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How Time in Nature Can Help in Addiction Recovery

hiker standing in the middle of forest

If you’re struggling with substance abuse and are moving into addiction recovery, you might be surprised to learn just how much walks, hikes, and other trips into nature are incorporated into early therapy and treatment. That remains true as you move into longer-term recovery including on your own. Time in nature will continue to be beneficial as you move further into your recovery. However, that often relates to multiple reasons including exercise, the calming experience of being in nature, and how both impact your mental health.

If you don’t live nearby to any spectacular natural areas, don’t worry about not being able to experience nature as part of your recovery. You can find the same experiences in other ways.

However, going to a park, to a natural area, or for hikes and walks can do a great deal for your mental health and therefore for your recovery.

Spending time in nature can actively improve your mood, reduce anxiety and depression, and help you feel a temporary sense of calm or peace. Studies show that activities in nature such as cycling, walking, and even sitting and reading a book all show short-term improvements to mental health. People who experience even 10 minutes of being outside in a tree or nature-dense area are more likely to feel calm, more likely to feel at peace, and less likely to feel anxious or depressed. Those effects are short-term, so spending time in nature only works for your recovery if you make it a recurring habit. E.g., a walk once a week will give you space to find calm but it won’t impact the rest of your week.

Self-EsteemOne study of 152 people showed that spending a short time in nature can boost self-esteem. The study assumes that people spend less time focused on how others perceive them or how they are experienced by others and more on how they are experiencing the world.

Mood Boost – Walking in a green area or with water shows a mood boost for people for an average of 30-200 minutes after the walk. That means that you can take a walk in nature and see positive improvements to mood for close to half a workday afterwards. That can mean even a simple walk in a city park for 10-20 minutes during your lunchbreak will boost your mood for the rest of the time you spend at work, which will improve your mood when you get home, because you’ll have less to recover from. Over the longer term, spending a few days walking around trees or water 2-5 days a week will show longer-term improvements to your happiness, with noticeable improvements to your entire week. That means a small boost during your lunchbreak or in the morning improves your other experiences for the day, meaning you have more energy and a better mood to deal with everything else the day throws at you. That can be extra impactful when you’re in recovery and are already dealing with a “low battery’ in terms of mood and energy.

Stress Reduction – For many people, a walk represents a lot of ways to reduce stress. For example, if you step outside, you step away from the constant cacophony of digital media and things demanding attention. You reduce clutter and things that require attention. You don’t have to constantly pay attention to cars. You have fewer things to focus on and fewer things to concentrate on. Walking in nature is associated with peace because it is. The theory of attention restoration says that when you go into nature, you restore your attention for things like your own thoughts and emotions, rather than the constant urban noise, buzz of refrigerators, fans, air conditioners, colleagues, emails, bosses, friends, etc. Instead, you’ll have time to think, headspace to do so, and attention to focus on what you want, where you want to be, and where you are right now. 

people in recovery enjoying nature

Exercise – Going outside also often equates to nature. That might mean walking, running, cycling, or moving a wheelchair. It doesn’t matter. You’re still moving, and that’s beneficial for your mental health and your recovery. In fact, just 20-30 minutes of walking per day can boost your mood for up to two hours after the fact. Walking also increases blood circulation, improves oxygen levels in the body, and stimulates the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, all of which will help you to feel good for short periods after exercise. That will, in turn, benefit your recovery by giving you a baseline of feeling good to recover from. Essentially, spending time in nature can have a great impact on your recovery by improving your mood.

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“Nature” Doesn’t Have to Mean Wild

two women in the garden

Multiple studies have shown that people feel better around trees, water, and “green”. In one study of 1,250 people, taking walks in city neighborhoods were impactful, with positive mood boosts, reductions in depression, and improved mental health once the neighborhood started to exceed 30% greenery. This means that even if you don’t live near a park or can’t take long hikes, you can still get many of the same benefits just by living and being around green.

Choosing a neighborhood with a lot of plants, making sure you have them in your own space, and taking walks in green neighborhoods can all have many of the same impacts – although a walk in the city will never be as quiet and as peaceful as a walk in a park. 

Small Habits Make a Big Difference

You don’t have to go on 8 hour hikes to benefit from nature. In fact, while occasional big forays into nature can be greatly beneficial for your mental health, on average, you want to focus on small but consistent efforts.

In fact, you can see measurable improvements from just 10 minutes of walking per day. If you have a wooded area near your workplace or your home, spending 10 minutes in the morning or at lunchtime walking through it will already offer benefits. Of course, you’ll probably get more from that if you make it 20 or 30 minutes. But, the trick to allowing nature to have an impact on your recovery is to consistently be in it as often as you can. That means focusing on the number of days you go out into nature rather than the time you do so all at once.

You also don’t have to go out alone to see those benefits. For example, you can go on daily walks with your colleagues or your 12-step group. You can also walk or cycle to work if you’re close enough. If you can spend 10 minutes in the park on your way home from work, that also helps. The idea is to make it consistent and a part of your daily routine, so you have the habits that allow you to improve your mental health during recovery.

Of course, if you struggle with building those kinds of habits, taking steps like sober living, joining support groups, and finding walking buddies will all help to ensure that you have external motivation and accountability to go outside and take care of yourself around everything else you’re doing for your recovery.

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Medical Disclaimer: Nothing on this Website is intended to be taken in place of medical advice. Before making any decisions regarding your health, please consult your doctor. The staff at Stairway Resource Center develops a custom treatment plan for each of our patients. Specific medical advice will be provided to our patients by our professional providers while in our care.