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Treating Teen Anxiety with Wilderness Therapy

By Meghan Vivo

Your teens' constant worries, nervousness and fear are preventing them from enjoying the best of their teenage years. You suspect they are suffering from an anxiety disorder. You want to help, but which type of treatment is best? Medication, therapy, relaxation techniques?

One of the most effective forms of teen anxiety treatment may be one you haven’t even thought of: wilderness therapy.

Aspen Achievement Academy, one of the oldest and most reputable wilderness therapy programs in the country, frequently treats teens with anxiety by using a blend of therapeutic techniques, hands-on learning and the transformative power of nature. In the wilderness, the focus is on both preventing anxiety attacks and intervening when a student’s anxiety becomes overwhelming.

Learning New Coping Skills

In an effort to prevent anxiety from taking hold, the field staff and therapists at Aspen Achievement Academy teach teens the following:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Coping skills that keep them grounded, calm, and connected to their bodies and minds
  • Mindfulness skills (connecting to their own thoughts and emotions)
  • Emotional regulation and expression
  • Cognitive restructuring (changing thinking patterns in order to change behaviors)

For teens with anxiety disorders, prevention is helpful but insufficient on its own. Intervention is also critical so that teens can develop healthy coping skills to help them manage their symptoms.

The focus of treatment for teen anxiety at Aspen Achievement Academy is on identifying unhealthy coping mechanisms and learning new coping skills. Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and other approaches, the adolescent specialists at the academy help teens recognize negative thought patterns and more effectively manage their stress.

Kirsten Bolt, CMFTI, a therapist at the academy, utilizes breathing techniques, positive self-talk and “I feel” statements to help young people bring themselves back to a calm place when they’re struggling with anxiety. She also teaches DBT skills, such as mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotional regulation and interpersonal effectiveness, to help teens recognize their negative thought patterns and reshape them.

Treating Mind and Body

Because the mind and body are closely connected, Bolt believes exercise, a healthy diet and adequate sleep are particularly important for teens with anxiety. Students at Aspen Achievement Academy hike, practice yoga and tai chi, and have quiet time to meditate or write in their journals. In coping skills group, Bolt asks the teens to laugh, smile or tap while speaking positive affirmations to ease the tension in their bodies.

“If the body is tense, teens can’t feel anything but tense," she explained. "Sometimes you have to change the physical body as well the emotions to relieve anxiety.”

Facing Challenges

Living in the wilderness is a challenge for anyone, and adolescents with anxiety disorders face unique challenges of their own. Those with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, may be faced with their fear of dirt and germs. Some teens’ anxiety is triggered by a fear of failure, which comes up on hikes or when attempting to make fire with a bow drill.

Therapy happens on an ongoing basis at the Aspen Achievement Academy wilderness program. As fears and worries come up, teens are surrounded 24 hours a day by caring field staff that can help them practice new coping skills. They also lean on a group of peers who can question faulty thinking patterns and provide positive and constructive feedback.

“Wilderness therapy is a safe environment for teens to be challenged and to prove to themselves that they can overcome those challenges,” said Bolt. “The experience may be frustrating and anxiety-provoking at first, but there are caring staff around to guide them through.”

Overcoming challenges builds up the teens’ self-esteem and gives them a sense of control in their lives. For teens with anxiety, the more in control they feel, the better they are able to manage their anxiety.

Peace, Solitude and Simplicity

In the wilderness, life is simple. There are no televisions, video games, computers or iPods to distract teens from their thoughts. The stillness of the desert landscape at Aspen Achievement Academy encourages teens to face their fears and practice their coping skills rather than escaping through technology.

Nature is sometimes the best teacher. For this reason, the therapists and field instructors at Aspen Achievement Academy use nature to draw metaphors to the teens’ lives. For example, a stream may be filled with obstacles, but whether the water goes through them or around them, one way or another the obstacles can be surmounted.

Taking Control, Relinquishing Control

Another important lesson teens can learn from nature is that some things are within their control, while others are not. For example, they can’t control the rain, but they can set up a tarp so they don’t get wet.

The teens at Aspen Achievement Academy don’t know the schedule each day, what time it is or when they are going home, which helps them live in the present moment and avoid the “future thinking” that is often associated with anxiety, explained Bolt.

Similarly, nature teaches teens about the natural consequences of their actions. “The wilderness isn’t judgmental or malicious, it simply is what it is. So if teens make a mistake and forget to set up their tarp, they own the consequence and get wet,” explained Bolt. “Rather than feeling that the world is out to get them, we help teens realize that they simply made a mistake, mistakes are okay and they can do things differently next time.”

Ongoing Attention, Immediate Feedback

Unlike in other therapeutic settings, teens can’t hide in the wilderness. Behaviors and coping mechanisms that can be concealed in an hour of talk therapy each week are bound to come out in the 24-hour-a-day wilderness environment.

Teens at Aspen Achievement Academy are surrounded by field staff and peers around the clock, functioning in a way that is similar to a family unit. In this way, teens are able to practice new skills every day until those skill sets become part of the teens’ regular functioning.

The intensity and constant interaction in wilderness therapy bring up issues that can be dealt with immediately, in a caring and supportive manner. For instance, if a teen has a panic attack during a hike, the group stops to offer support and help the adolescent figure out what they can do to feel better. The intervention occurs in the moment, when the anxiety attack is happening, not before or after the fact.

“You can’t get that kind of 24-hour care outside of residential programs,” said Bolt. “Rather than simply talking about new skills teens can use to combat anxiety, they actually practice interpersonal skills in the company of other people and explore new ways to cope in the precise moment anxiety is setting in.”

Asking for Help

Teens with anxiety are often controlled by their desire for perfection. Learning to ask for help is a difficult but essential lesson for them, noted Bolt.

One initiative the staff at Aspen Achievement Academy uses is a maze of cords in the wilderness that teens are supposed to work their way out of. What they don’t realize is that the maze is designed so that there is no exit and they have to ask for help.

“The lesson is ‘when a problem gets too big for you, stop trying to handle it on your own and reach out to the people who care about you,’” said Bolt.

Anxiety is a natural part of life, but learning to cope with anxiety doesn’t necessarily come naturally to teens with anxiety disorders. If you’re concerned that fear, worry and anxiety are getting in the way of your child’s happiness, wilderness therapy could be the way to restore peace and calm to their life.


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