While the idea of nature being a healing force is nothing new, recent research suggests that the presence of nature has a much more profound effect on our mental health than we previously realized. Being in nature may even be the key to helping people with drug and alcohol problems achieve lasting recovery.
Studies on outdoor exposure therapy have shown that people with post-traumatic stress (PTS) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are likely to see a significant improvement in their symptoms. Given that the presence of trauma often causes or co-occurs with substance abuse, the wider adoption of outdoor and nature therapy may be a game-changer in addiction treatment.
Even before these recent studies, outdoor and nature therapy had already been widely employed by drug treatment and rehab programs. Some rehab centers in Dallas, for example, make it a point for some therapy sessions to take place outdoors or in green spaces when the weather permits. Outdoor therapy has also been successfully utilized to treat other mental health conditions that regularly co-occur with substance use disorder.
Below are some of the more compelling benefits of a more outdoor-oriented approach to addiction treatment.
1.) Exposure to nature can reduce patient stress
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, despite our thoroughly modern way of life, we are at our best and truest selves when we’re out in nature. Writers throughout the ages have written countless odes to the beauty of nature and to the joys of being in it. We tend to feel calmer and happier when we’re close to wilderness or at the beach.
It’s not just something some of us feel on a surface level either. Numerous studies have shown that we tend to be less likely to be anxious and depressed when we have access to nature and green spaces. Architects and urban planners often incorporate parks, gardens, artificial lakes, and other features that recall nature to make spaces more “livable”.
This all has serious implications for people with drug and alcohol use disorders. Individuals with these conditions often find it hard to regulate their emotions, which can complicate their continued recovery. Most also have trouble relaxing, particularly during and shortly after withdrawals, when cravings remain especially strong. Being in a stressful urban or indoor environment can only serve to exacerbate their stress.
Moving these individuals periodically to natural environments or at least parks and gardens can help with relaxation, reducing anxiety symptoms associated with continued substance misuse. This can also give an improved sense of well-being, which, when combined with other mainstream therapies, can serve to improve their commitment to recovery.
2.) Nature therapy is affordable and easy to implement
Depending on where the rehab facilities are located, the cost of implementation can be anywhere from low to negligible. This has made nature therapy especially interesting for facilities that need to stretch every dollar they get. It’s also an affordable and easy way for recovering individuals to supplement their regular therapy, even after they’ve completed rehab.
Another reason so many rehabs are now interested in nature therapy is that implementing it couldn’t be easier. For instance, group therapy can be moved from closed rooms to parks or around a campfire. Meditation and mindfulness sessions could be done in a garden rather than in a stuffy studio. Rather than doing daily exercise sessions in a closed gym, it can be done in an open-air facility or on a nature trail.
3.) Being outdoors may help with emotional resilience
Emotional resilience is a person’s ability to continue with life as normal after experiencing trauma. This quality is often impaired in people with drug or alcohol problems, leading them to develop maladaptive coping patterns.
While it won’t be replacing psychotherapy just yet, there is evidence that regular exposure to nature can build emotional resilience in both children and adults.
The main hypothesis on why nature exposure helps this is that being able to do productive things out in the elements can help build a feeling of being in control. As trauma is closely linked with substance misuse, outdoor therapy may help ensure that recovering individuals have healthier coping mechanisms, even after completing rehab.
Given the massive scale of the drug epidemic and the continual lack of public funding for mental health, the idea of exposure to nature being key to addiction treatment is certainly a compelling one. However, in the context of addiction treatment, it should be understood that nature and outdoor therapy are not substitutes for medication-assisted therapy and psychotherapy.
However, nature exposure does have immense potential as a supplemental therapy, given that it’s easy to implement and has almost no negative side effects. If you’re wondering what else could be done to improve recovery from trauma-induced addiction, doing your usual therapy outside is well worth a try.
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