Podcast Series: Wild and Wonderful Life Counseling

Gina Thorne: Hi everyone. Welcome to the Harmony Foundation Podcast Series and I’m pleased today to be joined with Aleya Littleton with Wild Wonderful Life out of Golden, Colorado. Welcome.

Aleya Littleton: Hi Gina. It’s nice to meet you.

Gina Thorne: I’m so glad that you came up to visit us here at Harmony. I mean we’re just really excited to share our program with you but, more importantly, we want to learn more about your resources and how you can be of service to not just Harmony clients but to those that are listening as well. Before we get into the specifics about your practice, let’s talk a little bit about you and what got you into the field of working in therapy and, particularly, adventure therapy.

Aleya Littleton: Well, that’s a great question. I actually invented adventure therapy, or at least I thought I did. I used to be a middle school science teacher and felt very overwhelmed in the classroom. I wasn’t really prepared to deal with all of the problems that these kids were bringing it in. And after taking a little bit of time off at that, I became involved in the climbing community. And as I was climbing, I found myself becoming more self-reliant, more confident, just that knowledge that I could take care of myself in spaces that we’re really not meant for humans. And then finding the support in the community. It changed my life. It helped me out of a very dark time, personally, and so I started thinking maybe I could use that to help others as well. And that’s when I started Googling. I was like, “Yeah, I could do this to help people,” and then it turns out there are actually master’s degree programs in adventure therapy. So I was a little bit bummed I wasn’t the originator but really glad to find that there was a supportive community already established for me.

Gina Thorne: Well, and it sounds like you were able to take the best of both worlds. A love of climbing and also giving back to the world and doing both of those together. I mean, it doesn’t feel like a job, Does it?

Aleya Littleton: It doesn’t. No, this is the most fun I’ve ever had.

Gina Thorne: That’s great. And you’ve come to the right place ’cause you’re not even from Colorado, right? So you came from Pennsylvania?

Aleya Littleton: Right. I’ve been here for seven years now. It’s just better.

Gina Thorne: Great climbing community here.

Aleya Littleton: Yes.

Gina Thorne: And I like your statement. It’s just better.

Aleya Littleton: Yeah. Colorado is just better.

Gina Thorne: Yeah, I have to agree with you about that. So you talked little bit about the adventure therapy piece of what you do but one of the things that I was intrigued by when I was doing some research about you is that you did a paper on rock climbing and treating PTSD in women. And so, tell me a little bit about that. What does that mean and what did you learn from that?

Aleya Littleton: Yeah. Well, the rock climbing and PTSD program, you know, again, it stemmed from my own personal experience and how much climbing helped. I think it’s important to maybe just take a step back and say that adventure therapy doesn’t have to be every extreme sport. Really, it’s the application of experience in therapy so a picture’s worth 1,000 words and experience is worth 1,000 pictures. So we make progress really quickly when you’re actually living out the things that you’re working on. And so, in that way, rock climbing becomes a metaphor for facing your fears, for empowerment, for reestablishing choice and control. For speaking up, just being able to say like, “Hey today’s not my day but I’m here.”

So in my research, what I really tried to do was pair trauma informed principles with adventure therapy principles. Taking rock climbing and making it something that is very friendly to people who are just beginning, all the way up to experts. And really working on techniques to manage anxiety in the body. To notice your perspective and how that affects your performance and what you’re able to do. Strategies for creating community. Yeah, I like working with the bio psycho social piece of like when you’re climbing, it’s very real. You need a partner. You need to make good decisions. So, in that way, it is so not hypothetical. It’s like we are here in the moment doing the absolute best that we can and we deal with things as they come. Yeah, I’ve been running that trauma informed women’s PTSD rock climbing program for the last three summers. This summer is going to start in July and have got a few spaces open still so if anybody’s listening–

Gina Thorne: How long is it?

Aleya Littleton: It’s eight weeks.

Gina Thorne: OK. OK.

Aleya Littleton: Yeah, it’s a closed group. We move through all together and it’s very skill-based because part of reclaiming your life after a traumatic event or years of trauma is like having confidence in yourself that you can keep yourself safe. You can make those good decisions. You can problem solve. So I end up teaching a lot of skills. We even get into some self rescue stuff.

Gina Thorne: And so, what does it look like then? So you do an exercise in a climbing technique and then after a period of time, you sit down and process it with them?

Aleya Littleton: Yeah. It’s a little bit of both. So we always start out with a mindfulness and group building exercise and then there’s climbing technique that is the theme. Before the group meets, I send out a quote as a thing to think about and kind of come and bring your own insights. That’s how we meet each other. So like what does this quote mean to you and how does that represent your life? And then we kind of view the entire session through that lens then. You know, be it a self rescue or like gear and anchors skill that they’re learning or particular climbing technique. They’re able to participate in it and then we kind of debrief as we go. And then, of course, there’s always a nice closing ceremony where we all say goodbye to each other and make plans to meet up again the next week.

