Trauma is something no one wants to go through. Traumatic events can be anything that meaningfully affects a person’s life in a negative way, whether it be a car accident, death of a loved one, loss of a friend, living with daily violence, or serving in war. And while post-traumatic stress disorder can be one consequence of a trauma, not everyone who experiences trauma will develop PTSD.
However, trauma is one of the most significant events that can occur in anyone’s life. Oftentimes, trauma is not diagnosed until other symptoms have appeared. Traditional care for trauma includes various forms of psychotherapy and anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications.
Teens who have experienced trauma are in a uniquely tough position. Their minds have not yet matured enough to handle processing the traumatic events, nor do most teens have the coping mechanisms needed to help them sift through the moments of the trauma and recognize that they are not at fault for how they feel. Teen brains simply aren’t equipped to maturely handle the effects of trauma.
However, therapists, doctors, and scientists are always looking for new techniques in resolving issues related to trauma. Some of these new techniques, like variations of outdoor therapy, are quite promising. Outdoor therapy can be broken down into resilience training, wilderness therapy, and ecotherapy.
Recognizing Trauma Damage
A traumatic experience is an event in life that causes a threat to one’s safety and potentially places lives at risk. As a result, a person experiences high levels of emotional, psychological, and physical distress that disrupts their ability to function normally in daily life.
Teenagers who experience a traumatic event are often troubled by these strong emotions. Despite the fact that these reactions usually subside as a part of the body’s natural healing and recovery process, it is important for parents to understand the ways a teenager manages distress and trauma so they can support their teen.
While every teen is different, common symptoms of distress include the following:
- strong emotions like sadness, anger, anxiety, and guilt
- overreacting to minor irritations
- repetitively thinking about the traumatic event and talking about it often
- disturbed sleep
- being overprotective of others
- reverting to childlike or rebellious behaviors
- increased need for independence
- self-absorption and living only for now
- loss of interest in school, friends, hobbies, and life in general
- a pessimistic outlook on life, being cynical and distrusting of others
- depression and feelings of hopelessness
- difficulties with short-term memory, concentration and problem solving
Any parent who sees these types of symptoms in a teen needs to be on high alert. Most often, the teen him or herself doesn’t even know why he or she might be feeling this way.
Common trauma responses can include dissociative reactions like distraction or loss of awareness of surroundings; avoidance of internal or external material that serves as reminders of the trauma; irritability and anger outbursts with little or no provocation; self-destructive behavior; trouble sleeping; and hypervigilance.
Additionally, when a teen experiences upsetting and/or uncomfortable emotions, he or she can turn to certain behaviors and relationships as a coping method. Coping mechanisms (like substance use) or unhealthy relationships (dependent or abusive) tend to have more negative effects than positive coping skills and healthy relationships.
Before getting your teen into a new program, it is essential to first start with a diagnostic therapy session so that your teen can get a sense of why these feelings are so overwhelming. Then, with the help of your therapist, you and your teen can consider some of the newer, more interactive therapies that take place outdoors.
When dealing with teens who have experienced trauma, focusing on resilience can offer a strengths-based, healing centered model rather than focusing exclusively on symptom management. Resilience can be seen as the ability to recover or resistance to future harm.
Treatments that focus on fostering resilience allow clients to both heal and manage symptoms from past trauma while helping them build skills that will help them better adapt to future adverse situations. Fostering resilience can be a way to build coping skills that allow clients to fight against both short-term and long-term negative outcomes.
For individuals to be resilient, they must have a “density and diversity” of resources available to assist with functioning during and after traumatic events – in other words, adequate coping mechanisms. Resources that allow individuals to effectively cope can include personal and environmental factors. There are 3 important personal factors that can aid with resilience including a sense of mastery, a sense of relatedness, and emotional reactivity.
By strengthening these three factors in teens, they are more able to effectively cope with adverse events. Teens with these coping skills can be confident, curious, positive, and have the ability to develop trust in others. In this way, clients who are able to strengthen resilience through treatment in addition to working on specific treatment goals to reduce symptoms are able to build lasting skills that will continue to serve them long after treatment is completed.
Outdoor therapies use small group settings to build trust, cooperation, and social bonding among teens. Group members can develop a mutual trust that allows them to take greater risks. By building these relationships in outdoor therapy, the teen who has been traumatized will gain confidence
The three factors that lead to strong resilience mentioned before are self-relation, stronger feelings of competence, and emotional control. Outdoor therapies often include experiences that are helpful in increasing confidence, self-awareness, personal achievement, and feelings of social support. The challenging but helpful environment of outdoor therapy seems to provide an opportunity for survivors of traumatic experiences to decrease symptoms of trauma and take advantage of opportunities for healing and growth through the connection with others.
Outdoor therapies offer healthy challenges that allow clients to try out new skills and react to natural consequences. These challenges include interpersonal relationships, adventure-based challenges, natural elements, and the ability to work through these challenges. As teens with trauma conquer that challenges, their level of recognized competence increases.
