Facilitating Outdoor and Adventure Experiences with Trauma in mind.

The discussion around the fact that, amongst others, in the people development industry, Outdoor and Adventure practice or practitioners does not have enough soft skill (intrapersonal and interpersonal) capacity, is one that I and the Adventure Institute have had on various platforms in the recent past.

If you are working with groups of people or individuals in the outdoors, whether adults or children, either providing specifically adventurous experiences or providing basic learning experiences, you have most probably seen instances where participants “freaked out”. This normally happens during stressful (as interpreted by the individual – people are different) events in your programme whether it is an activity part of your programme or an event during the social time after the programme. Normally when this occurs the facilitator or guide reacts by either laughing it off as just another attention seeker “they will get over it”, or they get such a fright that they rather get the group to resolve it themselves, the group’s reaction to what is happening is also not assisting the situation in any way.

The truth is that this behaviour occurs more often than we would like to acknowledge during our programmes, we are just not trained or sensitive enough to notice it.

Trauma is an emotional response to a painful and deeply distressing or disturbing experience that totally overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, it causes feelings of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel and navigate between the full range of emotions and experiences. Trauma can occur as a result of any occurrence that a person perceives to be physically or emotionally threatening or hurtful. Both immediately after the occurrence and in the long run. They may feel helpless, overwhelmed, horrified, or unable to digest their experiences. It is also true that not everyone who goes through a stressful event develops trauma.

The outward-bound process for adventurous outdoor learning highlights key factors that are necessary for optimal experience facilitation, these include: (1) a willing participant (unfortunately not all participants are willing and eager to participate, some are negative or resistant from the start); (2) they are then put in a specific physical environment (where they are going -although novel and stimulating, an environment that is threatening, and intimidating is problematic); (3) put into a prescribed social environment (the group they are in – in many instances the group culture is unhealthy, group pressure, judgement, etc.); and (4) given a specific set of problem-solving tasks* (the activities they engage in – activities are not intentionally selected, no challenge by choice, it is too physically, emotionally and socially challenging etc.). It is evident that if either one of the above factors is not facilitated appropriately it can either cause trauma or be the cause of re-traumatization.

Re-traumatisation is any scenario, situation or environment that correlates with or resembles an individual’s previous traumatic experiences, whether literally or symbolically, which then triggers feelings and reactions associated with the original trauma.

Unfortunately a medium such as outdoor and adventure programmes, which are meant for education, development, and even therapeutic interventions, are sometimes the reason for new trauma or re-traumatization where negative consequences result in the opposite of what we initially endeavoured to accomplish.

Trauma-Informed Care is an approach based on an intentional awareness that assumes that individuals are more likely to have a history of trauma than not. Trauma-Informed Care recognizes that potentially all people have had challenging circumstances earlier in life, some more than others, some “deeper” than others. Thus, a Trauma-Informed First Responder in the outdoor and adventure field is someone who acknowledges the role that trauma may play in an individual’s life, and who is vigilant to look out for trauma-motivated behaviour during a programme or process.

The skills necessary for trauma-informed care or a Trauma-Informed First Responder in the experience facilitation field are of utmost importance to ensure that an experience, that is supposed to be a positive life-changing event, is not doing totally the opposite due to unintentionality or insensitivity of facilitators and guides. The objective is that although outdoor facilitators and guides are not all therapists, they should be empowered to acknowledge trauma as a reality in people’s lives, anticipate diverse behaviour, identify typical trauma behaviour, and react to it appropriately. But even more important – to proactively structure and plan intentional experiences (programmes and processes) to consider the potential of trauma and re-traumatisation, whether it is the choice of activities or how your speak to groups. Incorporating concepts like safe spaces, reflection and reviewing, holding space, regulation and co-regulation are essential.

The Adventure Institute has partnered with Claudia Roodt from Designed to Connect to present the Trauma-Informed First Responder course to address the immense lack of knowledge in this area. It is our wish that South Africa’s outdoor and adventure industry will regard trauma-informed care as a crucial skill in the outdoor and adventure facilitator or guide’s skill toolbox.

Author avatar
Dr Pieter Snyman

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