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Why Wilderness Therapy?

Posted by John Tobias, MS, ACMHC, Therapist at Entrada on July 22, 2015

I’ve encountered this question many times over the last fifteen years—from friends and relatives, to college professors, and parents of clients.

One of my responses is that it’s hard to hide in the wilderness. Many of our clients have undergone some form of out-patient therapy in a “front country” (i.e., urban) setting before they come to us, and for various reasons they have struggled in this setting. I think there are at least a few factors at play here.

Much of what we do in the wilderness is address issues of identity; that is, we help clients identify and critique the various “parts” that comprise the entirety of the “self.” As insight into these parts of the self increases, clients can begin to apply choice to what had heretofore been automatic, unconscious processes. In the wilderness it’s very difficult for clients to hide those parts of the self that may be identified with unhealthy cognitive/behavioral patterns and habits.

In the front country, a client may see a therapist once a week for an hour. He or she attends the session with clothing of his/her choice, often sporting headphones blasting his/her favorite tunes, and texting and interacting with peers through social media. In this case, the client’s identity--expressed through clothing, music, peer culture, etc.--is strong and can remain so for the therapy hour. The salience of these expressions of identity serves to bolster the client’s ability to hide behind an interpersonal facade during the therapy session. These expressions of identity can be seen as a defense, or wall, that impedes accessing those parts of the self that need exposing before change can occur. In the wilderness, without those powerful accouterments of identity, the client can’t hide from, or defend against, the exposure of the self—with its full array of sensitivities and issues. The exposure of the self in the context of physical and psychological disequilibrium created by the wilderness setting (like only wilderness can create) fosters conditions abundant with potential therapeutic change. Because of this exposure of the self, issues arise distinctly and prominently in the wilderness. With these conditions met, therapeutic change can happen and often happen quite quickly.

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At work concomitantly with the exposure of the true self is the sense of psychological disequilibrium (i.e., discomfort, unease) created in the wilderness context. Without this critical piece, exposure of the self loses much of its power. The wilderness can often scrub away the last vestiges of the unhealthy self, allowing access to that which is most germane in a client’s past and future development. Like few other contexts are capable of, wilderness fosters therapeutic levels of distress through not only its sheer novelty for most of our clients, but even more so through the physical hardships inherent in exposure to the elements of the outside world—thunder, lightning, rain, wind, heat, cold, etc.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had two weeks ago with a client who had been up most of the night in what is known in the field as lightning drills. Staff implements lightning drills during lightning storms to help ensure client safety, and they require that clients are awake and alert so they can respond to staff prompts and instruction. Not only can sleep be hard to come by, but the fear and awe that clients often feel in relation to the seemingly indifferent, and sometimes malevolent, forces of nature can precipitate an examination of what it is that is of ultimate importance in his/her life. Following a largely sleepless night wherein this particular client experienced awe and fear like he had never before, we had one of the more profound therapy sessions in memory. He had a newfound perspective on his place in the world in general and his family in particular that indicated a maturity, depth of understanding, and healthy humility that had been largely absent to that point. He had never realized how much of his world he took for granted. This client entered session more interpersonally sensitive and pliable than he’d ever been. My job was made easy: I simply reflected what he brought to session, which was his authentic, true self. That’s the power of wilderness.

With all of the unhealthy aspects of identity heavily and actively in question, and in a context (i.e., wilderness) that routinely creates therapeutic distress and discomfort, clients can gain experience and insight into aspects of themselves and their core processes that they had been unaware of. It’s in the wilderness that these two mechanisms of change (examination of identity in a therapeutically novel/stressful context) are allowed to so effectively and elegantly interplay. And it’s the insights into core processes and the experiences of the true, authentic “self “ which comprise the wilderness therapy experience that become foundational for the significant change we often see.




Great discussion about how the wilderness works as such a critical tool in your process. Thank you for the well-stated description.

Posted by Tracy

The power of wilderness is difficult to capture in words. Glad the post was helpful, Tracy.

Posted by John

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