Experiential Therapy incorporates a number of different types of therapy and therapeutic interventions designed to focus on actual involvement with different types of experiences, emotional processing, interactions with others, creativity, and reflections of events that go beyond traditional talk therapy. Essentially, these therapies help to make a person more aware of their internal representations of the world.
Research into the benefit of climbing as an experiential therapy for adults and children with mental disorders including, but not only, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, ADHD, trauma and addiction is growing. This will probably come as no surprise to many climbers who have already found these benefits for themselves.
Therapeutic climbing has been shown in randomised clinical trials such as Luttenberger et al, BMC Psychiatry (2015) to offer an effective treatment for depression. There is evidence that climbing therapy can be effective for reducing symptoms of depression even when controlled for other therapeutically active confounders including antidepressant medication, psychotherapy and general level of physical activity: Stelzer et al, Heliyon (2018).
What makes climbing different to other sports which might traditionally have been used for therapy? Humans are apes and natural climbers. This forms the foundation for some of the psychological success of climbing – you already know how to climb, innately. You don’t have to learn how to do it. Simply overcoming fear and making the first move is already a success, never mind getting to the top successfuly.
Climbing is much less risky than it appears, but working with something that appears risky is good for deliberately experiencing fear, understanding emotions and learning anxiety management techniques. People who are depressed think they’re not able to succeed at anything – climbing can prove to them that they are able to do something and what’s more, they’re able to do something that they’ve never done before and which many people (falsely) think is only for really fit and strong daredevils.
Climbing therapy can appeal to people who don’t want to sit around and talk because they don’t identify it as a therapy – it’s just climbing. Another very important factor is that we can start off on very easy climbs so climbing can be fun from the moment you start.
People react in many different ways and project their personalities outwards in climbing in the way that they move, think about the route and deal with fear. These observations can be fed back to the client and used therapeutically. The therapeutic bond between therapist and client is strengthened by the experience of climbing together beyond that which can be forged in an office, and there is robust evidence to show that the therapeutic rapport is one of the most vital determinates of a successful outcome in therapy.
Experiential techniques can help clients to manage stress, develop a willingness to try unfamiliar things, increase flexibility, and help them learn how to control issues with anger. They can also reduce an individual’s desire to engage in potentially harmful or self-destructive behaviors. Individuals in experiential therapies can develop a better image of themselves mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Experiential therapies can be particularly useful for those clients who have trouble expressing their emotions or talking about painful times in their lives. When people are focused on the activity – rather than the therapy itself – they tend to be less guarded, with more authentic reactions and emotions.
The benefits of ‘blue space’, for wellness of body and mind, like those of ‘green space’ are well established in the scientific literature and are potentially synergistic at the coastal margins, where the ocean meets the land. According to Dr Mathew White, a leading environmental psychologist based at the University of Exeter:
‘The optimal environment has both.’
Well, in my opinion, there is no environment more optimal for this than the ‘turquoise space’ in Bermuda where the cliffs drop into the water and we can deep water solo.
The benefits of these ‘colour spaces’ have been shown to stretch across the human lifespan from prenatal to old age and include reduced morbidity and mortality due to chronic disease and reduced incidences of mental disorders in childhood and adulthood. Access to such spaces is crucial – especially in the densely populated, urbanised, obesogenic environments that humans increasingly inhabit.
Simply the movement of water, and its baptismal immersiveness forces attention outwards away from the self. Sunlight disinfects, and environmental factors such as being in nature, more vitamin D, less polluted air, exercise and the climbing therapy X-factor all have a restorative effect on the psyche.
Finally, there is now robust evidence that exercise – in any form – is an antidepressant and the exercise done through climbing will be of benefit in depression regardless of the unique benefits that climbing can bring. Climbing therapy can also help increase fitness, coordination, and manual dexterity.
In Bermuda, the deep water solo season runs from April to December and Grant is available for bookings on week days.