Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Wilderness Therapy

by James Porter June 07, 2011

I learned about Open Sky Wilderness Therapy at a Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) conference last December in Hilton Head, SC. You can listen to the Assistant Clinical Director for Open Sky, Dr. Paul Case* on our Meet the Author Series this week. Open Sky is a treatment program for teenagers and young adults that uses "the transformational power of nature" to strengthen relationships, foster growth, cultivate awareness and develop overall health and wellness. This program works with these young people on a wide variety of issues, including substance abuse, depression, ADHD, anxiety, grief and loss, family problems, school problems, and low self-esteem. From what I've seen of it, it sounds like a great program. This blog was submitted by their PR director Jill Hutcheson.

Wilderness Therapy as Healer

Since time, immemorial people have gone to the wilderness to seek vision, experience a deeper sense of self and reality, and find healing. Nature has a certain kind of light and clarity that speaks clearly to the soul, calling it forth. When people go to nature, they touch a deeper part of themselves, a part that has been hidden by the distractions and hectic pace of daily life. When people go into the wild, they go because the soul longs for connection and needs to be heard.

Open Sky believes that there is no better place to heal, reestablish one's purpose and meaning than in nature. For centuries, great spiritual teachers have sought time alone in nature for guidance and direction. The wilderness provides a peaceful and serene context in which to reconnect with oneself and with the world at large and to find direction amidst the challenges and hardships of life.

Wilderness Therapy as Teacher

In this modern age, we have taken away much of the challenge of our physical existence, so much so, that arguably we have created an unhealthy culture where our material abundance has led to the highest rates of obesity and apathy ever known. Living in the outdoors requires work: demands of the weather, of walking everywhere you go, of learning to live without furniture and a bed means learning how to take care of yourself in ways that are easily taken for granted when we are NOT in the wild. There is no shower, bed, toilet, oven, microwave, television, computer, lighting; all these basic amenities are missing. Students must learn to make do with a life devoid of almost ANY technology. But rather than being a negative, this style of living off the land engenders a sense of empowerment, of being capable of successfully keeping themselves physically comfortable and safe: warm when it is cold, dry when it is wet and fed when they are hungry. They become students of life in its most natural form.

Nature also provides the best classroom to learn one of the essential truths: that with every action, there is a subsequent reaction; for every cause, there is an effect. In essence, moving out of childhood is moving into conscious awareness in which we no longer are a function of our trauma, our family story, our incorrect beliefs or our involuntary conditioning. We aim to help each of our students learn that they have the ability to make choices with what they do and how they respond to circumstances in their lives. Wilderness is the single best context in which to learn this truth.

For example, if a student sleeps poorly because the wind whipped their shelter all night because they didn't secure it tightly and then is grumpy and irritable all day, we help them connect the dots between their shelter building effort (such attributes as attention to detail, prioritizing quality and craftsmanship, not being lazy, not settling for just good enough) and how they slept and, therefore, how they feel (the result of not doing an adequate job of securing their shelter). With this simple connection, students make a massive leap, a leap towards understanding that what you put into life, you get out of life. Nature is the teacher, an authority everyone respects. Connecting the dots between behavior and nature's consequences empowers students to make intelligent choices and understand how nature naturally supports this.

Wilderness Therapy and Community

In wilderness, distractions such as social and economic status, image and materialism are irrelevant. Nature does not treat any one person any differently than any other no matter their status or their possessions. Wilderness provides a neutral context to create a community with intention, one based on essential fundamentals of human community: trust, honor, integrity, effort, authenticity, and compassion. Led by field guides and other members of the Open Sky team, our students are supported in living out many of these ideals in a practical, real way.

In addition, the rigors and demands of living simply in the wilderness require cooperation and participation. With groups rarely exceeding 10 students, living together 24 hours a day, seven days a week and being without the fragmentation of our civilized communities of work, school, and home, there is no place to get lost or to be forgotten. Students at Open Sky bond together around the noble cause of just living simply in small bands; eating when hungry, staying dry when it is wet, remaining warm when it is cold, supporting each other when it is difficult, and sharing expectations in order to get along.

In an intimate, supportive and intentional community of people, there is the chance to learn about oneself, one's role in the world, one's purpose and the importance of what it simply means to be responsible for one's own actions.

*Dr. Paul Case, author of the book, What Now? How Teen Therapeutic Programs Could Save Your Troubled Child, is currently the Assistant Clinical Director at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Durango, Colorado. Dr. Case earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Wheaton College. He has published in peer-reviewed journals and presented papers at the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, and the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

James Porter
James Porter


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