Gina Thorne: Is it a cohort that continues to meet on a regular basis?

Aleya Littleton: Yes. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Gina Thorne: That’s great. So it sounds like a really amazing opportunity that allows people to not feel as uncomfortable in being in just a traditional group setting, but actually using their bodies as a way to be responsive to the situations that come up for them around their trauma, which is, I think, a lot of people are very uncomfortable in their bodies with trauma.

Aleya Littleton: It’s amazing. Just the simple prompt when somebody’s climbing, I’ll make the suggestion, “Why don’t you stand like a confident person would stand.” Like, “How do you adjust use your body to be like a confident person?” And just to see that transformation from being very unsure and uncertain on the rock to shifting their body and noticing how that changes their mindset as well. And then they’re able to go farther and do more or have the self-confidence to be like, “I think I’m done. I would actually like to come down now.” They can make an authentic choice then.

Gina Thorne: That’s fantastic. Well, so we’ve learned a little bit about your scope as far as what you do and I’m sure there’s probably so much more we could be discussing and we’re going to actually direct people to your website later so that if they want to learn more about the specific services, they can. But we always like to talk a little bit with individuals about who they are because it’s not just about the services, it’s about the person behind them. So I’m going to throw out a couple of questions to you, just to see what your thoughts are. So what book or books have you read or given as a gift why?

Aleya Littleton: Oh, goodness. I was thinking about this question since you gave it to me ahead of time. And I was a little reluctant to share my true answer because it is so nerdy.

Gina Thorne: That’s the best kind.

Aleya Littleton: This is where it totally comes out. So, my top three books. The first one is The Mindful Therapist by Dan Siegel. Actually, anything by him. He’s written a lot having to do with interpersonal neurobiology, which again, I think is very relevant to creating therapeutic experiences–

Gina Thorne: Is he the same one that’s done Positive Psychology, as well?

Aleya Littleton: I think he’s done a little bit with that as well. His interpersonal neurobiology, I think, is a term that he helped coin. So his books, The Whole Brain Child is amazing for parenting. Interpersonal Neurobiology and then The Mindful Therapist. And then for the more soulful side, I love The Four Agreements. That is absolutely one of my favorites and one that I give as a gift most often.

Gina Thorne: Yeah, and that actually … we use The Four Agreements pretty regularly at Harmony with our spiritual team.

Aleya Littleton: They are wonderful. And so tough.

Gina Thorne: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it’s non-threatening in many ways too because you’re not looking at just the religious nature of what you might’ve grown up with but really looking at a global scope of how to live your life spiritually, which is beautiful. Well I think those are great and not nerdy at all. So, that’s fantastic. If we were to play off the idea of harmony or the word harmony, what would you say if I asked you what it means to live a life in harmony?

Aleya Littleton: Well, my first inclination is to think about peace and happiness and, really, my own perspective has been shifting lately around the word happy in general. Shifting it to content. ‘Cause like the fastest way to become unhappy is to have somebody ask you if you are happy and then you start thinking about all the things that you’re missing. So, for me, harmony is really finding a place of just being content with what you have, with balance and gratitude. And, again, getting into a little bit more of the nerdy stuff. Like gratitude is such a powerful emotion to cultivate. It releases oxytocin in your system and that’s the feel-good generous hormone that we all need. But then also–

Gina Thorne: It puts new groves in the brain.

Aleya Littleton: It does. And your neuro pathways. Yeah. And then one of my favorite approaches to therapy is dialectical behavioral therapy or DBT. And that really focuses on that mindful finding of the middle path. So having harmony and contentedness between all aspects of your life through mindfulness and acceptance in that middle way.

Gina Thorne: Yeah, and just being present. Being present, wholly present. That’s wonderful. Well, thank you. That’s great, Aleya. So, if someone were listening today and they wanted to access services at Wonderful Life Services, how could they get in touch with you?

Aleya Littleton: Well, my web address, it’s got a ton of W’s so you kind of have to listen closely. It’s the three standard W’s at the beginning and then www.wwlcounseling.com. You can also just type in wild and wonderful life counseling all together and it’ll get you there. And my phone number is 708-740-0136. I suggest going to my website or leaving a voicemail and I’m pretty quick to get back, if not I’m not completely out of service, on top of the mountain somewhere.

Gina Thorne: Right, if you’re not climbing somewhere.

Aleya Littleton: Yes.

Gina Thorne: That’s great. Well thank you so much for taking the time, Aleya, it was a privilege to meet you and we look forward to working with you.

Aleya Littleton: Yeah, thank you so much, Gina.