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Psychological Considerations

Expeditions present a number of complex and varied challenges that inevitably evoke a range of psychological responses. This aspect of expeditions has received increasing attention, and the field of wilderness therapy has sought to address the learning from, and management of, these unavoidable psychological responses. Some responses are considered more positive and associated with learning (e.g., awe and inspiration, considering past experiences, learning how to interact with others), whereas others have more negative connotations (e.g., home sickness, psychosocial challenges, eating disorders). Furthermore, the responses to such experiences occur not only during expeditions, but also afterward, when participants return to their home community. It is helpful to consider three psychological areas.

The first area is learning in a safe (physical and emotional) environment. Taking people on expeditions is often motivated, to some extent, by trying to trigger some kind of psychological or emotional response to various aspects of the experience. For some this may be about developing themselves, understanding themselves and others, and as an opportunity to reflect on their lives, behaviours, and relationships— past, present, and future. For others, the expedition may be a time when reflection brings to the fore difficult issues that may have been previously suppressed, such as confidence, dysfunctional relationships, existential challenges, and sense of life direction. Clearly, leaders need to be appropriately prepared to deal with these and related issues. To this end, planning prior to an expedition, including reviewing applications and holding interviews, gaining medical information, writing clear marketing material, and conducting thorough training weekends are crucial in minimizing psychological difficulties that may arise.

Second, post-expedition responses are often difficult to gauge, and until relatively recently, had not been studied. The phenomenon can be understood as similar to the blues when returning from vacation or to a process of mourning (e.g., for the wilderness, for friends, for simplicity of expedition life). For many young people, going on an expedition for the first time can be life changing; it is often the first visit to a far-off place, to the wilderness, and of experiencing cultures very different from their own. As such, returning to everyday life (school, home, college, employment) is often rather awkward. Indeed, it is common for people to report difficulties sleeping inside, making decisions about what to eat, amazement at the number of people they meet, and missing the intimacy of the relationships experienced on the expedition. Allison (1999, 2000, 2005) studied expeditions and discovered this phenomenon to be common among the majority of participants. He comments: “It seems reasonable to conclude that some adjustment post-expedition might be expected for the majority of people. If there were no signs of some type of post-expedition adjustment then one could question if there had been any changes or examination of values during the expedition experience.” (Allison 2005, p. 23)

The third psychological area that expedition leaders need to deal with concerns managing threats to the learning environment. When people experience some of the challenges outlined above, such as adjustment problems (to and from the expedition), illness/accidents, crises (emotional and otherwise), it is vital that leaders have the skills to recognize them, decide on a course of action, manage and remedy them, and keep them from occurring again—unless these problems are deemed to be desirable (rarely the case) (Berman & Davis-Berman 2002; Berman, Davis-Berman, & Gillen 1998; Kaplan & Talbot 1983).

Allison, P. (1999). Post residential syndrome - Research from the ground up. In M. White (Ed.), Experiencing the difference: Conference report (pp. 74–76). Cumbria: Brathay Hall Trust.
Allison, P. (2000). Research from the ground up: Post expedition adjustment. Cumbria: Brathay Hall Trust.
Allison, P. (2005). Post–expedition adjustment: What empirical data suggest? Estes Park, CO: WEA Conference Proceedings.
Allison, P. & Beames, S. (2010). Feature article: The changing geographies of overseas expeditions. International Journal of Wilderness, 16(3), 35-42.
Berman, D. & Davis-Berman, J. (2002). An integrated approach to crisis management in wilderness settings. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 2(1), 9-17.
Berman, D., David-Berman, J. & Gillen, M. (1998). Behavioural and emotional crisis management in adventure education. Journal of Experiential Education, 21, 96-101.
Kaplan, S. & Talbot, J. F. (1983). Psychological benefits of a wilderness experience. In I. Altman & J. Wohlwill (Eds.), Human behaviour and environment: Advances in theory and research (pp. 163–205). New York: Plenum Press