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Episode 88 - Skydiving is Adventure Therapy: Part 1


Last week I mentioned adult playfulness that was part of The Healing Formula - Episode 87. Playfulness can add joy to life, relieve stress, and help connect you to others and the world around you. It directly contributes to experiencing emotions such as joy, glee, and happiness.

Playfulness is literally doing those things that others might deem as childish. It’s being lighthearted, cutting up, laughing until you cry with a friend. It’s playing games or telling jokes. It’s also creating imaginative stories, skipping down the hall, and playing peek-a-boo with a small child. Playfulness is at its best when you’re not self-conscious and concerned about how you’ll look and sound to others when attempting to be lighthearted. It relieves stress, improves brain function, stimulates the mind and creativity, connects you to others, and keeps you feeling young and energetic. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

So, playfulness is part of our mental, emotional, and physical healing.

But there’s something else I’ve found that is for our healing, too - Adventure Therapy.

The definition of adventure is, “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity.”

This past weekend, I went on an adventure according to this definition. My daughter, my good friend, and I went skydiving for the first time. We jumped out of an airplane 14,000 feet up in the air, descending in a free-fall at 120 mile per hour before being quickly yanked up by the very welcomed parachute. The whole thing only lasted less than 10 minutes, and I found myself wanting to stop and take it all in. But there was no time for that nonsense. There were 20 of us in the airplane. The seats were a series of two long benches that you straddled facing the back of the airplane. There was very little room between you and the person in front of you or behind you. All the people in front of me on the bench - who were all men, by the way - were experienced skydivers. This was not their first free-fall and they were amped. Although I could tell the guy in front of me might have been a little nervous because he asked his buddy to check his parachute…twice.

Once we got to the right altitude, they opened the big door at the rear of the plane and guys just started flinging themselves out. Then everybody was scooching themselves forward on the bench towards the door. Every five seconds, someone else flung themselves out. Then all of the sudden, I found myself at the end of the bench, being pushed forward by my tandem instructor that had no intentions of giving me a second to prepare myself for what was about to happen. I was the first of the three of us to take the leap, but before I did, I looked back at both of them as if to catch one more glimpse of an encouraging nod. I got none. “Oh, Lord, please be with me,” I whispered. Then my instructor yanked my head back onto her shoulder and pushed me out with her securely strapped to my back. We fell headfirst into a nosedive. And that was probably the scariest part of the whole thing. That was crazy and I thought my life was over. But we quickly leveled off. It was the most surreal experience I’ve ever had. I was free-falling to the earth at 120 miles per hour. On purpose. Nothing to stop us or slow us down. In fact, we were told to bend our knees. And if we had straightened them out, it would’ve made our descent even faster. Another fun fact, if you put your hands out in front of you, like superman, you would go backwards. No, I did not try that.

It was about a 60 second free-fall, and then I got to pull the strap to deploy the parachute for the most amazing five-minute ride back to the landing area. Okay, I’m going to take a quick second and tell on myself. We were each given an altimeter to wear on our left wrist. We were told to deploy the parachute at 6,000 feet. The instructor would give us the signal to start checking our altimeter at 7,000 feet so we’d be prepared to pull the strap. I’m pretty sure my instructor gave me the signal, but I was too enthralled with the topography of the earth and the expanse of the horizon to be worrying about my altimeter. She finally gave me the “it’s time NOW” signal and when I looked at the altimeter, we had already descended past 6,000 feet. But I quickly pulled the strap and we were yanked up so fast I thought I lost my heart into my stomach.

Now, you could choose the wild ride down. And they’re not even talking about the 120 miles per hour free-fall. That was pretty wild. But they were talking about the parachute descent with spins and twists and turns. I quickly let my instructor know that I am susceptible to motion sickness, so I’d rather have the kiddie ride back down, thank you very much.

But she gave me the greatest gift and turned me to face my two brave compadres who were twisting and spinning their wild ride back to earth. It was so fun to watch them. And also gave me even more gratitude for the ability to choose the kiddie ride instead. Then, before I knew it, I was lifting my legs and pulling the parachute straps to bring us to a complete sliding stop…on my rear. But at that point, I didn’t care how we got back to the ground. What ensued next looked nothing short of an MLB celebration as the three of us collided into a dancing hug like we’d just won the championship. We had done it. We had done what many people emphatically say they would never do. That they never could do.

So, you might be wanting to ask these two things as many people already have: “Why did you want to do it?” and, “How has that experience changed you?”

Before I answer that, I want to tell you why this adventure, this “unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity” actually does change you.

An article written by Michael Mutz and Johannes Müller titled Mental Health Benefits of Outdoor Adventures laid out the results from two pilot studies, arguing that adventurous experiences had a significant impact on four distinct areas in an individual’s life.

However, according to this article, to gain the greatest benefits of an adventure, the experience itself must 1) “take place in an unfamiliar natural physical environment, (2) consist of challenging activities with authentic and clear consequences that usually involve cooperation with others, (3) must take place in a small-group social setting, and (4) are guided by experienced, skilled instructors who ensure physical safety and emotional support during the program.

This article states that many scholars agree that the experience of a psychological disequilibrium at the beginning of the challenge is a necessary condition for a psychological change to be successful. Hold tight. Let me say that again. There must be a psychological disequilibrium at the beginning of the challenge for there to be a successful psychological change. That’s the “how are you different?” part.

They state that in this disequilibrium, participants should attain a mental state in between the ‘comfort zone’ and ‘panic zone’, which was labelled the “groan zone.” Being in this zone is experiencing a state of high attentiveness and receptiveness for new experiences. They also emphasize that “leisure activities that are challenging, demanding, and require effort and skills are most suitable to facilitate positive development and personal growth among participants.”

Whew, just saying that out loud to you made my heart beat a little faster. I so clearly remember that place - the state between comfort zone and panic zone. It was that exact moment that I glanced back at my daughter and friend who were being scooched forward on the benches by their insistent instructor with a look that said, “What in the world are we doing? And, oh my gosh, let’s go!” all within a split second. Comfort and panic. And there was probably a groan in there somewhere.

I wanted just a second to stop at that big door and gather myself. Prepare myself for what was about to happen. To allow it all to sink in. But that’s probably the very reason they don’t waste any time getting you out that door. They don’t want it to sink in. They don’t want your emotional brain to convince your logical brain that this forthcoming event was not reasonable. They don’t want you to have time to realize that you’re jumping out of a perfectly good plane…on purpose. So, instead, you have to let the cognitive dissonance of comfort and panic be there together...and still take action. It’s like “The Power of AND” that I talked about in episode number 49, where you can be sure and unsure at the same time. Confident and afraid. So excited and so terrified. Ready and so not. Brave and chicken, all at the same time. Disequilibrium: an instability in an individual's cognitive, emotional, or psychological state. And this is the place of great personal growth. To be able to act and willingly move forward during a time of instability - of disequilibrium - in your life.

Friend, when you chose to put yourself in a place to experience a challenging adventure, it becomes adventure therapy. Because what you’re doing is training your brain that you can do hard things, so that when you face other hard things in your life - things that you don’t choose - then your mind, will, and emotions will be able to handle it so much better. Because it knows you can overcome…already.

So, I want to talk about why I chose to go skydiving and the interesting ways it impacted me - ways that surprised me, actually. Ways I certainly didn’t expect. And I want to share with you the four areas of our lives that are directly impacted by challenging adventures which bring about positive results for personal growth - the “therapy” part. But we’re running out of time today, so I’ll pick this up next week for part two and tell you more about my amazing adventure.

Have a wonderful week, friends. See you next Wednesday for the next episode of Another Beautiful Life podcast.

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