Think about a time when you took a risk, stepped out of your comfort zone, challenged yourself!
How did it feel when you succeeded in spite of your fear?
Did it feel good?
I bet you felt proud!
And you know what? If you reflect on that experience long enough and with a level of insight you will notice the skills you learnt or enhanced and the ways in which you coped and managed your anxiety.
Now think about a world where you never feel safe or secure. A world full of fear and distrust. This is the life of the traumatised child. An existence where safety is stolen and experience leaves templates of mistrust.
Imagine a situation whereby the traumatised child can experience success and a sense of accomplishment in the context of relationships that demonstrate “in the moment” trust. Adventure based therapy like kayaking, ropes courses, wilderness adventure programs and the like can afford traumatised young people this opportunity.
The magic in adventure based therapy is in weaving together into one activity the following developmental and healing opportunities. Participants are faced with activities that challenge and extend them at a skill level, but are absolutely achievable. What’s more many of these activities involve fear, risk taking and induce anxiety, but are provided in a way that they can be scaffolded for success and achievement. So in a direct experiential way the individual participant has to draw on their competencies, explore problems and difficulties to develop solutions and fundamentally achieve and succeed in the face of trauma. All of this is done in the context of a relationship that implicitly enforces trust and as a result of individual success provides a positive experience of helpful, supportive and trusting relationships.
I observed a kayaking adventure therapy session with a group of adolescent boys at Cal Farley’s. These young men were preparing for an open water kayaking trip the following week and were practicing the skills of rescue post capsizing.
Fascinating in this observation was watching these young men anxiously anticipate the notion of flipping their kayak and deliberately capsizing themselves. Staff engaged in a lot of cognitive discussion based reassurance, what was awesome was that this was done as they kayaked up and down the length of the pond, back and forth, repetitively paddling and talking. This allowed for somatosensory regulation of anxiety, or quietening down of the dysregulation caused by the anxiety, so that the discussion based reassurance and coaching could be heard and internalised by the young men.
Then in pairs – either paired with an intervention therapist, or in peer pairings with one more skilled peer as mentor for the other, these guys practiced capsizing their boats and rescuing each other. There was ample time provided to allow them to work up to and get themselves emotionally and cognitively ready to tip their kayaks, including repeat demonstrations from intervention staff and more competent peers, paddling laps and step by step instructions and reassurance.
Eventually one by one, these young men tipped their kayaks and capsized themselves, were successfully rescued and able to get back into their kayaks from in the water in the middle of the pond and fist pumped the air with the experience of success.
These lads were able to experience in the moment moderate levels of fear and anxiety activation paired with somatosensory regulation and the experience of relational trust all of which culminated in the experience of success. What was really nice was the processing or discussions that took place together about the experience and the learning for the young men after their initial success – talking about what it was like, how it felt, what they learnt about themselves, about their relationship with their partner – some really nice “talk based” therapeutic work attached to a really cool direct experiential learning opportunity.
Dr Perry talks about the importance of repetition to strengthen the new neural pathways and connections that are made with these experiences and you know repetition was not an issue after that first capsize and recovery – these guys just kept doing it over and over and over again. I could see the increase in confidence right there in the moment by moment repeat of the activity.