Inspiration Just Ahead: Experiential Therapy at Paradigm

By Scarlet Barber


One of the things that set Paradigm Treatment apart from other treatment centers is their understanding that treatment need not be limited to a traditional clinical setting. Through experiential therapy, teens at Paradigm are provided with opportunities to be active participants in outdoor activities designed to complement talk therapy.

Engaging teens in various natural settings, often times in situations that require teamwork, is an organic way to uncover clinical themes. According to Dr. Jeff Nalin, Co-Founder of Paradigm, “Some of the most meaningful therapeutic moments happen when young people and their therapists are outside of an office. When they are out in the world, many things naturally present themselves,” he says, adding, “The youth begin to discover new ways to self-reflect and identify previously unknown insights. Likewise, Experiential Therapy can give therapists their own insights into a teen’s emotional and behavioral patterns, allowing for a more dynamic assessment of individual treatment plans.”


Types of Experiential Therapies

A few of the Experiential therapies offered at Paradigm include:

  • Surf Therapy
  • Therapeutic Paddleboarding
  • Ropes Course Therapy
  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Combinations of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual aspects vital to recovery are all explored through Experiential Therapy, empowering adolescents to develop skills that can continue to change the trajectory of their lives post-treatment.


Surf Therapy

Kelani Cross, a native of Hawaii and facilitator of Surf Therapy, believes that overcoming fears of the unknown is a huge part of recovery; she reinforces this practice in the unpredictable environment of the ocean—a setting the residents have zero control over. Standing up and catching a wave doesn’t come easily for most people; learning how to surf is something that requires ridding oneself of negative self-talk and reinforcing the positive notions associated with success. “…It takes [the teens] outside of what they are constantly worried about. If the residents’ heads are elsewhere, that’s when they’re going to get hit by a wave, get back to reality, and realize that they need to stay present right now,” Kelani explains. Residents learn that even if they get knocked down, they are going to be able to get back up. Although residents can’t control the ebbs and flows of the ocean, they can control their reactions to its motion, which can prepare them for the ups and down in life. Experiential Surf Therapy teaches residents how intrinsic motivation and drive are imperative for progress in their recovery—and that it’s important to have fun while doing it!


Therapeutic Paddleboarding

As with surfing, Therapeutic Paddleboarding in the natural environment of the ocean is a place in which to develop a sense of peace and a relationship with a higher power. While in recovery from an eating disorder, Phoebe Nolan, Paradigm’s Paddleboarding Therapy instructor, decided she wanted to share the spiritual experience she had in the ocean with patients struggling with their own mental health. There is a sense of mystique out on the open environment of the ocean, and she finds many clients are more willing to investigate the mysterious concept of a higher power in this natural setting. She explains, “We spend a lot of time in the session in silence when we are paddling out, and they learn how to be okay in that silence… letting go.” Physically, paddleboarding is an all-over-body workout, predominantly strengthening the core of one’s body to balance on the board. She finds that from a balance point of view, it’s a metaphor for achieving balance in teens’ daily lives. Mentally, it’s a natural way to release endorphins through exercises, and absorb Vitamin D from the sun, thus increasing serotonin. Phoebe encourages residents to continue exercising—in any form—but ideally, out in nature as much as possible. Nature has a way of helping us heal and feel connected.


Ropes Course Therapy

In Ropes Course Therapy at Paradigm, the instructor, Miles Pittman, uses this environmental ‘playground,” as he calls it, for the residents to focus on setting goals and developing core values, while again, having fun. Some of these core values are self-esteem, grace, encouragement of oneself and others, appreciation, acknowledgment, and boundaries. The youth develop a support system to rely on one another for both physical and emotional safety. One of the greatest fears we, as humans have is the uncomfortable fear of falling, both physically and emotionally. When confronting that fear, the youths are challenging themselves to be confident. In that process of learning to be confident and face the fear of falling, the youths are both moving through the physical obstacle of the ropes course, and the mental obstacle in finding their authentic selves. The mental obstacle challenges negative self-talk that manifests while in recovery from both addiction and mental health disorders. Miles explains, “We’re not about breakdowns; it’s about breakthroughs. And those breakthroughs come in that place where there’s work to be done, breakthroughs happen when we’re vulnerable, and that’s when our authentic self-shows.”


Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

A psychologist for over 25 years, Dr. Valerie Coleman realized that Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is beneficial for overcoming individual challenges. Dr. Coleman incorporates her love of psychology and horses in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy at Paradigm by using “the power of the horses’ instinctual wisdom to help us humans connect with our own instinctual wisdom. And to create change so people make healthy choices rather than just being caught in reactive patterns and habits,” Dr. Coleman explains. The goal of this specific type of experiential psychotherapy is to complement the psychotherapy taking place at Paradigm. “We’re outside in nature, and were also engaging with these amazing biofeedback beings, or truth detectors, in a natural setting that’s unique, and that novelty helps create changes in the brain.” Horses have a capability of discerning an incongruence of authenticity in a person, and will then display signals to help the residents to see what they can work on and strengthen. Eventually, the residents, with help from Dr. Coleman, begin to exhibit a new found transparency. In identifying their problem areas through Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, residents then go on to process all they have learned about themselves in talk therapy sessions at Paradigm.


Paradigm’s Experiential Therapy facilitators, Kelani, Phoebe, Miles, and Valerie are incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about helping Paradigm residents begin a transformative journey. The facilitators’ aid residents in finding healthy and fun activities, preparing them to take charge of their own lives. Over time, residents become more apt to self-reflection and will find themselves naturally engaging in their treatment process once they leave Paradigm. When the teens are in an environment that encourages both self-awareness and awareness of their surroundings, subconscious attitudes and actions from the past fall by the wayside. The combination of what the teens at Paradigm Treatment have learned in both the traditional and experiential therapy settings becomes illuminated and is organically incorporated into their lives.


The best therapeutic moments are often where you least expect to find them: Looking deep into a horses eyes, or the shimmer of the Pacifies waves, feeling the tug of a rope under your tight grasp, or learning to balance in whatever motion comes your way—Paradigm’s Experiential Therapy provides residents with multiple opportunities to challenge themselves in fun, powerful, courageous, life changing ways.