How geocaching can help people with PTSD

How geocaching can help people with PTSD

There are many traditional hobbies, interests and activities that help to manage PTSD symptoms. Then, there are the unusual options, that involve ‘up the minute’ trends and technology.

The perfect example of a novel form of relaxation and engagement is geocaching.

When used as a therapeutic tool, it offers several important advantages, not least giving participants a healthy dose of fresh air and exercise.

What is geocaching?

Think of it as a modern-day treasure hunt. One that uses your mobile phone or GPS device.

You need to register with a geocaching app. This will then guide you to millions of routes around the world, including some on your doorstep.

The basic principle is that you use digital hints and location markers to navigate around until you find the cache – a physical container.

You could then leave a small gift for the next participant or add a souvenir of your visit. The important thing is to digitally record your find, as a way of mapping your expeditions.

Many routes are a wonderful adventure. You solve clues, unravel mysteries and tackle puzzles as you move around.

How geocaching is beneficial to people with PTSD and other mental health issues

For anyone with PTSD, this sort of controllable activity is a great form of distraction and focus at the same time. You can dip in and out whenever you want to, as there are no time limits or other forms of pressure. It can be a relaxing way to escape the stress and strains of life, anytime and anywhere.

Mandy is a geocacher, and works with teenagers with severe and complex mental health problems. She shared her experience, “Today I took a group of 8 clients from our unit on a geocaching trip. We did 7 caches on a circular walk. When I planned it, it was simply as an activity which we could do as a bit of fun – but it turned out to be beyond all my expectations in terms of the enjoyment and therapy that the young people gained!

The highlights of the afternoon included

  • A young man with OCD (who has contamination fears around dirt) scrabbling around in tree roots declaring “I can’t believe I’m doing this – I’m filthy but I’m really happy!”
  • Another young woman who has a personality disorder and struggles with interpersonal relationships was amazing at encouraging and helping her fellow clients to clamber down a steep muddy slope when we took a wrong path.
  • A client with severe anxiety and social phobia looking relaxed at being outside and racing ahead of his peers to find the cache first.
  • And as a whole group of troubled adolescents they worked together to decrypt the additional hints, took it in turns to hold the GPS and “lead” the find and returned to the unit bursting with enthusiasm and saying that it was the best thing they’d ever done!!!

It was wonderful to see these kids let go of their problems for a bit and get completely engrossed in the task of finding the cache container. They have asked if we can do it again next week!”

Ann-Kathrin is a geocacher with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), who says geocaching became a way for her to control her mental health. “When I found my first cache this day six years ago, I was absolutely amazed that many people walk this street without knowing about the existence of this treasure–but that I was part of a small circle of the enlightened. Even though this thought was fascinating to me, I didn’t think that this outdoor game would grow to have so much more importance in my life. In most cases of BPD, the affected cannot regulate their emotions appropriately. If the tension becomes too strong and emotions overflow it leads to dysfunctional behaviour patterns. Dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) teaches alternative methods and skills that regulate the tension in a more functional manner. Since I started geocaching, I have automatically employed the hobby as such a skill. That means, when I feel emotional tension and the pressure threatens to become too much, I get out and geocache. It distracts me and calms me.” The same skills can be used for someone with PTSD to help them regulate their emotions.

Geocaching can be a solo endeavour or undemanding fun with family and friends.

One of the advantages of geocaching is that it encourages you to be more adventurous in how far you explore your local area or a new place as it gives you a focus, and something to strive towards, much like wild swimming, and you can also employ some Forest Bathing techniques which are also helpful to people with PTSD.

Trying to solve clues, or decide what to leave for the next ‘finder’ is a creative process too, like crafting. This creativity can relieve stress and anxiety, and give you a wonderful sense of achievement.

How far your geocaching reaches is up to you. There will be routes within walking distance, and others that you can tackle on a bicycle, or you could drive to top locations for geocaching.

This degree of choice and control can be important when you are finding calming activities to improve mental health.

Locating a cache can bring a surge of adrenalin and a great sense of achievement. It can also be uplifting if a previous participant left a small gift for you to find.

Are there disadvantages to geocaching?

The most important thing to keep in mind is that exploring new terrain, using virtual clues, can potentially lead you astray! Be alert to what’s around you (in a non-hypervigilant way), rather than totally fixated on your phone. That way you won’t get into danger or trespass.

Also, as you are going to be outdoors and walking around, wear sensible footwear and clothing, and always tell someone where you’re going.

Don’t be put off by the fact this is using technology. You don’t need to be IT-savvy to get involved.

The final word of caution is that people get seriously hooked on this activity! You may find that once you’ve tried geocaching as a form of physical therapy and mental relaxation, you want to explore more, and more often!

It’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

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