Therapeutic Wilderness



In recent years awareness of mental health and its challenges have been brought under the spotlight, raising awareness of the many trials and hurdles many of us face on a day to day basis. But as the stigma dissolves, the problem remains. Indeed, with the rise in technology embedding itself into our every day lives, the rise in mental health difficulties seems to rise at the same speed. Despite this, what isn't discussed so often, is how to improve mental health, and how to keep fighting through the harder days.


Well many scientists now agree that whilst formal therapy is undeniably one of the best forms of treating negative mental health, experts now agree that experiencing adventure sports such as hiking, scuba diving and rock climbing can be a very close second. There have even been countless case studies of veterans of war and the emergency services who have successfully fought PTSD through therapy of scuba diving and rock climbing. It has proven so effective in fact, that the term 'wilderness therapy' has been coined to recognize adventure sport as a formal therapy, which combines outdoor exploration with traditional counseling methodologies.



An Active Elements UK study has shown that those involved in regular adventure/extreme sport (more than twice a month) are among the more positive segment of society. This is one of the reasons Active Elements was set up in the first place - to help fund experiences for those with mental health troubles. One in every four people will be affected by a mental health issue at some point in their lifetimes, from depression and anxiety to more extreme challenges such as PTSD and Bipolar.



So what is it about adventure sport that is so good for combating mental health issues?

"The sense of freedom is paramount," one expert says. "A sense of freedom goes hand in hand with the sense of control."


This seems to reverberate throughout those who are actively involved in adventure sport - a recent Active Element survey found that 78.9% of those involved in the sports experienced a sense of freedom. 72.2% of those went on to state that this freedom helped to clear their minds of stress, worry and to help combat a negative mental state.



There is no doubt then that the great outdoors can and does help to improve a persons mental positioning. A study conducted by the University of Sheffield's Medical School into the therapeutic benefits of scuba diving found that the sport can offer "significant therapeutic benefits, particularly for ex-military amputees experiencing co-morbid anxiety and/or chronic psychological adjustment disorders such as PTSD, notably in terms of improvements in social dysfunction and depression."


It was expressed by many experts that it was due to the focus required by the sport, that helps to silence other [detrimental] thoughts during and after regular participation. It can be assumed from this then, that many other adventure/extreme sports that require similar levels of focus would also be as effective.



Another reason why adventure sport may be so successful with combating mental illness is the psychological aspect. It's common knowledge that regular exercise is good for you - both physically and mentally.


The physical side is obvious, while the mental aspect isn't always so clear. When we exercise, the body releases a natural chemical called endorphins. Endorphins interact with our receptors in our brain, reducing the amount of pain we feel. They deliver us with a 'euphoric' feeling too though - a feeling that has become known as the 'Runner's High' - with many experts comparing the feeling to that felt from administering Morphine.


Experts have explored this 'high' over the years and have discovered that regular exercise is proven to reduce anxiety and stress levels in the body, ward off the feeling of depression, improve sleep cycles and quality and even boost your self esteem. Research has even shown that exercise is a very effective (but underused) way of treating clinical depression.



Endorphin's are good for us then, and are released when we exercise. A sense of freedom is important, as is a required focus to the task at hand. It's obvious then that a task that draws and combines all three aspects together would be miraculous in combating mental illness. Adventure/Extreme sport, especially those that require high levels of focus such as skiing, cycling, rock climbing and scuba diving, are therefore some of the best mechanisms to clear your mind, and leave yourself feeling a little more optimistic.

Have you ever used an adventure/extreme sport to cope with mental illness or every day stresses? We'd love to hear your story and how your journey is going. Please let us know in the comments section below!

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