the principles and research behind ipse wilderness
Wilderness therapy is booming in the USA, and there are myriad courses, interventions and programmes; some with a ‘behaviour bootcamp’ vibe, others more therapeutic. A few years ago, there were a couple of articles in the Guardian, and a reality TV programme, but as yet, wilderness therapy is a new concept to most people in the UK and mention often results in a quizzical eyebrow raise.
Our dream is for wilderness therapy to become mainstream. We'd love to see these programmes in schools, in youth groups, offered as alternatives to CBT, as commonplace as yoga holidays or fitness classes. We want people to be able to access appropriate support for well-being, at all ages and stages; and for some people, that support might take the form of wilderness therapy. And for some of those people, the ipse wilderness model will be right. By raising awareness, we hope to increase the visibility, and viability, of these forms of intervention, so that wilderness therapy can become part of the mainstream conversation about well-being, so that more people will be able to access meaningful support in a medium which suits, at a time that is appropriate for them.
3 founding principles
Firstly, that the experience should be a journey, both physically and metaphorically. In order to feel like a complete journey, it should be at least 3 days’ long, so that there is a resting centre, beyond arrival/departure. The sense of journeying is enhanced by linear movement, with each night spent in a different location, and by the feeling of self-sufficiency which comes from carrying one’s own gear. When standing on a spot of land, under a bowl of sky, with all you need to survive on your back, you really find out who you are.
Secondly, that the therapeutic ‘work’ should be simple and light. It’s just talking; about how we feel, about what we have experienced, about our emotional landscape. By talking as we walk, there is a fluidity to the process; we are moving pro-actively, keeping grounded, yet treading softly on the surface of the earth, handling our feelings gently. In our age of addiction to social media and the indelible digital record, it feels important to treasure the lightness and simplicity of movement, and to honour our feelings as they come and pass in flux. We encourage clients to speak their truth honestly in the moment. And then to breathe, and to keep moving. Simply by speaking our story, by moving forwards, we practise taking the first steps to overcome what is holding us back.
Finally, that there are metaphorical connections between the landscape and the therapeutic content of the journey. At the macro level, each journey takes place in a different place, and the content of each journey is linked to that location via metaphor. For example, a journey along a coastal path is focused on the topic of change. A journey round an island is concerned with the question of identity. At the micro level, each journey is meticulously planned and the route fully researched. On each day of the walk, 6 or 7 activities will be planned for specific points along the route, where a feature of the landscape can be used as inspiration for a piece of work. For example, a fallen tree might provide the opportunity to ‘go out on a limb’ and say something brave. A set of stepping stones might provoke reflection on the stages of our lives that have led us to this point. By taking our inspiration from nature, we connect our emotions to the landscape, and feel the comfort of being part of a larger pattern.
A great many psychologists, outdoor instructors and therapists have written about different models for wilderness therapy. These concepts have been invaluable in determining the style of ipse wilderness’ work. See the references below to find out more.
Eco-psychology is interested in how mankind can create emotional bonds with nature, and a sense of community between humans and the natural landscape. Studies show that spending time in nature, with the resultant sensations of harmony, stability and balance, can help to treat mental disorders in children.
Nature Connectedness is the simple theory that feeling connected to nature, for example by going for a rural walk, can improve mood and self-reflection. It has also been found to increase intrinsic motivations, and to encourage generosity.
Isomorphic framing is the process by which a wilderness activity is made relevant to the client’s life, through symbolic language. An isomorph is something which has the same shape or structure, but different function as something else, i.e. a physical metaphor. So, in wilderness therapy, crossing a river might represent facing our fears.
Shadow work is a branch of experiential Jungian psychotherapy which seeks to integrate the unconscious into our everyday lives, by providing clients with a safe space to look at those aspects of themselves which are normally hidden.
David Abram; The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World, 1996
George W Burns; Nature Guided Therapy: Brief Integrative Strategies for Health and Well Being, 1998.
Stephen Bacon; The Conscious Use of Metaphor in Outward Bound, 1983
Ellen Cole; Wilderness Therapy for Women: The Power of Adventure, 1994
Clarissa Pinkola Estes; Women Who Run with the Wolves, 1992
James Geary; I is an Other; the Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way we See the World, 2011
Paola Giorgio; Molecules and Women, 2012
Mary Gomes and Allen Kanner; Eco-psychology Anthology, 1995.
Christophe Gruring; The Role of Adventure Therapy in the Comprehensive Treatment of Adolescents, Case Study, Prescott College, 2007.
Carl Jung; The Earth Has a Soul; C.G.Jung's Writings on Nature, Technology and Modern Life, 2002
Richard Louv; Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, 2005
Haruki Murakami; What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2008
Simon Priest & Michael A Gass; Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming, 1997
Marina Robb, Victoria Mew and Anna Richardson; Learning with Nature, 2015
Theodore Roszak; The Voice of the Earth, 1992
Paul Shepard; Nature and Madness, 1982
Allison Williams; Spiritual Therapeutic Landscapes and Healing, The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Health, Illness, Behavior, and Society, 2014
Wilson, S. J. and Lipsey, M. W; Wilderness challenge programs for delinquent youth: a meta-analysis of outcome evaluations, 2000
Handbook of Group Counselling and Psychotherapy, edited by Janice L. DeLucia-Waack, 2004
http://whatworks.college.police.uk/toolkit/Pages/Intervention.aspx?InterventionID=25. Accessed Jan 2016.