Author: Kara Ohlsen CTRS, TRS

All of us learn by discussing principles and by actually experiencing the impact of these principles. Understanding mentally and feeling are both vital in making the lasting changes necessary to overcome an eating disorder. Mark Twain put it well when he said, “The man walking down the street carrying a cat by the tail is gaining at least ten times as much experience as the man who is just standing there watching him.” Recreation therapy is therapy in motion. Through this active therapy, individuals with eating disorders experience healing patterns, engage socially, learn to relax, and successfully transition from inpatient care.

Ropes Courses and problem-solving activities simulate real-life challenges. The way we act in these types of activities parallels our real life patterns. Through ropes course experiential therapy women with eating disorders practice challenging self-doubt and overcoming fears. Trying to maneuver on a high ropes course naturally brings out feelings of fear and anxiety. When a person pushes through a frightening climb with shaking knees and pounding heart to finish the task, they experience conquering anxiety. Over time, they actually feel their anxiety lessen by facing these fears. Overcoming the anxiety of high course challenges relates to dealing with the anxiety of living and coping with life’s pressures without an eating disorder. When we know that uncomfortable emotions do not decide our actions and will not always be as strong as they are at the moment, the thought of recovering from an eating disorder feels less daunting.

Social challenges, including group problem solving and social outings, provide a structured setting to challenge self-destructive social patterns. In group problem solving, individuals experience working through difficult problems rather than avoiding the difficult issues. When facilitated properly, a problem-solving challenge provides an opportunity for people who tend to isolate themselves to experience social support. Oftentimes, individuals with eating disorders lose touch with much of their social support. There simply is not time for friends and family when the eating disorder consumes so much time. A structured social outing provides an atmosphere where a woman with an eating disorder can feel loved and accepted for her true self. Regaining confidence in one’s ability to become a part of social support is vital in a successful recovery.

Another important aspect of experiential therapy is service. Service projects bring to light the reality that our worth is so much more than the appearance of our bodies. Changing our focus and thoughts to what we can do rather than what we look like happens as we serve. A key concept to discuss after service projects is the difference between serving and seeking approval from others. Recognizing the state of mind, source of reward, and feelings associated with true service is a powerful part of recognizing inherent self-worth. Service sets in motion the practice of forgetting self-doubts and involving ourselves in a higher purpose.

Enjoying recreation is another key to a complete recovery from an eating disorder. Being able to relax is at the core of mental health. Many people suffering with anxiety are anxious about being anxious. Simply telling someone to relax is not necessarily the most effective method. Rather than fighting and forcing relaxation, it is important to find activities that allow a centering of attention. Doing something such as painting, mentally stimulating games, creative writing, reading, and other activities that require focus are often more relaxing than simply watching random television shows. However, it is important to include quiet time when making recreation plans. Take time to enjoy nature and center attention on gratitude. Recreation time is a great time to re-create thinking patterns and focus on personal affirmations.

Individual life-skills counseling is a unique opportunity to take concepts learned in therapy and put them to work in real life. Individual life-skills counseling at Center for Change includes experiential therapy with community integration support. Having a personal coach to assist in the transition from inpatient treatment to outpatient better assures that healthy coping mechanisms will actually be used. Getting “plugged in” socially, utilizing skills, being of service, and taking time out to enjoy are all ways people become confident in taking care of their own needs without the structure of inpatient treatment.

One experiential intervention I use in life-skills counseling is canoe training. Learning to steer the canoe is so similar to recovery. I start out with a verbal instruction of how to properly steer a canoe. Then we head out on a flat water river with me steering the canoe. Once I have demonstrated that steering the canoe is possible, I change positions and allow my client to demonstrate all that she has learned. Of course it is easy to talk about paddling but more difficult to actually steer the canoe. There are zigzags and crashes, yet we are still moving down river. Gradually there is less back and forth motion. She is in control of the boat more and more. Once in awhile she may lose focus and get off course, but by the end of the river trip she is maneuvering around fallen trees and rocks. The challenges of the canoe journey are so similar to the challenges of putting therapy into life action and sticking with recovery; the slipups do not take the canoe all the way back to start even though it feels rough.

All of us know that change is a life-long process. Yet so many of us forget this in the rush of daily living and ever increasing expectations. In our quest to improve ourselves and the world around us, it is essential that we take the time to experience emotions, connect with others, relax, and be patient in life transitions.

Seven Keys to Remember in Creating Your Own Healing Experiences

  • Simplify. You don’t have to do it all. Choose 2-3 leisure interests that provide you with the most enjoyment. It is hard to be intuitive when you are constantly busy.
  • Balance work, rest, and play. Periodically check your own balance and make adjustments as needed. A good recommendation I have heard before is 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, and 8 hours of recreation each day.
  • Keep life interesting. Expand your skills within your areas of interest. Find or form a club to expand your knowledge base. Take a class with a friend just for fun.
  • Endorphin. Remember that physical exercise is not the only way to “burn off steam.” Talking with someone, building something, and creating artwork also helps the brain to increase the release of endorphin.
  • Put your heart into it. If excessive exercise has been a part of your eating disorder choose another recreation interest to help you to cope. Connect with other human beings. Do things that help you feel alive instead of numb. Look at free time as an opportunity to expand the size of your heart.
  • Lighten up. Give yourself permission to be young and human in your free time. Experience the sense of wonder and excitement you felt as a child. Spend time with children.
  • Get out there. Are you truly overworked and exhausted? Or is that tired feeling a symptom of depression? Recreation is not a way to run from feelings, but in conjunction with therapy it does elevate mood.