Nature Therapy for Treating Addiction
When most people think about addiction treatment programs, they don’t automatically think of nature therapy. Often picturing detox programs, prescription medication administration such as methadone, or attending 12-step programs, many people don’t recognize that a comprehensive drug or alcohol addiction rehab treatment program uses a carefully tailored combination of treatments and therapies designed to improve likely outcomes.
Nature therapy, sometimes known as ecotherapy, provides people in recovery with a natural way to manage symptoms that can continue to be used long after leaving rehab.
What Is Nature Therapy?
Nature therapy involves getting outdoors and enjoying being out in nature. It doesn’t matter whether you’re actively getting physical exercise, such as walking, hiking, jogging or cycling in nature, or whether your actively getting involved with nature through gardening, sitting on the lawn and enjoying a picnic, watching a beautiful sunset, or just relaxing on a park bench and revelling in quiet reflection time by a lake or near a pond.
In effect, nature therapy is all about interacting with nature in some way.
When is Nature Therapy Introduced During Rehab?
The first step in any intensive addiction treatment program is the detox process. Detox simply eliminates the effects of the drug from the body and begins to break the body’s physical dependency on the substance of abuse. Detox can also begin reducing a person’s tolerance levels to the drug.
However, detoxing does nothing to address the underlying psychological reasons or triggers behind addictive behaviors. To improve the chances of making a successful recovery and remaining abstinent over the long term, it’s also important to treat the psychological side of the addiction.
Specialists who treat addiction will integrate a range of specialized therapies, counseling sessions, and alternative therapies into a comprehensive addiction treatment program.
Counseling begins to help people in recovery identify and recognize addiction triggers, before working to develop a strong relapse prevention strategy. Group support sessions work to provide peer support and motivation to remain sober and to reduce feelings of isolation.
Throughout rehab, each person in recovery is also encouraged to participate in a range of alternative or holistic therapies. Alternative therapies provide natural, healthy ways to manage cravings and reduce the more severe symptoms of withdrawal that could increase the risk of relapse. It is typically during alternative therapy sessions that natural therapy is provided as a choice of activities.
Does Nature Therapy Work?
Research conducted at the University of Essex discovered that people participating in nature therapy experienced a 94% improvement in depression symptoms.4 The research studied depression scores in people who got out and walked in nature and compared the effects with people who walked in a shopping mall.
The results showed that 71% of people who walked in nature experienced reduced depression scores. By comparison, 22% of the shopping mall walkers reported feeling more depressed.
A different study conducted at the Deakin University in Australia found that people experienced a significant reduction in depression symptoms when they participated in environmentally-based projects, such as gardening, weeding, or planting seedlings.5 The studies indicated that people achieved positive emotional states and behaviors during time spent in natural settings.
Why Is Nature Therapy Needed in Addiction Treatment?
During the addiction recovery process, it’s common for many people in recovery to experience symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that antidepressant medications are America’s third most commonly prescribed prescription drug.1 While it’s possible to prescribe antidepressant medications to people recovering from addiction, it’s also important to note that these drugs can also cause a range of unpleasant side effects, including muscle spasms, nausea, dizziness and lightheadedness, insomnia and sleep disturbances, lethargy and fatigue, and loss of appetite.
Studies also show that uncontrolled stress can be a major risk factor in the development of addiction and in relapse.2 It’s also common for most people in early recovery to experience overwhelming feelings of stress.
When a person experiences stress, the body releases a flood of cortisol into the system. Cortisol is normally released by the adrenal glands and creates a ‘fight or flight’ instinct when facing stressful situations.
It’s normal for everyone to experience stressful moments and situations in daily life. However, if stress levels are not managed properly and cortisol levels spiral out of control, it can cause a range of symptoms including high blood pressure, loss of emotional control, fatigue, frustration, irritability and anxiety.
Relieving the Stressors
Studies conducted by the University of Liverpool show that people with higher levels of cortisol in their systems are more susceptible to alcoholism and drug addiction. 3 People with high cortisol levels are also more likely to relapse after a period of abstinence.
In order to reduce the risk of relapsing back into former self-destructive patterns of behavior, it’s valuable to explore various ways to reduce stress and find effective ways to manage stress responses.
A natural alternative for helping to relieve stress and reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression during recovery is to get out in nature regularly. What’s more, nature therapy only produces positive side effects.
Benefits of Nature Therapy
Interacting with nature provides a vast range of positive side effects and benefits. Even the simplest nature activities can have profound effects, making it beneficial to get outside to give it a try.
Some of the more notable benefits of nature therapy include:
Improved Mental Health: Multiple studies have shown significantly improved mental health
Elevated Mood: Walking in the woods or hiking in the mountains not only counts as a worthwhile nature therapy exercise, but it also promotes the natural release of endorphins into your body. Endorphins are your body’s ‘feel good’ hormones, meaning time spent outdoors should improve your mood naturally.
Improved Fitness: Walking, hiking, jogging, or cycling can all help boost your physical fitness levels. Even simple physical activities such as gardening can have positive effects on your overall fitness levels.
Lower Blood Pressure: Many people in recovery from addiction may struggle with symptoms of high blood pressure. Getting outdoors and interacting with nature helps to naturally lower blood pressure.
Improved Energy Levels: The combined benefits of getting physical exercise and spending time out in nature can result in boosting your overall energy levels. Not only will you feel revitalized after participating in ecotherapy, but you’ll also have more energy throughout the rest of your day.
Better Sleep Quality: When you incorporate natural ways to reduce stress, promote relaxation, and add some physical activity into your daily routine, you should notice that your sleep quality is improved. It’s common for many people in recovery from addiction to struggle with insomnia and other sleep problems, so nature therapy can help alleviate some of those issues.
Increased Self-Esteem: Planting something, nurturing it and watching it grow can produce strong feelings of positive achievement, which improves confidence and boosts self-esteem. Some people recovering from addiction struggle with poor self-image and low self-esteem, so having access to a simple and natural way to improve confidence levels is a big benefit.
Incorporating Nature Therapy into Addiction Recovery
During rehab treatment programs, people in recovery learn a range of skills, recovery tools and resources designed to help them maintain abstinence and prevent relapse. After leaving rehab, many people take those newly-learned recovery skills with them back into independent living.
Incorporating ecotherapy into everyday life sounds easy enough, but the reality is sometimes a little more challenging. After all, living in a city surrounded by buildings, concrete, glass and technology often makes it more difficult to find ways to immerse yourself in nature.
Fortunately, there are typically plenty of public parks, reserves, hiking trails, and conservation groups in almost every city across America. Head out and explore the opportunities in nearby areas. Get in touch with some of the local options near you and ask whether they need volunteers to help maintain their public park areas.
Setting aside some time each week to get out to nature shouldn’t be a chore. Instead, consider the vast range of benefits you could enjoy and find a way to interact with nature as often as possible.