In this blog, Clinical Therapist Addy Ho, MA, LPC discusses why wilderness is a uniquely powerful setting for understanding and treating trauma. For more information on trauma, check out parts one and two of Addy’s trauma-informed treatment series: Understanding Trauma and Trauma-Informed Treatment and Brainspotting: What Is It, and Why Does It Work?
Wilderness is an ideal setting for processing and healing from trauma, as it offers a distraction-free environment in which student can reflect on and move forward from past experiences. The wilderness framework also naturally incorporates several key components that make up trauma-informed care. Below are some of the core principles of trauma-informed care as well as how Open Sky embodies these elements when treating students.
Outside of basic needs like food, water, and shelter, what people really want to feel is a sense of love and belonging. Unfortunately, trauma breaks the ability to trust and relate to others in a healthy and positive way. Someone who has experienced trauma might constantly wonder if they are going to be taken advantage of by other people, feel like trusting others is difficult, and close relationships are a struggle. Therefore, when working from a trauma-informed approach, it’s important to establish both a physically and emotionally safe environment.
At Open Sky, we create and role model a safe container for students to work on building healthy relationships with others. They learn communication skills, such as sharing “I feel” statements and practicing reflective listening, which helps them build trusting relationships with other students, field guides, and therapists. Fostering a sense of trust sets the framework for repair.
Another key element of trauma-informed treatment is empowering people to understand their triggers and what causes them to behave in certain ways. As students develop that understanding, they are able to make better decisions, self-regulate, set healthy boundaries, communicate what they need, and be vulnerable in relationships. The practices we employ in the field at Open Sky are designed to facilitate this process.
Mindfulness, Meditation, and Yoga
Trauma is how the body holds onto something it’s been through, so people who have endured trauma often experience a disconnect between what is happening in their bodies and minds. Getting the body, brain, and emotions all on the same page helps resolve that trauma. At Open Sky, we practice mindfulness, meditation, and yoga daily, which helps students develop present-moment awareness, focus on what their body is doing, and discover how that relates to what they’re feeling.
Task Completion and Resilience
Trauma can exacerbate struggles with low self-esteem and self-love. At Open Sky, every day is packed with opportunities to solve problems, experience incremental forms of success, and regain self-confidence. Students learn essential outdoor skills such as bow drilling fires, tying knots, building shelters, cooking meals, gathering wood, carving spoons, backpacking through challenging terrain, orienteering with a map and compass, summiting mountain peaks, and caring for personal hygiene. As they learn that they can both meet their basic needs and thrive in the wilderness, they feel more confident in themselves and their ability to commit to their therapeutic work. By the time they graduate, students have weeks of concrete evidence that they can do difficult things and enact meaningful change.
Trauma often leaves students stuck in “survival” mode, feeling out of control and struggling to get their lives back on track. Trauma-informed treatment helps students regain their lives by putting them back in the driver’s seat and teaching them therapeutic skills to manage and cope with their struggles.
Since lying and manipulation often happen in traumatic situations and relationships, it is important to build trust and provide a safe therapeutic environment in which students can thrive. Open Sky’s therapists meet students in the field each week and are part of the intentionally created safe container to process past hurts, present struggles, and future progress. They work with each student to create an individualized treatment plan, complete with assignments and interventions to support the student’s growth.
The Student Pathway
Upon arrival at Open Sky, each new student is issued a Student Pathway, a collection of resources, skills, and assignments they progress through with assistance from their field guides and therapist. As they work through their Student Pathway, students become active participants in their own healing process. They learn to meet basic needs, identify core values, dive into their emotional work, challenge themselves to be leaders, and mentor others. It is a process of learning to care for themselves and relate to others in healthier ways moving forward.
Peer support is another important element of trauma-informed treatment. Relationships that develop in wilderness therapy are uniquely powerful and amplify a student’s change process in ways that are unparalleled in other treatment settings.
Open Sky’s culture allows students to practice setting boundaries, meeting their needs, and being present in their emotions in a group that is emotionally and physically safe. Students deepen their understanding of themselves and build connections with others through group therapy sessions in addition to their individual sessions. Exploring shared experience this way can help students feel less alone and form authentic, trusting, and healthy relationships.
Oftentimes, when trauma has occurred in our lives, we push away those closest to us, such as parents, loved ones, and close friends. Relationships are difficult because trust has been broken and we are feeling cautious. Vulnerability seems impossible and isolation, avoidance, and unhealthy methods of coping are relied on instead. Family engagement is so important in treating trauma because it creates lasting change for the entire family, which is necessary for healing and strengthening relationships.
While their child is in the field at Open Sky, parents undergo a parallel process. They engage in coaching, receive updates from their child’s therapist, and participate in opportunities, such as Wellness Weekend and Family Quest, that teach them vital skills. They practice tending to their own well-being. They learn healthy ways to communicate with their child. They build a safe container and establish trust. The parallel process honors the relationships that make up the family system long after the student leaves the wilderness setting.
This blog is the third in a three-part series on trauma. For more information, check out parts one and two, Understanding Trauma and Trauma-Informed Treatment and Brainspotting: What Is It, and Why Does It Work?