Smell the Roses: Why Nature Is Good for Recovery

By Michelle Peterson

How much time do you spend in urban, built-up spaces as opposed to natural environments? Researchers have been studying the effect of nature on people’s mental well-being for decades, and the results show that spending time in natural environments can be beneficial to people in recovery from substance abuse disorders. So, if you feel like you haven’t seen a tree in weeks, it might be time to get out of the concrete jungle for a while! Here are four ways that nature can help your recovery.

Reduced Stress

You are probably familiar with the idea that stress can trigger a relapse. According to a paper published in Current Psychiatry Reports, substance abuse can cause changes in the brain’s stress systems, making it overreact to stress and triggering strong cravings. This is why stress-reduction techniques are an important part of recovery. Usually this involves things like relaxation techniques, meditation, and exercise; however, getting outdoors into nature should form part of your strategy, too. Being in nature can reduce your levels of stress hormones, reduce your blood pressure, and release muscle tension. According to one survey, 95 percent of people said they felt less stressed, more calm, and more balanced after spending time in nature.

Better Concentration

Psychologist couple Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have been studying the effect of nature on the mind since the 1980s. They summarize their work in what they call the Attention Restoration Theory. According to the Kaplans, our ability to direct our attention onto any one thing is limited, and sooner or later this resource runs out, and we experience mental fatigue.

Nature, because it is inherently interesting and calming to our senses, captures our attention gently and gives the brain chance to recharge.

In a sense, nature is like a gas station for the mind. With your attention restored, you’ll be able to think more clearly, and you won’t experience mental fatigue as quickly.

Better Willpower

Substance use affects the parts of the brain that control decision-making. It makes people more impulsive and less likely to think about the long-term impacts of their actions. This has consequences, not just in the recovery process, but in other aspects of life—for example, in whether you’ll eat a healthy diet or exercise regularly. Spending time in nature can help undo this damage. Part of this benefit is due to the attention restoration described above, but there’s more to it than that. Natural environments make us more forward thinking and help us consider the long-term effects of our decisions. So we find it easier to say “no” to those short-term gains and think about the bigger picture.

Improved Mental Health

As this Vice article points out, researchers have found a strong link between exposure to nature and good mental health. In one study, over 100,000 nurses were tracked for eight years, and those who lived in the greenest areas had 12 percent lower mortality than those who lived in urban areas. Digging into the data a little more, the researchers found that one key reason for this difference was mental health, specifically, lower rates of depression. Nature appears to give you a buffer against mental health problems. Since substance abuse disorders usually go hand in hand with issues like depression, nature can be an important aspect of your recovery.

Achieve Sense of Purpose

When you are dealing with substance abuse, you may feel as though you have lost your sense of purpose. What is it you want to do with your life? What makes you happy? What do you care about? Spending time in nature can help clear your mind so that you can figure it out. You might even discover that preserving nature and the wildlife it holds is the purpose you are looking for. Not only can you reap the benefits of spending time outside in the fresh air such as lower stress and improved concentration, willpower, and mental health, but you can pursue volunteer opportunities to help preserve and restore the very place that serves as your peaceful retreat.

You don’t have to hike in the mountains to experience the benefits of being in nature. Local parks, green spaces, the beach, riverside walks, or trails are beneficial. Some studies have even shown that bringing nature to you through plants and pictures of natural landscapes can produce results. Try to get outdoors at least a few times each week, especially if you live in a very urban environment. You’ll quickly notice the difference.

Photo: Pixabay

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