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Addiction and Adolescence: Treating Substance Use and Process Addictions in Wilderness

The Open Sky Team

Featured Team Members: Mark Sobel, LCSW


In this blog, Clinical Therapist Mark Sobel, LCSW discusses the definitions, impacts, and underlying reasons for addiction in adolescents as well as how he partners with wilderness and families to help students move toward recovery and healing.  

What is the difference between a substance addiction and a process addiction?

Substance Addiction

A substance addiction is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addictive substances include but are not limited to alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine.  

Process Addiction

A process addiction is an addiction to a behavior or set of behaviors, such as gaming, shopping, gambling, sex, pornography, eating, or exercising.  

What are some of the impacts of addiction?

Although substance and process addictions are different disorders, they share similar characteristics, such as an overwhelming impulse to use substances or engage in a behavior despite negative consequences. People navigating addiction also often experience an elevated mood while engaging in their addiction, which is often followed by feelings of shame or guilt. Addiction can impact goals, strain relationships, and compromise basic tenets of self-care.  

What are the underlying reasons for addiction?

Addiction is often a symptom of unresolved mental health issues or trauma and stems from a person’s best attempts to meet their basic needs or regulate distress. Many of the students I work with at Open Sky experience depression, anxiety, or trauma. For some, substances and certain behaviors provide an escape from these difficult realities. In the short term, they serve to avoid or numb emotions like isolation, sadness, and self-judgment.  

For example, for a student who experiences failure in interpersonal relationships, it can feel extremely gratifying to experience a sense of mastery and competency while gaming online. It offers a sense of relief from their feelings of inadequacy.  

Another example could be a student who has experienced trauma, and the anguish they feel is overwhelming their ability to cope. They may turn to drugs, drinking, and other unhealthy distractions to avoid the problem and numb feelings associated with it. 

When young people struggling with addiction aren’t learning to confront, process, and manage their emotions, the feelings they’re trying to distract themselves from only grow larger, making the need to avoid them more intense. This is why addiction is so powerful and so destructive. It becomes the short-term salve to distress while simultaneously perpetuating the cause of it.  

Clinical Therapist Mark Sobel partners with wilderness to help treat addiction and other mental health challenges in early adolescent and adolescent students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy.

How can parents recognize that their child might be struggling with addiction?

Addiction is often surrounded by shame and stigma, so young people who are struggling might be secretive and try to hide their addiction from others. The most important thing parents can do is pay attention and be present. Some things parents can look out for include: 

Disregard for or extreme reactions to boundaries: Your child is completely unable to self-regulate when a boundary has been drawn or they disregard the boundary regardless of consequences.  

Neglecting basic self-care and responsibilities: Your child forgets to change their clothes, stops showering, skips meals, and misses sleep. They might miss classes without your approval, fail tests and quizzes, receive declining grades, or act out in the classroom.  

Isolating from others: Your child experiences poor relationships with family, friends, classmates, and teachers. They might avoid their previous sources of social connection and appear sad, withdrawn, or apathetic. 

What is your treatment approach when working with students navigating addiction?

I have a very relational approach. I focus on building trust and rapport and making sure students know I am not there to judge, shame, or lecture them. I am there to listen to, support, and challenge them. 

When it comes to addiction, I work with students to first identify the role it was playing in their lives. It’s amazing how much students’ guards drop, especially with adolescents, when I give them space to acknowledge that it was indeed serving a function for them.  I then work with them to identify the ways it was also harming them. From there, we work together to develop a plan for how to meet those same goals in a manner that is healthy and constructive. 

For example, here is something I might say to a student struggling with addiction:  

“It makes sense that you would try to protect yourself this way. If your sadness is so intolerable and smoking weed or going online makes it go away for an hour, I can see why it’s appealing. I can also see that it’s not working for you. It seems like you’re still really suffering. So let’s work together to identify how to address that sadness in ways that are healing rather than hurting you.”   

I also work with students to provide them with transitional support for when they leave wilderness. If students return to the exact same environment and triggers they had before wilderness, relapse becomes more likely. At Open Sky, we help students develop a relapse plan they can use at the end of treatment. Families are also included in the process so they can help support their loved one’s recovery in wilderness and beyond. 

A group of students at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy hike through a meadow full of fall colors. Spending time in wilderness is a powerful way to help treat addiction in students.

Why is wilderness therapy an effective setting for treating process and substance addictions?

Connection

Addiction is lonely. Even it stems from attempts to meet a need for belonging, it’s a lonely, individual experience. Connection is the antidote to that sense of isolation. At Open Sky, students are surrounded by peers. Together, they cultivate community and build a team culture that is unique to their group. They learn skills such as sharing “I feel” statements, which are partially about accountability and partially about letting others into their emotional experiences. 

Time in Nature

There is something so grounding about being outside and engaging with your body. This is especially powerful for students who are recovering from a process addiction involving screens. They’ve spent a lot of time inside sacrificing basic self-care. Through activities like hiking, yoga, meditation, and journaling, students learn to care for themselves and be present in their physical, emotional, and sensory experiences.  

Skills Development

It’s vital that as students move away from their addictions, we replace them with something better. While addiction serves to avoid, everything we do in the field serves to address. Students learn and practice coping skills daily. Instead of doing whatever is necessary to avoid uncomfortable feelings, students learn to acknowledge, manage, and share their emotions. 

Fun, Play, and Creativity

When we talk about basic needs, we tend to focus most on love and belonging and power and control; however, fun is also an important basic human need! It can be so healing and revelatory for early adolescents and adolescents to realize that they can have genuine fun without substances. Engaging in playfulness and connection with one another in sobriety is a powerful experience. 

How can families support a loved one navigating addiction? 

The first thing families can do is create a safe space for honest conversation. When parents watch their child knowingly do something that hurts them, the instinct to protect is strong. It can be a truly fear-inducing situation. The urge to either lecture or react with anger and consequences is common and natural, though often counterproductive. Your child is likely already feeling ashamed, and lecturing is only going to make them want to become more secretive. Establish an environment where your kid feels they can speak openly about their struggles. Ask questions, seek to understand, and respond with curiosity. Of course, it is also important to hold clearly articulated boundaries and limits, but first, seek to understand.  

If parents feel lost or unsure, consult outside help. Open Sky equips both students and parents with a set of tools and coping skills to keep them grounded and regulated. That way, the entire family can support one another, communicate around these issues more effectively, and move into whatever is next feeling empowered and prepared.  

January 5th, 2024

The Open Sky Team