Giving clients the chance to experience natural consequences of the outdoors helps them work through the feelings and emotions that occur when experiencing stress. The little challenges of outdoor therapy give teens the chance to be more confident and practice emotional management. They are also practicing with their emotions in a safe, controlled environment. So, if they make a mistake, they can learn from it productively.
Just like resilience therapy, wilderness adventure therapy programs use research-based treatment for trauma that encourages increased self-confidence, healthy relationships, identity development, and better coping skills. A good wilderness therapy program gives traumatized teens a safe environment in which to heal. Such programs provide a variety of adventure activities and a research-backed therapy approach that promotes lasting change.
What’s different about wilderness training is that it takes a teen away from the distractions and complications of adolescent life, allowing the teen to reset and recognize his or her own strength. If a teen or young adult rebels after a traumatic incident, a new and novel setting is especially helpful in encouraging a teen to leave unhealthy patterns behind and mature into new behaviors. Wilderness therapy programs include the healing effect of the outdoors to promote recovery and growth.
Wilderness therapy activities teach teens that they can overcome challenges through hands-on experience. When a teen is faced with a challenge that is difficult at the beginning, like hiking or rock-climbing, they build confidence in their capabilities once they beat the challenge. Overcoming these physical boundaries not only contributes to their physical health but also shows them they can beat the odds. In turn, their self-esteem and confidence in their own abilities is greatly improved.
While teens are completing a wilderness program, qualified and experienced therapists on staff give them verbal encouragement and validation. These therapists are always there to guide the healing process as these teens and young adults talk about their traumatic experiences. This process helps teens internalize what they have learned.
Good wilderness therapy programs will combine both group and individual therapy to provide teens with a variety of settings to talk about what they learned and to internalize their skills. The clinical team of a quality wilderness therapy program will always meet the teens where they are and provide a personalized treatment and therapy plan designed to maximize their healing and growth.
Ecotherapy – another name for outdoor therapy – is primarily driven by contact with and immersion in nature. And, this is nothing new. This type of therapy has been used for hundreds of years. In 2007 at the University of Essex researchers discovered that within a group of people suffering from depression, 90 percent felt a higher level of self-esteem after a walk through a country park, and almost 75% felt less depressed. Another survey by the same scientists found that 94% of people with mental illnesses believed that contact with nature put them in a more positive mood.
But contact with nature is not just about healing our minds – nature can and does transform us. There is research being conducted into what is known by some as ‘awakening experiences’ – moments when our perception of our surroundings becomes more intense (brighter colors, more melodious sounds, warmth from the sun); we feel a sense of connectedness to nature and to people.
You can try this method out for yourself. Allow yourself the time to spend an afternoon in nature – whether it be in the woods, meadows, near rivers and streams, or calming down by a lake. When you close your eyes and focus on the smells and sounds, they become more intense. When you focus your vision on plants and animals, their appearance becomes more vivid. This intense connection with nature is what scientists are hoping will bring peace to teens with traumatic experiences in their pasts.
And we shouldn’t be surprised that nature has a therapeutic effect when you consider the bond humans have with nature and its’ necessity for our existence. For hundreds of years humans have relied on nature for food, water, clothing, shelter, medicines, and more. Our beings are inextricably bound to nature. Even as you are reading this article, nature is at work (coal from the ground is being processed to create the electricity you need to run your computer or digital device).
But the primary reason nature and outdoor therapy can heal us is because of its calming and mind-quietening effect. Our day to day lives are steeped in input – everywhere we look, there are multiple streams of information bombarding our senses. But in nature, our minds process a lot less information, and we don’t wear ourselves out by concentrating on so many things at once.
Most importantly, the beauty and magnificence of nature slows down the normal stream of fast running chatter that gambols chaotically through our minds. We can find inner peace, a stillness if you will, when we allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the minimalist character of nature.
This is particularly important for teens who’ve experienced trauma. Teens are inundated by information daily, whether it be through television, social media, video games, or other constant barrages of data. Getting into ecotherapy is all about being unplugged – something teens rarely do. In the chaos of life, the traumatized teen cannot find silence or peace; hence, he or she is unable to find the time or energy necessary to process the trauma and come to terms with its effect on his or her life.
When used in combination with traditional therapy, ecotherapy can provide an element of safety. Teens can feel safe and secure in their natural environment and it gives them permission to feel – and to let go of negativity.
Teens who experience trauma can certainly be treated by traditional means. But, if your teen is not responding to traditional psychotherapy and/or medication, these three outdoor therapy options might be worth considering alongside therapy options from Beachside.
Resilience training, wilderness therapy, and ecotherapy may sound like they aren’t based in science, but researchers are continuing to work on ways to bring the peace and tranquility of nature to the healing of trauma.
If your teen needs help with mental health issues, reach out to Beachside to find out how our facility can help your family!