There’s no question that exposure to the natural environment is healthy, and that spending time in the great outdoors helps us reconnect to the world around us. For people in recovery from addiction, the benefits are tremendous.
Some people enjoy hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, or zip-lining, but you don’t need a formal program or expensive gear to benefit from all that nature has to offer.
A peaceful stroll through a natural area works magic, or you can take a drive through mountains, lakes, hills, fields, deserts, or other scenic areas near your home.
Numerous research studies confirm what most of us already know: spending time surrounded by the natural world helps us feel better and provides some intriguing benefits.
The Vitamin D Connection: The Sunshine Vitamin
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient, but it’s also a hormone our bodies release in response to sunlight. Vitamin D is in short supply when days are dark and gloomy, which is a particular problem for people living in northern climates, or who spend a lot of time indoors.
A simple blood test easily determines your level of Vitamin D. If your level is low, increasing your intake can make a huge difference in the way you feel, especially if your health has been negatively affected by months or years of poor self-care and addiction. Low levels of Vitamin D may increase the risk of relapse.
Nature and Connection with Others
Researchers at the University of Illinois found that residents of Chicago’s public housing were more connected with other people if trees and green spaces surrounded the housing development.
People exposed to nature expressed greater willingness to help and support others and enjoyed an improved sense of belonging. Illegal activities and violence were decreased, even amidst poverty and hardship.
Depression and Anxiety During Recovery
It’s common for people in treatment to work through a substantial grieving process associated with giving up old friends and familiar places. Depression and anxiety aren’t uncommon during treatment for addiction, and can also occur after treatment ends.
If you tend to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, spending time in nature may be a good replacement and can minimize dangerous triggers. Even short stints in nature can calm a troubled mind and promote a good night’s sleep.
Nature may even offer feelings of natural euphoria that you can’t achieve through the use of drugs and alcohol. Harvard Medical School suggests that focusing on nature can distract you from negative thinking, and may even lower blood pressure.
Many treatment professionals believe boredom is the enemy of the recovering addict and can act as a trigger for potential relapse. It isn’t easy to fill the hours you previously dedicated to getting or using drugs or alcohol, or that you spent being drunk or high.
Spending time in nature is a good use of time while you’re readjusting to life without substances. Even a simple change of scenery can be a positive thing for people in recovery.
A New Perspective and Healthier Coping Skills
When we spend time in nature, we get out of our own heads for a short time. We remember that the world is larger than us, and that can put our worries and stress in perspective.
As we escape from all the hustle, bustle, and noise, we have an opportunity to think clearly and to reflect on all that life has to offer. Our troubles no longer seem all-encompassing, and it becomes possible to take life one day at a time.
Exercising in Nature
The benefits of regular exercise are well documented, especially for those of who lead a sedentary lifestyle. Harvard Medical School recommends exercising 20 to 30 minutes outdoors for at least three days every week. If that’s not possible, make it a point to get out a few hours every weekend.
Exercise increases the release of hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. We experience a substance-free sense of pleasure and enjoyment, and build the strength and stamina we need to sustain us through the recovery process.
It isn’t necessary to build up a sweat. Low-impact, gentle exercise is fine if you haven’t exercised for a while. Walk through a nearby park or around your neighborhood. Visit a state or national park or nature preserve in your area if you can.
Journaling: Writing About Nature
Many people find it helpful to write about their experiences with nature. How did you feel before, during and after your experience? What animals or birds did you see? What sounds did you hear?
John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club, used writing to share his love of nature with others. He not only wrote about the beauty he witnessed, but included sketches as well. To this day, readers appreciate his writing for his insight into the benefits of spending time in nature.
You don’t need to be a great writer or naturalist like John Muir. Also, you shouldn’t worry if the idea seems foreign to you. Just jump in and write. You aren’t required to share your work, and no one will grade your grammar or spelling.
If you enjoy reading about nature, it may help to read the work of writers such as Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Barry Lopez, or Annie Dillard.
The Joy of Gardening
Gardening is one of the best ways to enjoy nature. As you tend plants, be they edible or ornamental, you have time to watch life unfold. You experience the changing of the seasons firsthand.
Research indicates that microbes in the soil may boost the immune system and trigger the release of serotonin.
If you don’t have space for a garden, put a couple of plants on your front step or balcony, or start an indoor herb garden
If you like the idea of growing vegetables, look for a community garden in your area. Community gardens are a great way to meet other people, help your community, and interact with nature.
Integrating Nature into Your Life
If you can’t spend a lot of time outdoors, or if wilderness areas aren’t available, even sitting in your backyard can help restore a sense of wellbeing. Too cold and miserable outside? Pull up a chair in front of a window.
Although getting out in the fresh air is best, listening to natural sounds such as rainfall or ocean waves can soothe and comfort you during tough times.