Wilderness Therapy as an Alternative to Traditional Treatment

According to Our World In Data, as of 2018 more than half of the world's population live in urban areas — progressively in deeply congested cities. However, metropolitan  living is a comparatively new anomaly in the human chronicle. Some might argue that urbanization of the human species is simply the next step in evolution, and evolution is good. Or is it? Maybe evolution and being evolved isn't good. Sure, the evolution of science and technology is amazing. The human imagination has produced incredible gadgets and has created vaccines for once untreatable / incurable conditions, and we all reap the benefits of these innovations which give us ever increasing possibilities to build and expand and innovate even more. But is actual human evolution always good?

The General Social Survey carried out in 2010 discovered that accomplished, white-collar (office) workers were more likely to report their job as the largest source of stress, 45% of whom had a yearly income of $100,000 USD or more; whereas immigrants, visible minority groups, and those lacking education were more likely to indicate their stress came from lack of finances. In other words, money is a significant cause of stress regardless of where one stand on the spectrum of income.

Stress also isn’t unique to those in the workforce. Psychological Bulletin found that from 1989 to 2016 there was a 33% increase in two types of factors preceding stress among university students in the United States, Canada, and the U.K.: “self-oriented,” or having high expectancy of self, and “other-oriented,” having meticulous expectations for others.

So what's the deal? Having a cushy, high paying job or attending esteemed, modern universities isn't making us better. Living in overcrowded urban areas where everything we could ever need or want being immediately available 24 hours isn't doing the trick either. So what are we supposed to do? Quit our jobs, drop out of school, and move to the woods forsaking the luxuries of modern life and money forever? Not necessarily.

One study found that students who spent two nights in the wild had lower levels of cortisol — a hormone commonly indicative of stress — than those who spent that time in a city. In another study, researchers found a reduction in both the heart rates and levels of cortisol of participants who spent time in the wilderness compared to those in the city.

An extensive 2014 study conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School in En­gland learned that, on average, individuals who moved to more remote areas immediately saw improvement in mental health and less mental distress. This breakthrough in mental health was also enduring, maintaining its effects even three years onwards. 

Being in nature works. Not just for the average person experiencing stress at work or anxiety due to exams, but for those of us who are seriously suffering from cognitive disorders.

The Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Council (OBHC) has discovered that crucial development was made during wilderness therapy treatment and that individuals preserved these positive changes one year later. Interviews with a random selection of participants revealed that 83% proclaimed to be doing better, 58% expressed that they were doing well or very well, 81% rated their treatment as beneficial, and 17% were still struggling. Continued research of OBHC’s impact on youth well-being has affirmed these findings. A study with 900 adolescent clients from OBHC programs found that clients had improved in their levels of overall functioning at discharge. These improvements were based on youth and parent reports with average results large enough to be considered statistically and clinically significant. Most imperatively, these changes in well-being remained at 6 and 12 months after conclusion of treatment.

In a formal study of the effectiveness of wilderness therapy, published by a researcher at Loyola University Chicago, researchers found that 70% of teens going through wilderness therapy were less depressed when the therapy was over. 

A recent study also shows that just four days of immersion in nature, in conjunction with disconnecting from tech, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50%.

The University of Michigan wanted to test the effect of a walk’s scenery on cognitive function. In the first of two experiments, participants were given a 35 minute task involving repeating random numbers back to the experimenter, but in reverse order. Afterwards they were sent out for a walk – one group around a greenhouse and the other down a busy city street – both while being tracked with GPS. They each repeated the memory test when they got back. The results showed that people’s performance on the test improved by almost 20% after wandering amongst the trees. By comparison those subjected to a busy street did not reliably improve on the test.

Researchers from Stanford University found that participants who walked for 90 minutes through a green park on campus, versus strolling next to a loud nearby highway, exhibited “quieter” brains and dwelled less on the negative aspects of their lives (vs. how they felt pre-walk) in follow-up brain scans and questionnaires. They also experienced decreased activity in the area of the brain associated with depression.

So what do we know? If you can't move to a rural area, maybe you can enroll in a therapeutic wilderness program. If you can't participate in wilderness program, construct your own weekend / week long retreat. If you can't do a retreat, take a walk through your nearest park or quiet outdoor space. 

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