Most people who’ve spent time outdoors may notice their spirits lift after a hike in the woods or a brisk walk on a sunny day. But is nature powerful enough to help people recover from addiction and mental health issues? Science and ecopsychology experts would argue yes.
Nature Soothes the Troubled Soul
It’s no mistake that some of the leading drug and alcohol rehabs are set on beaches, cascading mountains and sprawling green, tree-lined acres. Research has shown time and time again that even short stints in nature can decrease stress and calm the mind. Waking up to an inspiring view of the outdoors is much more comforting than one of a cement city, especially for people overcoming drug and alcohol dependence. Ecopsychology draws upon ecological and psychological principles to enhance the healing connection between humans and nature. Ben Fox, LMHC, private practitioner, draws heavily on ecopsychological expressive art therapy in his work with clients suffering from addiction, trauma, loss, depression, abuse and anxiety. As a former program director for a methadone clinic for almost a decade he witnessed nature’s ability to help addicts first hand. “Studies show what is called a ‘peak experience’ when people feel most at rest and connected to themselves in the larger world while they are viewing something in nature,” says Fox. He says when clients in the clinic were taken to natural settings, their minds seemed to balance. Their troubles didn’t go away, but they were able to let go for a bit, regulate their emotions and slow their minds. “Big things don’t always happen the first time,” says Fox, “but they can happen if that doorway [to nature] is open.”
Nature Supports Mental Health
Studies have shown that people experience fewer depressive symptoms after engaging in outdoor activities. Many people with addictions suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. They may unknowingly abuse alcohol and drugs in an attempt to self-medicate undiagnosed or underdiagnosed mental illnesses. These underlying issues that fuel addiction must be addressed for the best chances of long-term sobriety. Mental illnesses like depression can often cause “tunnel vision.” People are so distressed by their challenges that it’s hard to see beyond their current struggles. Dr. Ginny Anderson has 35 years of experience in ecopsychology and is the author of the award-winning book, Circling San Francisco Bay: A Pilgrimage to Wild and Sacred Places. Here’s one reason Anderson says nature may ease mental illness and addiction: “When we’re in distress in our lives, it’s sometimes hard to get out of our own heads,” she says. “But the beauty of nature supports that process. In nature, we can take advantage of a broader perspective than the narrowed horizons that loom when we’re distressed.”
Nature Connects Us to Something Bigger
Addiction is isolating. Drugs and alcohol are top priority. Addicts become disconnected from others and themselves. Nature reminds us that we are part of a larger existence and connected in a way that transcends words. “It [nature] helps you realize that you are part of a bigger picture, a bigger process going on, than just what’s happening in your individual life,” says Dr. Anderson. She explains that exercises in intention can help a person experience this. For example, she may ask clients to shape their intention around what they want to experience during a walk or hike. This helps them open up to how nature “communicates” with them and vice versa. Fox explains the innate connection humans feel to nature by the environment’s long history of sustaining us. Beyond just food, humans have incorporated healing aspects of nature for thousands of years, such as those used in indigenous medicine healing systems. “We can balance ourselves with the environment and the problems we are going through,” says Fox. He says this can be a nurturing, reciprocal relationship because if we don’t pay attention to and sustain our environment, it will eventually hurt us. Fox notes works such as A Sand County Almanac, a pivotal environmental ethics book in the nature conservation movement. It posits that humans must have mutual respect for the Earth. With this philosophy, reconnecting with the Earth can provide a sense of a greater purpose for addicts. They may feel a need to take care of the Earth, similar to how they would nurture or care for a pet to promote its survival.
Nature Teaches Coping Skills
In order to maintain sobriety, addicts need to learn healthy coping skills to replace destructive behaviors. Mindfulness and meditation are techniques taught at many addiction treatment centers as critical coping skills for addicts. Those in recovery who are taking their sobriety a day at a time, an hour at a time, or even a moment at a time can benefit from activities that ground them in the present moment. Research shows engaging with nature can support mindfulness by decreasing ruminations and slowing the mind. Dr. Anderson gives an example of how mindfulness can be incorporated into nature: “Being in nature, we can connect with the very basics — the wind in the trees is the same air that circulates everywhere, including the breath in the body,” she says. “So inspired by the movement of the branches, the leaves themselves, we can pay attention to breath in the body.”
Nature Provides Natural “Highs”
The “natural high” of healthy outdoor experiences can help replace destructive behaviors like alcohol and drug abuse. Outdoor adventure therapies such as a ropes course or ziplining encourage feelings of exhilaration, accomplishment and trust without substances or self-defeating patterns. Other outdoor activities like equine therapy or Native American healing traditions such as drum circles or walking a labyrinth can encourage spiritual connections with the self and others. Research has even found that exposure to a microbe found in soil may boost the immune system and stimulate serotonin production, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter in the brain.
Nature: Medicine Accessible to Everyone
Nature’s offerings are free, and available to anyone. “There are many ways to develop relationships and receive the blessings and teachings of nature,” says Dr. Anderson. For example, she helps people explore mortality through the life cycles of plants and butterflies. She also helps people relax in a way that frees the imagination through exercises such as finding a stone that has an unusual shape or unusual markings and using it to meditate. Fox encourages clients to try to squeeze nature into their everyday lives in whatever way they can. Pull over on the ride home and look at the river. View a photo of nature and journal about it if you can’t go outside. Find a happy, restful image and just sit and stare at it as a jumping off point for meditation. “Pay attention to the smells and textures of the outdoors,” he says. While nature alone may not “cure” addiction, it certainly possesses a transformative quality that can provide immense benefits in a person’s recovery journey.