A strong recovery from addiction isn’t just about abstinence, but about creating a fulfilling life without drugs and alcohol. Medical detox, intensive treatment, and transitional services are a great start to recovery, but staying sober long-term requires consistent effort and healthy lifestyle changes. For example, it’s important to create a strong sober network of people who can support you and keep you on track when things get tough. It’s also important to adopt healthy habits like regular exercise, healthy eating, and getting plenty of sleep. Another healthy habit to adopt is spending more time in nature. More and more research is finding that even spending a few minutes a day in natural settings can significantly improve your physical and mental health. If you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, here are some reasons to make a walk in the park part of your daily routine.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of adults and more than 60 percent of adolescents with substance use disorders also have a co-occurring mental health issue. Major depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health issues in the US and both significantly increase your risk of addiction. A strong recovery entails making consistent efforts to manage these issues.
More and more research is finding that spending time in nature can make this task much easier. For example, a large Danish study examined data from more than 900,000 people who were tracked through the country’s national health system. They used satellite data to determine who had the most access to green spaces and who had the least and compared this to each person’s mental health history. They expected to find that the people who grew up surrounded by more green space would have fewer cases of anxiety and depression. They did, in fact, find this to be true, but they were surprised that people who grew up around green spaces had a lower risk for all 16 mental health issues they examined. When they controlled for income (on the assumption that wealthier families could afford to live in greener areas), they still found that living near green space reduced the risk of 14 of the 16 mental health issues they looked at. The effect wasn’t small either; the people who had the least access to green space had 55 percent greater risk of developing a psychiatric disorder.
We aren’t sure why nature has such a positive effect on mental health. Several studies point to reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. However, that leaves many questions unanswered. For example, why is it less stressful to be in an environment where you might be attacked by a mountain lion than in an environment where you might be hit by a car? Research from Stanford suggests at least one intermediate step. Researchers had participants walk for 90 minutes in either a natural setting or along a busy four-lane street, then conducted various tests, including brain scans. The main difference the researchers found was that the participants who had walked in nature had reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with rumination. Rumination is when you get stuck in a rut of repetitive negative thoughts and it’s a common characteristic of depression and anxiety.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health in general, and there’s even evidence to suggest it can specifically reduce your risk of relapse. However, for many people, exercise is a chore. This is especially true for people experiencing the emotional vicissitudes of early addiction recovery. If it’s all you can do to get out of bed and go to your 12-Step meeting, how can you spend 30 minutes on a treadmill or whatever kind of exercise you feel like you should be doing? Fortunately, research shows that spending as little as 20 minutes a day in a natural setting can significantly improve your mental and physical health. You don’t have to go hiking in Yosemite to get this benefit; walking in the park is probably enough.
Exercising in a natural setting further boosts the mental health benefits of exercise, while making exercise more enjoyable, or at least less of a chore. Exercise in nature also tends to promote aerobic activity, which studies have shown are best for mood and relapse prevention. Since nature isn’t uniform, being active in nature promotes a variety of movements and exertion levels, as you walk up and down hills or cross a stream, for example. And instead of breathing the recycled, carbon-heavy air of indoor environments, exercising outside in nature exposes you to fresh air and sunlight.
Finally, spending time in nature can increase experiences of awe, which several studies have shown increases feelings of greater meaning and prosocial behavior. Studies have shown, for example, that people who have recently had an experience of awe are more likely to donate to charity, help others, and refrain from attacking others. The hypothesis is that an awe-inspiring experience, such as standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or watching a thunderstorm roll in over the plain forces you to reevaluate your place in the world, diminishing your sense of your own importance. This can be a valuable contribution to addiction recovery, since prosocial behavior and a greater sense of meaning have long been known to be crucial factors in a successful recovery.
If you have a loved one who is struggling with addiction, Hired Power and our team of dynamic, experienced recovery professionals are here to guide you every step of the way. We offer many services, including helping you choose the best treatment program and transitional services, including interventions, sober monitoring, and personal recovery assistants. Call us today for information on our recovery services: 714-559-3919.
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