Wilderness therapy: A path to healing for Veterans

Long-distance treks and the power of nature help returning veterans heal the invisible wounds of war.
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Days after being shot at, with adrenaline still in their veins, soldiers are often discharged into the civilian world. With brains still wired for constant vigilance in the face of ever-present threats, many veterans suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes it difficult to reintegrate in the world and function normally in everyday life.

But wilderness therapy programs facilitated by a nonprofit called Warrior Expeditions offer a unique approach to helping soldiers reintegrate into their normal lives with the goal of mitigating the long-term effects of PTSD. These long-distance treks use the power of nature over three to six months of exploration to help heal the invisible wounds of war, and the results of their approach are incredible.

Veterans and PTSD: A Closer Look

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after a person experiences or witnesses a dangerous, shocking, or frightening event. Although it’s natural to experience stress and fear during these types of situations and even during the immediate aftermath, individuals with chronic PTSD do not recover normally.

Instead, they continue to experience stress even when there’s no actual danger. Individuals with PTSD experience flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, and uncontrollable thoughts about the traumatic experience. People, places, and things that serve as reminders of the trauma are often avoided.

PTSD is also typically accompanied by feelings of blame or guilt, and individuals who have experienced trauma are at a higher risk of suicide.

According to the National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the rate of veteran suicides was one-and-a-half times greater than the suicide rate of non-veterans in 2019. The reason for this sad statistic is largely attributed to symptoms of PTSD.

In the military, soldiers often experience life-threatening situations and witness horrific sights, and these traumatic experiences fuel PTSD.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 11 to 20 percent of veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have PTSD in any given year. 

PTSD Treatment and Types of PTSD Therapy

The primary prescription for anyone with PTSD is medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. While a variety of medications attempt to relieve the symptoms of PTSD, they fail to address the underlying cause.

Treatment with therapies designed to help with PTSD, (such as exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, stress inoculation, and others), can often span over the course of months or years and involve working one-on-one with a therapist during weekly sessions.

While these treatments can be effective and useful, many veterans do not prefer them due to side effects and the time commitment required to achieve results. 

Why Nature Therapy Is the Best Therapy  for PTSD

While it’s unclear whether PTSD can actually be reversed, individuals living with the disorder can naturally reduce symptoms with a combination of ample exercise, deep restorative sleep, and meditation. And if all of these are done while out in nature, even better.

Nature therapy experiences, like the ones organized by Warrior Expeditions, provide space for veterans to process their thoughts, consider their next steps in life, and gradually reintegrate into the world.

The organization structures their wilderness therapy programs around three key features – physical demands, alone time, and time with others. 

Physical Demands

Veterans in the program must adhere to schedules each day of their journey, mostly consisting of eight hours worth of physical activity. This rigorous, daily expenditure of energy changes the body’s chemistry, helping alleviate nervous energy and promote better sleep. 

Alone Time

Solitude is necessary for deep reflection and processing. Hiking trails offer veterans a significant amount of isolation in the wilderness, giving them time to think.

Throughout the journey, participants receive encouraging, hand-crafted messages from veterans and psychologists, Dr. Zachary Dietrich and Dr. Shauna Joye. The psychoeducational messages help normalize participants’ post-combat reactions and ease their transition back into society. 

Time with Others

On and off the trail, participants have contact with other veterans, as well as non-veteran hikers, bikers, and paddlers. This affords them a gradual re-entry into social settings and civilian interactions.

Compared with immediately plunging oneself back into the workforce following combat, gradual opportunities for interaction allow participants to return to participation in the world in small doses.

Additionally, Local Veterans of Foreign War and American Legions posts host events in towns along the trails. These dinners and social events give veterans opportunities to share their stories and struggles, as well as observe positive models of successful reintegration into civilian life. 

A Transformative Wilderness Experience

For the first time, Warrior Expeditions has combined three activities this year — hiking, biking, and paddling — in a 53-day trip along the Mountains to Sea Trail in the great state of North Carolina. Participants get to witness the natural beauty of mountain valleys, vistas, and deciduous forests, as they gradually make their way to the sands of the Atlantic coast.

Warrior Expeditions supplies everything needed for a genuine wilderness therapy experience, including all the gear, clothing, and tools needed to complete a long-distance excursion.

This mountain-to-sea journey is just one of several wilderness therapy programs offered by the organization. Any veteran who served in a combat zone and was honorably discharged is qualified to apply for the opportunity to hike, cycle, and paddle through beautiful locations all across the United States.

Warrior Expeditions helps 30 to 40 veterans each year with 10 different expeditions. They’re on their seventh year of providing this much-needed service.

It’s the hope that these wilderness therapy programs can make a difference in the lives of veterans by providing the space, time, and companionship needed to heal and reintegrate into everyday life.

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