Recovery from substance use is about far more than just abstaining from drugs and/or alcohol. It requires a commitment to living in a way that makes you feel more connected and fulfilled. Seeking out adventures and new experiences, as well as taking care of yourself on the mental, physical, and spiritual levels are necessary parts of recovery. Conveniently, there is an activity that can facilitate all of those aims at once: spending time in nature. Whether you decide to hike the Appalachian Trail or just take a walk in your local park, spending more time in a natural setting is one of the best things you can do for your recovery. Here’s why.
Possibly the biggest benefit nature has for someone recovering from addiction is the profound effect it has on mental health. About half of adults and more than 60 percent of adolescents with substance use issues also have a co-occurring mental health issue, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since substance use and mental illness each make the other worse, it’s crucial to treat both of these issues simultaneously. Looking after your mental health has to be a priority if you want your recovery to last.
A number of studies have found that spending time in nature is good for your mental health. One remarkable study made use of Denmark’s public health system, which tracks the health needs of its citizens from birth. Because of this system, researchers were able to analyze data from more than 900,000 people–everyone born in Denmark between 1985 and 2003. They used satellite images to determine which citizens lived near green areas and examined whether proximity to green areas correlated with the risk of 16 different mental health issues. The issues of interest included alcohol and drug use disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, as well as a number of other mental health issues that frequently co-occur with addiction.
The researchers were surprised to find that living near green spaces reduced the risk of 14 of the 16 mental health issues they looked at. It turned out that the risk of someone developing a mental health issue was between 15 and 55 percent higher–depending on the specific issue–for people who grew up with the least access to green space. Researchers have speculated about a number of reasons why green space might promote mental health, most of which have to do with the stress-reducing effects of nature.
Stress reduction is thought to be at the center of the mechanism by which nature reduces mental health issues. Numerous studies have also linked stress to increased risk for physical health issues, including obesity and cardiovascular disease. Stress is a particular concern for anyone recovering from a substance use issue because most people identify stress as a major trigger for cravings.
Numerous studies have linked spending time in nature to lower stress and better mood. In one recent study, researchers asked participants to spend at least 10 minutes in whatever they considered to be a natural setting at least three times a week for eight weeks. Every two weeks during the study, the researchers measured the participants’ levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Participants were instructed not to exercise or look at their phones, just to walk or sit in nature. The study found that spending just 20 minutes in nature was enough to lower cortisol levels. Spending between 20 and 30 minutes in a natural setting produced optimal results. After 30 minutes, cortisol levels continued to fall, but not as quickly.
Researchers from Stanford led yet another study, finding that walking in a natural environment is associated with less rumination, or the tendency to fixate on negative emotions. In this study, participants were either asked to walk for 90 minutes in a local park with trees and other greenery, or they were asked to walk for 90 minutes along a busy street. Participants were given various tests, including brain scans, before and after their walks. It turned out that participants who walked in the park had less activity in an area of the prefrontal cortex associated with rumination. Being less prone to dwelling on negative emotions may be one way in which nature protects us from stress and anxiety and their resulting mental health issues.
Experiencing something vast that our minds can’t quite encompass is awe-inspiring. Most of us have experienced awe at some point in our lives, whether it was from walking into a cathedral, witnessing a lightning strike, or flying on a plane for the first time. Experiences like these, that inspire that feeling of wonder, are actually better for us than we might realize. Numerous studies have found that experiences of awe can promote prosocial behaviors, such as greater generosity, more ethical behavior, a reduced sense of entitlement and a greater tendency towards mutual helping.
Experiencing Awe Changes Your Perception
This likely happens because experiencing awe changes your perception of self in the larger context of the world. For example, it’s hard to feel terribly important while standing in the heart of Notre-Dame or at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The span of a single life becomes insignificant. Shifts in perspective like these promote an open mind and an ability to see life from a birds-eye view, increasing consideration, and understanding of others.
Nature Increases Your Exposure to Feelings of Awe
Spending more time in nature increases your exposure to feelings of awe. Redwoods, mountains, thunderstorms, sunsets, deserts, and oceans can all be awe-inspiring. This is good for your recovery because these feelings of awe expand your sense of self and can help you connect with others. A strong sober network is one of the most important parts of a strong recovery from addiction, as it provides a sense of belonging and accountability. The more awe you experience, the more you are likely to behave in prosocial ways and the stronger your sober network will become as a result.
Spending time in nature is therapeutic. Additionally, getting yourself into a natural setting is easy. Going to the extremes of hiking mountains or camping for weeks isn’t necessary, although these are great options if you’re open to them. However, even a short walk in the park can have significant health benefits. Making nature a regular part of life can reduce stress, improve mental health, and increase connection and overall fulfillment. At Steps Recovery Centers, we know that recovery is about creating a more meaningful life. Our goal is to offer support to all of our clients for as long as they may need it. If you’re interested in more information about our alumni services, give us a call at 385-236-0931.