Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone: The Power of Experiential Therapy

By Christopher Craig, MA, MS

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

As part of the Therapeutic & Recreational Activities Program at Sierra Tucson, experiential therapy gives participants the opportunity to engage in new behaviors, take healthy risks, and gain insight into patterns that are preventing them from moving forward. This process is replicated in various activities employed by the program, and has proven beneficial in residents’ early recovery.

The Therapeutic & Recreational Activities Program utilizes experiential techniques to create an environment where subjective fear is high, while objectively the danger is low. Participants are offered the choice to work on behaviors and emotions – including addiction, fear, shame, or inadequacy – that may be holding them back and standing in their way of living an abundant life in recovery. The end goal is to address emotions in ways that lead to healthy outcomes.

In one particular activity, participants are harnessed and belayed to the ground by a “belay team” (usually their community or group). One by one, participants climb up a 20-foot telephone pole, stand on a small platform, and jump off the platform while reaching for the target – a large red ball tethered 10 feet away. What may seem like a simple act for some stirs up emotions that participants have not experienced in months, even years.

What happens during this activity that benefits one’s recovery?

  1. Asking for Help – Before the journey begins, the facilitator asks what the participant needs. This helps the individual recognize the importance of speaking up and asking for support.
  2. Taking One Step at a Time – When the participant climbs up the telephone pole, he or she focuses on placing one foot in front of the other. Similar to life in recovery, the individual must move forward and is both aware of where he/she is and where he/she is going.
  3. Enjoying the Moment – Once the participant reaches the platform, he or she is encouraged to appreciate the surrounding beauty and remain present. At times, fear may seem crippling in one’s recovery. When the individual is mindful of the moment, he or she experiences the beauty and growth in being still.
  4. Trusting Others – Before jumping off the platform, the participant makes a connection with the belay team below. He or she must trust the support system and the team before taking a leap of faith. Similarly, the individual must set up a strong network of trustworthy people in recovery.
  5. Setting Goals – Focusing on the large red ball, the participant sets his or her mind on the target ahead. Goal setting provides a sense of direction and meaning in recovery, provided the goals are realistic and affirming.
  6. Stepping Into the Unknown – The pole and the platform represent those things in our lives that are holding us back. The act of moving forward brings up the concept of letting go, as well as fear of the unknown. The facilitator inquires what the individual wants to step away from, and he or she discloses it to the group. The participant jumps off into the unknown.

At Sierra Tucson, it’s beautiful moments like these that remind us why we do what we do. Our mission is to enhance a participant’s treatment experience by exploring the body’s response to real or perceived risks in a healing environment. In addition to inciting behavioral change, activities utilized by the Therapeutic & Recreational Activities Program often employ a metaphorical approach. Thus, when residents are encouraged to perform activities that naturally produce fear, it’s not really about the activity itself, but rather a lens to see how the body has been conditioned to respond to fear. Residents are given a new opportunity to create a new paradigm.  It’s about taking the risk and seeing their authentic self through the metaphor.

The more experiences individuals have wherein stepping outside of their comfort zone is positive and not traumatic, the more equipped they are to manage life’s challenges in a healthy way. The comfort zone can be expanded – what was once intolerable or overwhelming can become manageable. That’s the power of experiential therapy.