By Lori Ryland, Ph.D., LP, BCBA-D, CAADC, CCS-M, Chief Clinical Officer, Pinnacle Treatment Centers
Being in nature can be therapeutic.
Green time and blue time can lead to improvements in attention, memory, and mood as well as reductions in stress and the risk of psychiatric disorders, type II diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
You’ve probably heard of green time. It’s like the opposite of screen time. Green time, simply put, is spending time in nature. It’s a natural counter to the time most adults – and kids and teens too – spend seated in front of a computer every day.
You may not have heard of blue time, though. Blue time, in its most basic form, is spending time near water. It’s different than the recent trend among young adults and teens who use the term blue time to describe times when they’re sad and depressed. Blue time, in this context, implies the opposite. It’s time spent doing things that support overall health and wellbeing. It’s also a term used to describe the set of lifestyle behaviors common to people who live in Blue Zones.
You can read more about Blue Zones here and here. You can also check our blog for posts on basic stress reduction techniques, like exercise, meditation, and getting out in nature. Please have a look at these titles to see what we’ve already published on the topic:
Read those first to get an idea of how we understand the role of exercise and nature in recovery, or you read on. We’ll cover everything you need to know in the paragraphs that follow.
Stress Reduction and Relapse Prevention: How to Use Green Time
This article presents the essential details about green time and discusses how you can use green time as a tool for self-care during recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
We’ll dedicate a second article to Blue Time. Keep your eyes on this blog for that one: it’s on its way.
Now, about green time, recovery, and stress reduction. Most people in recovery know how important it is to have an array of stress reduction and self-care tools at the ready. They help make life after treatment manageable.
In fact, almost everyone who participates in an evidence-based residential treatment program for addiction spends significant time during treatment learning what type of stress-management techniques work best for them. Their counselors and therapists tell them excess stress can lead to patterns of emotion, thought, and behavior that increase risk of relapse – and they’re right.
That’s why stress reduction is critical: it reduces likelihood of relapse.
That’s also why – if you’re in recovery – we recommend taking advantage of any chance you get to add green time or blue time to your daily routine.
Let’ ‘s review the reasoning behind this, so we’re all on the same page. It’s fundamental logic:
- Mental health experts say spending time in nature reduces stress
- Addiction experts say excess stress can increase the likelihood of relapse
- Therefore, being in nature can reduce the likelihood of relapse
Of course, avoiding relapse takes more than spending time in nature and/or spending time near water. It takes a solid aftercare plan. The stress-reducing benefits of green time and blue time mean they both make great sober-friendly activities that support recovery – and solid aspects of any aftercare plan. But there’s no one answer to how to avoid relapse. Everyone in recovery knows relapse prevention involves a multi-faceted approach.
We think two parts of that approach can be green time and blue time. We’ll talk about green time first. There’s a new practice from Japan that makes for ideal green time: forest bathing.
What is Forest Bathing?
Forest bathing is a gentle, mindful experience in nature. It’s not actual bathing, and it doesn’t have to be done in a forest. The primary goal isn’t exercise, so you don’t have to hike or do high-intensity outdoor activities.
Instead, forest bathing involves immersing yourself in any form of nature, whether it’s a park, a forest, or trail, and using your senses. A few examples of forest bathing include:
- Feeling the leaves beneath your feet as you walk through the woods
- Sitting on a quiet park bench in a small park listening to the sounds of the birds
- Walking along any trail or path away from concretes, steel, cars, and traffic – without a specific destination in mind
Based on those, you can imagine dozens of simple activities that qualify as forest bathing. The best part of forest-bathing is that you can adapt it to your immediate surroundings and needs.
A Different Kind of Nature Experience
The practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, began in Japan in the early 1990s. Sometimes the practice is facilitated by a certified forest therapy guide. Forest therapy guides invite participants to engage in sensory connection during their nature experience. Guided forest therapy sessions typically follow a set sequence:
- Participants observe their surroundings and consciously focus on the present moment.
- Guides offer invitations to connect, based on what’s happening around them and the needs of the participants.
- Participants take time to wander or sit quietly.
- The group shares in a ceremony of drinking tea.
Forest therapy guides are trained in trail awareness and safety, group process skills, and somatic techniques that promote sensory awareness. When you engage in forest bathing for recovery, you can imagine how your counselors and therapists from your time in treatment might have processed the forest bathing experience: use those experiences to inform your personal approach to forest bathing.
Starting a Forest Bathing Practice of Your Own
You don’t need a professional forest-bathing guide to start. As we imply above, you can try forest bathing on your own. We recommend about an hour for your first session. Over time, increase the duration of your practice to two to four hours. During that time, don’t go far: if you’re walking, we recommend walking quietly and mindfully for about a quarter mile. Here are a few tips to make the most of a forest bathing practice:
- Slow down.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Observe what’s around you.
- Focus on what your senses are taking in – the smell of the trees, the song of chirping birds, the texture of the sand or leaves.
- Set aside your cell phone and other distractions, so you can relax and let your mind wander.
For additional benefits, consider journaling about your experience. Journaling is easy, portable, and comes with a host of benefits for memory, communication, mindfulness, sleep, physical health, and even IQ. You could write about the thoughts and feelings that came up during the experience, or document what you saw, tasted, smelled, and felt. This can help you track how forest bathing affects you.
Forest bathing is a practice you cultivate over time. Experts recommend setting aside 20 minutes a day to start. Research ties spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature to improved health and well-being. If you can’t commit that much time, there are benefits to getting outdoors as often as you can.
Benefits of Forest Therapy
Most people report that they look forward to forest bathing, and some describe the experience as healing or profound. Studies show forest therapy has several health benefits, including:
- Lowers blood pressure and heart rate
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Boosts immunity
- Lowers stress hormones like cortisol
- Reduces anger, fatigue, and confusion
- Improves mood
Forest bathing is easy and cost-effective. If you don’t have a nature area near you, a trip to a city park can boost your sense of well-being too. The benefits of forest bathing go beyond the well-known benefits of exercise. Walking around the neighborhood or city is good exercise, but research shows walking in nature is more effective at reducing blood pressure and stress hormones.
Less Stress: Better Recovery
Stress has become a central feature in most of our lives. It can contribute to a variety of physical and mental illnesses, including headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and addiction. We know there are times during any recovery journey when you feel lonely and disconnected. A forest bathing practice can help you stay connected to the parts of your life that keep you grounded and make you happy: that’s why we recommend it as a top-line recovery activity.