The writer Robert Heinlein said, “Animals can be driven crazy by placing too many in too small a pen. Homo sapiens is the only animal that voluntarily does this to himself.” Our modern world specializes in cramming each of us into uninteresting little concrete boxes where we lack sunlight, fresh air and social connection that doesn’t come through a smartphone. Spending time outdoors has become low on the priorities list.
As a result, the only green space in our lives is the lawn we have to mow. But studies show that spending time outdoors can improve health, happiness and quality of life. For people struggling with addiction and physical or mental illness, it can even be a powerful therapeutic resource.
Wellness Through Wilderness
Urban city dwellers without access to city parks and gardens have negative health outcomes when compared to people who live in areas where spending time outdoors is possible. They get sick more often, take longer to recover and die at a younger age. We did not evolve indoors. Simply spending time outdoors in a natural environment with lush plants and flowing water lowers blood pressure and combats the effects of stress. It boosts the performance of our immune systems and improves our mood and concentration. This effect is so powerful that even just the sight and sounds of nature in the form of pictures and audio recordings has been demonstrated to be beneficial to the nervous system and promote healing after surgery. Just 20 minutes a day out in the woods significantly raises your energy levels.
A drug or alcohol addiction is a physical and emotional trauma. By the time the patient seeks help, they have usually done serious damage to their bodies and minds. They may have lost jobs, homes and emotional connections. Their habit will have endangered their health and maybe even their sanity. For this reason, a holistic approach to recovery, including spending time outdoors with nature, is encouraged.
It is not enough to remove the dependency. Instead, a good treatment program should address the whole person and focus on healing the damage. Incorporating new therapies such as wilderness activities into more traditional approaches such as talk therapy, exercise and nutritional regimes improves their efficacy. Therapeutic wilderness programs encourage spending time outdoors in a team setting to learn to trust and develop feelings of self-worth and self-sufficiency.
Support Your Sobriety
Maintaining sobriety is always a challenge because life itself is stressful. Our response may be to fall back into old, unproductive patterns. Manage your stressors, learn to relax and practice the coping skills you learned in recovery. Spending time outdoors for some exercise in the woods can be a productive way of relieving stress and handling triggers. If you know you’re going to be in a stressful situation, you can do a little preemptive forest therapy with a walk in the woods, or a bit of therapeutic aftercare by meditating by a stream.
Avoiding relapse means building a life you don’t want to run away from. Instead, focus on your recovery by creating connections and meaning in your life. Friends, family and pets are all sources of warmth and companionship that help meet our emotional needs. Activities, hobbies, and interests give us a sense of purpose. Exploit the healing properties of nature by spending time outdoors. You might, for instance bring a friend or pet along to climb rocks or birdwatch in the wilderness.
Addiction is a disease caused by genetic, behavioral and environmental factors. Why shouldn’t we treat it with medical, behavioral and environmental therapies? Just as we worry about the quality of our air, water and food, we should be pay attention to the way in which we live our lives and where we spend our time and focus our energies. Spending time outdoors can be a powerful tool for healing our bodies and lifting our spirits.
Michelle Peterson has been in recovery for several years. She started RecoveryPride.org to help eliminate the stigma placed on those who struggle with addiction. The site emphasizes that the journey to sobriety should not be one of shame but of pride and offers stories, victories, and other information to give hope and help to those in recovery.