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Bringing Outward Bound Into Trauma Healing

This article was adapted from a study done by Susan Arai, Janet Griffin, and Monika Grau and published in the OBC Journal of Education. Read the full study here.

Last year, Outward Bound Canada partnered with the Homewood Research Institute to evaluate whether the Outward Bound learning model can be beneficial to those recovering from trauma.

The guiding question for the study was, “what potential does Outward Bound bring to trauma healing in a residential treatment setting?” Participants would take part in ten day-long sessions in addition to their eight week residential Program for Traumatic Stress Recovery (PTSR) and Eating Disorders Program (EDP) at the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ontario.

When the program began, one participant, Indyanna, was nervous and socially isolated as she encountered new people and environments. However, as the sessions unfolded, she experienced a growing emotional connection with others and a growing trust in the unknown.

“Inside the hospital, I feel like there's an automatic pressure of work hard, study hard, listen hard, go and do this, do that. There's a whole performance-based thing for me in the building,” said Indyanna. “But when you're outside and you're still taking instruction outside, and you're doing what someone else is telling you to do, to me it was, not only was I more eager to learn because of that, I'm able to.”

Indyanna’s experience is in line with a growing body of evidence that time spent outdoors can lead to a increased desire to learn and even greater happiness.

“The Outdoor Classroom provided opportunity to challenge habitual coping patterns and experience what it is to hold new dialectics—not having to control a situation and still being safe, not having to be funny and still being valued,” writes the authors of the study.

The researchers note that one of the ongoing symptoms of a trauma experienced in life is the pursuit of perfection or a desire to please others, but a safe and supportive environment in which to encourage risk-taking and moments of vulnerability can help healing from a trauma-focused perspective.

The Outdoor Classroom can also be a supportive environment in which to help with social isolation and avoidance, to build trust between the participants who are undertaking the challenges together and to encourage teamwork.

“For participants who did not have a framework for understanding safety in social context, this experience created awareness of possibilities they had not fathomed before,” writes the study. “Through self- reflection and group-reflection and the layering-up of challenge in the activities, participants actively challenged ruminative patterns of negative self-talk and catastrophizing by attending to how they could improve their group functioning to create more success in collaboration.”

The study concludes that the sense of being connected with others created new experiences and opportunities for connections, it developed a positive emotional memory and produced motivation to seek that feeling again in the future.