectiveness of ACT for such things as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, schizophrenia and a myriad of other clinical conditions rests on a large and growing body of empirical research, the relationship between ACT and wilderness as related to client treatment outcomes is ripe for exploration. Perhaps most informative here is to examine the interaction between ACT’s six core processes and the wilderness context in an attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the how ACT can be used most powerfully to help wilderness therapy clients.
When researchers distill the personal qualities that underpin positive outcomes in life, two traits come up consistently. The first is intelligence, the other is willpower. Unfortunately, increasing intelligence has proven to be difficult at best. Conversely, recent research indicates that willpower is something that we can increase and improve. In fact, much like a muscle, willpower can be fatigued from overuse and strengthened with consistent exercise.
At the heart of the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model there is one concept that is found to be a common thread among many, if not most, mental health issues: experiential avoidance. There is a growing base of evidence that experiential avoidance is a factor in the development and maintenance of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders, all of which have a high degree of comorbidity with trauma-based disorders. As regarding the trauma implicated in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) specifically, the DSM-V posits an entire symptom cluster (one of three) of PTSD as revolving around experiential avoidance.
I’ve encountered this question many times over the last fifteen years—from friends and relatives, to college professors, and parents of clients.