Updated: May 30, 2019
WRITTEN BY TROY YOUNG | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
The great outdoors may be the simplest and best balm for the soul. Therapist and life coach Troy Young uses wilderness therapy to help clients reduce anxiety, face fears and overcome the 'winter blues.'
Half an hour before her scheduled appointment, I get a voicemail message from a client. Sherrie* apologizes and says she’s still coming but will be late. It’s well after noon, but her voice sounds gravelly and slow, like she’s just woken up. When she arrives, we sit down to talk.
“I am so tired of these gray days,” Sherrie said. “I just can’t find the energy to get going, even to do the things I enjoy. I can’t seem to shake feeling sad.”
The cold, wet and dreary days of winter can take a toll on our well-being — the weather forces us indoors, and we get less physical activity. According to Mental Health America, up to 10 percent of Americans get the “winter blues,” a subtype of depression that occurs and ends around the same time every year.
In my practice I see clients facing all kinds of emotional health issues. Some, like Sherrie, have some type of depression. Others have issues with fear or anxiety, sometimes as a result of recent or past trauma. All of them can benefit from wilderness therapy.
Nature is great medicine. Spending time in nature has been shown to improve mood, restore attention capacity and reduce mental fatigue. With over 25 years of experience taking people into the outdoors, I’ve seen clients with high levels of anxiety overcome their perceptions and emotions and develop confidence through facing their fears. Through wilderness therapy, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to witness people break through to a place they thought they would never reach.
Brenda grew up believing she was unwanted. At 18, she attempted to end her life. Overweight and with scars as a reminder of her pain, we set off to take a hike in the forest. Brenda was full of doubt. The seven-mile hike was a daunting challenge — she had never walked that far in her entire life. I encouraged her to try. As we walked and talked, she lost track of the time and distance. Upon arriving at the end of the trail, she broke into tears and said that it was the first time she had ever finished anything.
Trent was a big talker — but he came on over-confident to hide his insecurities. When he was uncomfortable, he would talk fast and try to make jokes. When I put him on the end of a climbing rope, he became very quiet. He tried to quit several times using every excuse he could think of. It took a lot of encouragement to get him to move, but as he met small goals, he began to gain confidence. Before he knew it, he was at the top. This time his fast talking was from genuine excitement, not insecurity.
Jennifer was afraid of trying new things. She could not shift her focus from painful experiences in the past. At first she refused to go on a hike because she hated bugs — she was raised in the city and didn’t like to be outdoors. We agreed that we would stay on the trail and that I would walk in front so I could knock down the spider webs and keep an eye out for critters. Along the path, I pointed out all of the interesting things — trees and the sunshine, flowers and ferns. Of course there were bugs all around, but at the end she hadn’t seen a single one and enjoyed the hike.
Taylor had a near drowning event when he was young, and was still very emotionally charged when he was around water. In his 20s, he wanted to learn how to kayak and overcome his fear. We started in a swimming pool, just getting him comfortable floating in a life vest. After his anxiety lowered, we introduced a kayak and he paddled around the pool. He learned to roll off and float on his back. When he mastered that, we added a skirt and he practiced a wet exit over and over until he was no longer afraid of being in a boat upside down in the water. By taking small steps and with lots of encouragement, Taylor slowly overcame his fear and gained a new hobby that he enjoys to this day. Actually, his name wasn’t Taylor, it was Troy — that young man was me.
Developing resiliency is key to improving health and well-being.
By learning how to overcome real or perceived fears we build endurance and confidence. We gain strength of character and hope is restored. The first steps are scary, but the reward is worth the risk.
*Names have been changed for privacy.