In this post, Juniper Canyon Assistant Clinical Director Rachel Rollins uses current research and her own experience as a mental health counselor to make a case for using Wilderness Therapy to treat generalized anxiety in young adult women.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, cases of generalized anxiety disorder in young adult women are rising. “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States aged 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Women are twice as likely to be affected than men, and generalized anxiety disorder frequently co-occurs with major depressive disorder.” For those interested, there are many more statistics and numbers on rates of anxiety and anxiety-related diagnoses.  Criteria for anxiety-related diagnoses include a generalized sense of anxiety, specific phobias such social anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depressive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and more. 

What’s interesting to me about anxiety is that throughout my time as a mental health worker, the majority of people I work with have anxiety– yet most of them have never acknowledged the real root of their anxiety, let alone found solutions to deal with their symptoms or known what to do about this diagnosis! In some ways anxiety has become a catch-phrase. Anxiety has become so well known that we societally utilize the term as we joke with friends, or deal with small-scale issues, rather than ever embark on a deep journey to understand or tackle our anxiety all together. It has become systemically normalized, and therefore the maladaptive coping mechanisms that we use to deal with anxiety have also become normalized. When I say maladaptive coping mechanisms, I mean the things we do that may alleviate anxiety in the short-term, but also have lasting negative impacts on our lives. I ask you- when you feel that surge of cortisol begin to run through your blood (a physical manifestation of anxiety), what do you do to counteract that? Do you smoke a cigarette, have a drink, or go on your phone–perhaps social media? Do you turn to sex or watch porn? Do you grab something to eat, or watch your next TV episode, or over-exercise? We all know our own list of go-to activities to numb the feeling of being anxious. I am not saying all of these coping strategies are fundamentally negative, however how we use them  is negative  because of our avoidance to tolerate this surge of this stress-related hormone. When did we become so avoidant of stress? And why are we getting so stressed? What else could we do so we don’t have to live our lives so fully avoidant of our own emotional environments? This is what we try to uncover here at Juniper Canyon, where the journey to freedom from anxiety mostly happens outside.

Ever heard the expression “a mountain out of a molehill?” Welcome to the world of anxiety. Anxious feelings and the subsequent surge of cortisol and adrenaline easily takes our small mis-steps (socially, financially, etc.), and turns them  into a massive mountain of emotion. A lot of the time, we believe we can’t stop or can’t control this emotional spiral, and so we let it take a hold of our emotional world until we are too exhausted to continue. This re-current and exhausting cycle can begin to have lasting, detrimental effects on our well being. Clients that come to Juniper Canyon often have limited their social interactions, lost or stopped showing up to jobs, avoided school or events they are passionate about, or family/social gatherings. They may have begun to have panic attacks- meaning an intense surge of doom or panic sets in which can feel like it is hard to breathe, or can even feel like a heart attack. Unfortunately, in our chaotic and continuously unsafe world, anxiety dwellers get little rest. At Juniper Canyon, we are constantly working on finding a balance between creating safety enough for our clients to share and feel emotions within our community, while  also challenging one’s window of tolerance to expand perspective of what an individual can handle. Clients learn how much more stress they can tolerate here when they ARE NOT reliant on their maladaptive coping skills. They are given a place free from so many distractions and numbing devices, so they cannot choose to stay in their comfortable, but miserable world. Instead, they create new neural pathways over and over again that signal they can do something else. They learn they can survive even the most stark feeling of anxiety. Eventually, they are thriving with their ability to tolerate and move through anxiety, instead of being engulfed by these surges.

As most of us know at some level, anxiety typically comes from a loss of control; our environment, social world, finances, family, you name it. The problem with this is that we can never be in control of our entire world- there will always be the unknown. In the wilderness, there are so many unknowns- weather, group dynamics, emotion, appetite, etc. However, clients learn what they can control and empower themselves to operate in this lens, versus trying to control the whole picture. This desire to control typically comes from some trauma related incident in our past, where control gave us safety. We are not trying to take that away at Juniper Canyon, but rather give more insight into teaching your brain when it can feel safe. You don’t always have to live in a reptilian-brain, flight or fight response when you feel you have lost control. The solution to anxiety is not more control, it is to tolerate not being able to control. To quote the Serenity Prayer “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the courage to know the difference.”

Anxiety does not have to be normalized for us. It shouldn’t be. Tackling anxiety is a substantial challenge, but we deserve to live without it. As most of our participants here at Juniper Canyon understand and have lived with substantial anxiety for a long time, we know how insurmountable it can feel. We understand what it is like to live with this mental illness. We can also help guide you to a more effective way of working through your anxiety, and eventually to a place where you are thriving.