There is a documented connection between addiction and mental health disorders. This is not to say all addicts have mental disorders or those experiencing behavioral health issues are substance abusers, but there is an overlapping of risk. Fortunately, certain therapies that work for mental health can also be effective in helping people manage their addictions. Nature exposure, also known as ecotherapy, is one area that alleviates stress and tendencies toward depression, and it can also help those in recovery.
Many of us feel better after spending some time in nature. Going for a walk on a nice day can improve even the dourest moods in addition to giving us physical vitality. People often “clear their minds” with some time outside. Even after a few thousand years of civilization, humans still have an innate connection with nature. This effect is called biophilia, or the close bond between people and their ecosystems.
This bond is the basis for ecotherapy, which uses exposure to nature as a path to alleviate depression. Proponents of these types of “therapies in nature” believe that disconnection from the natural world is a major cause of anxiety, depression, and other behavioral health concerns.
Connecting with Nature
There are countless ways to incorporate the outdoors in therapy. Some examples of effective activities include gardening, nature walks, and spending time with animals. Ecotherapists — the term for practitioners of this form of therapy — often prescribe 20 minutes of quiet contemplation outside, as an alternative to typical medical solutions. According to proponents of nature-based treatments, most people don’t spend enough time outdoors.
The stress and potential for depression that follows removal from nature open the door to substance abuse. Those with anxiety often seek to self-medicate through drugs or drinking. The pleasant effects of nature and exercise can be briefly replicated for some with a substance, but after you take a nature hike, your health and well-being are improved. When you take drugs, you run the risk of being dragged down deeper into depression and anxiety.
Some medical professionals believe the reason we feel better after spending time outdoors — less anxious, less depressed and less likely to turn to substances — is because exposure to nature calms us and quiets our nerves.
Call Upon Your Dog to Help You on Your Nature Quest
One especially effective way to encourage the kind of outdoor activity that staves off relapse during recovery is walking a dog. From a leisurely stroll around the block to a strenuous mountain hike, outdoor activity with your dog amplifies the individual benefits of nature exposure and interaction with animals. If you live in an area with a beach, there are often early morning hours where dogs are permitted to enjoy the sand. Taking advantage of the natural areas in and around your town helps you and provides necessary exercise to your dog.
Incorporating your dog into your recovery plans provides the following benefits:
Positive social interaction. Dog owners have the opportunity to meet and chat with others during their walks. Human socializing at dog parks, for example, is often more fruitful than the canine friendships.
Purposefulness. Caring for another provides purpose, which requires sobriety and sticking to a plan.
Fighting isolation. A dog is a companion, so owners have fewer feelings of loneliness.
While nature may not be a cure for substance abuse, outdoor exercise by oneself, with a group or with a dog, can help people manage their addiction. Nature’s calming effects, as well as the physical fitness gained from being outdoors, strengthens the ability to stay clean.
Guest Contibutor: Michelle Peterson
Michelle Peterson 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.