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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Existential factors in therapeutic wilderness exposure Ring, Mark

Abstract

The healing benefits of wilderness exposure have been documented for many decades. Wilderness therapy programs designed to take advantage of these benefits have been in existence for over a century and have been used with a number of at-risk populations Most of the published research into the healing effects of the wilderness has been quantitative in nature and generally focused on the measurement of constructs such as self-esteem/efficacy, locus of control, and social interactions or on the measurement of recidivism rates (either re-offending or relapsing). The majority of these reports indicate some positive effects of wilderness therapy on the constructs studied with the effects lasting for up to one year. The limited number of qualitative studies published, and the myriad informal case studies that abound suggest that there are some deeper healing processes involved that are the result of an interaction with "Nature" at a fundamental level. The purpose of this phenomenological study was to attempt to illuminate those deeper healing processes. Five individuals who felt that they had derived some therapeutic benefit from exposure to the wilderness were interviewed in depth about their experiences. The data from the interviews was analyzed using Karlsson's five step protocol for producing a phenomenological reduction. This process illuminated a variety of themes in each individual's experience and comparison of these themes indicated a number of shared themes. These were: Reduction in stimulation; Simplicity; Facing Mortality; and Connection to something larger than self/Spirituality. The later three shared themes can be equated with the existential issues of Responsibility, Death, and Meaning. The result of this study indicate that there are indeed deeper processes involved in the healing power of "Nature" than have been suggested in most of the research literature to date, that these processes are existential in nature and that being in wilderness environments can lead us to confrontation with, and resolution of, these issues. Application of this information to wilderness therapy programs could greatly improve their efficacy.

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