WATER IS MEDICINE: ADVENTURE THERAPY IN RECOVERY

By Jonathan Rios, MA, LMHC, and Jodi MacNeal

Adventure therapy

In South Florida, we have access to powerful tools for healing – the sand, the sea and the sky. We’ve witnessed firsthand how adventure activities – especially water-related pursuits – play a profound role in long-term wellness and recovery from addiction.

Sea-based adventure therapy aims to connect clients to the water through a variety of activities

• Strategic team-building and group cohesion challenges
• Stand-up paddle boarding
• Kayaking
• Snorkeling local reefs with tropical fish, sea turtles and manatees
• Exploring secluded islands, remote beaches and mangroves
• Geocaching

Adventure therapy is far more than a day at the beach; it’s the prescriptive use of outdoor experiences under the supervision of a trained facilitator, and it’s designed to engage clients on many levels – physical, spiritual, emotional, and occupational.

These pursuits require movement, clear communication, attuned listening and teamwork. As a direct result, people find themselves fully in the moment as they experience resistance from limiting belief systems, currents, winds, and fatigue, experiences that help them develop resilience.

Swimming with marine animals or balancing on a paddleboard provokes mindfulness as clients engage in a foreign environment that requires focus, adaptability and the willingness to learn. Addicted individuals often wrestle with tremendous stress, anxiety, trauma and depression. An hour or two on the water helps them break free from all of that, to become a child again and have fun.

We can’t stress the value of simple fun as a component of treatment. In a 2009 report, the National Institute for Play showed that play “increases coping skills, can foster empathy and a sense of belonging, and strengthen relationships.” We’ve seen all of those things happen in our time on the water. We think the life lessons tend to stick better, too; the Association for Experiential Education assures us that a person learns more effectively when all the senses are engaged and when he or she is directly involved in the learning process.

We’ve found that while many clients in recovery don’t engage in organized workouts on their own, they will try their hand at snorkeling, swimming and paddleboarding in the tropical waters of South Florida. That may serve them even better.

Why? Because we see tremendous therapeutic benefit from connection to the water. In his book Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols makes the case for the healing power of water on many levels, from the colors to the smell to the patterns of the waves. “In the motion of the water,” he writes, “we see patterns that never exactly repeat themselves, yet have a restful similarity to them.” Humans are hardwired to find the color blue calming, and associate it with feelings of joy and wellness.

Nichols believes that the rush produced by addiction and other atrisk behavior can be replaced with a more natural dopamine “high” from outdoor experiences. Water sports can satisfy the brain’s desire for stimulation, novelty and a neurochemical “rush,” while also getting clients out of their typical environment (a critical aspect of most recovery programs).

He recounts how a kayak expedition provides triple therapy:

• Physical, by engaging the body
• Occupational, by teaching new skills
• Mental, by providing relaxation, renewal and wonder

The kinds of interactions we experience on the water can also lead to a deeper client-therapist bond. Michael Gass, a leading researcher on adventure therapy, supports the belief that “change occurs when people are outside their comfort zone,” and that “the experience [and not the therapist] becomes the medium for orchestrating change.”

According to a paper in The Practical Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology, “novel or challenging experiences in treatment set the stage for a significant level of trust to develop throughout the therapeutic process.” We relate to one another differently on the water than we do in a therapy session, and that can be freeing when people otherwise have difficulty expressing themselves. Frequently, everyone lets their guard down and interacts in a spontaneous and genuine way – with the clinician and with each other.

We find that being on the water gets clients out of their heads and engages their senses through the smell of the air, the touch of the breeze, the sound of the waves. Studies of recovery rates have demonstrated that surgical patients with a view of nature recover more rapidly, require less painkillers and experienced fewer complications. How much better, then, to be on a paddleboard, gliding alongside a mother manatee and her pup, or in a sea kayak tasting the salt in the air?

In fact, science supports the physiological response to spending time in nature, and specifically, on the water:

• The sound of waves alters brain wave patterns, producing a state of relaxation.
• Negatively charged ions in the sea air combat free radicals, improving alertness and concentration.
• Spending time in nature (as opposed to an urban environment) decreases obsessive and negative thoughts.
• Creative problem-solving can be dramatically improved by disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature.
• Being in or near the water can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Researchers are beginning to study adventure therapy as it specifically pertains to people in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. A 2012 study of adult women in substance abuse recovery showed that completing a challenge course “resulted in significant improvements in abstinence and self-efficacy, measured from intake to discharge.” When you stretch beyond your presumed limits, you discover strengths you didn’t realize you had.

Dan S., a lawyer, professor and former client, made this observation: “You actually forget that you are being ‘treated’ until you recognize just how much more at ease you are. Perhaps most importantly, you learn skills you can take with you beyond treatment, all while enjoying a great day on the water. For a spiritual and psychological therapy to be such a fun experience is really remarkable.”

Jonathan “Jonny” Rios is a psychotherapist with Desert Rose
Palm Beach and the founder of THRIIV (thriiv.co), an adventure
therapy company that helps connect participants to the healing
power of the water.
Jodi MacNeal is Desert Rose’s communications and creative
director. Learn more at DesertRoseRecovery.com or call for a free,
confidential consultation: 561.459.8951.