With the end of year deadlines approaching, the third-year liberal arts and sciences student decided to embrace an intense approach to de-stressing by joining up with a wilderness therapy team and roughing it in the Spanish mountains.
Johanna has always been interested in nature. She has volunteered as a ranger in the German highlands; she has hiked in the Canadian Rockies; and she has always felt most herself outdoors. But her experience with wilderness therapy still caught surprised her. ‘I’m majoring in psychology and I knew wilderness therapy would involve experiential learning, but I didn’t expect that they would actually apply the therapy to us. It was emotionally exhausting’.
What is wilderness therapy?
Wilderness therapy is a subset of ‘adventure therapy.’ The idea is to remove patients from the distraction of modern comforts and conveniences, and incorporate therapy techniques within a natural setting. According to one of Johanna’s retreat leaders, ‘Nature is the therapist; the facilitators are just the translators.’
It was about being on the edge of your comfort zone
Johanna received a scholarship to participate in the training program. ‘I love nature and I love studying psychology, so I wanted to combine the two with wilderness therapy’, she says. She spent five days in the mountains of Valencia without a phone, running water, or even a tent. There were thirteen other participants, most of whom were practicing therapists. Johanna was the youngest by a lot.
There was no agenda; no one even wore a watch. The group quickly lost any sense of time. ‘It was all about being at the edge of your comfort zone’, she explains. ‘Overall, it was an emotionally intense experience and I had a lot of time to reflect on myself and my life’.
Little red bag
‘In the beginning, they took out this little red bag and told us to put the things we didn’t need in it. So I gave up my phone and my calendar, which is usually very important to me because I like to know what my upcoming plans are. But in that moment, you really want to be there and be fully present, so I dumped everything.’
Then there was the food. ‘Each person had a cooking partner. We were given a specific amount of vegetables, fruits, and oats that we were responsible for rationing ourselves. You had to be careful about how much you ate.’
There was no running water, so there was no showering. ‘We went into a lake once’, she shrugs, ‘that was about it.’ The toilet situation was also a bit awkward. ‘Each time you had to go, you had to bring the little shovel, so whenever somebody reached for the shovel, everybody knew why. You don’t really notice how important it is to have running water until you experience life without it.’
The cold took Johanna off guard. ‘We were all a little underprepared because it was so hot during the day but at night it got so cold, I was wearing eight layers of my summer clothes.’ If it rained, they crawled under tarps. Otherwise, they slept right under the wide, starry sky. ‘Being completely isolated in the wilderness is so different; you don’t get to go back “home” at the end of the day. It was wild to sleep under the stars each night’.
‘The solo’ was Johanna’s best and worst experience during her time in Valencia. ‘The facilitators took out a map and pointed to a different spot for each participant, who then had to set off to go sleep there, alone.’ The participants wandered off one by one. Johanna reached her location early in the evening, and everything seemed fine – at first.
It was so quiet, it was loud
‘But when it started getting dark outside, I got scared. Even though there were no dangerous animals there, the thought that I couldn’t reach anyone if something were to happen was scary.’ Johanna had never experienced that level of silence before. ‘It was completely silent. You couldn’t even hear the leaves, because there was no wind. It was completely still. It was so quiet it was loud.’
Letter to yourself
Alone under the overwhelming sky, Johanna had a lot of time reflect on her life and her self. ‘You really see what topics come up when you’re so isolated from everybody else. We were asked to write a letter to ourselves in five years, which was a really therapeutic experience for me.’
The next morning, Johanna woke up and found her way back to camp, feeling proud.
On the drive back to the city from the mountains, the group stopped at a gas station. ‘I went into the shop and I bought myself a croissant. It tasted so sweet! I noticed that there was music playing in the gas station – it’s always there but I never really noticed it before. I was in such a good mood, I even did a little dance by myself.’
When Johanna got home she headed straight for the shower. ‘It felt amazing after five and a half days on the mountains’, she laughs. But when she plugged in her phone, the messages poured in with a rush of reality. ‘Obviously life as usual had continued while I was on the mountain. But it was so strange, after days of being so isolated.’
Her re-entry to life in Groningen was more difficult than she had anticipated. ‘My first day back I had to give myself a bit of time to adjust.’
Johanna doesn’t think everyone who needs to hit their mental-health reset button has to climb a Spanish mountain. There are a lot more attainable way to access the therapeutic benefits of nature. ‘Just being in nature and slightly outside of your comfort zone can give you a different perspective. It does something unexplainable to you’, Johanna says.
Writing a letter to yourself is really helpful
So if you’re feeling stressed, start by going outside for a walk. Take the time to think, without distraction. Put your thoughts on paper. ‘Writing a letter to yourself in five years is something you can do wherever you want, and is really helpful.’
Johanna thinks that wilderness therapy isn’t only good ‘for troubled youths or those with mental disorders, who tend to be the patients it’s oriented toward – it’s an incredible experience that can teach you a lot about yourself, whoever you are.’
Johanna, in collaboration with the UKrant, will hold a small wilderness therapy workshop to teach students how to destress before exam period starts on Thursday, June 6 . Want to join us? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us through messenger.
Meet us at the fountain steps next to the Zondag café in the Noorderplantsoen at 1:30. We will bring our new wilderness therapy expert, some snacks, and beer. You bring all your internal baggage.