Most of us spend far too much time inside and, worse, we spend most of that time sitting. Getting outdoors is great for you both mentally, physically, and spiritually and that’s even more true for people recovering from addiction. Here’s how spending more time outside can strengthen your recovery from addiction.
Many studies have found that spending time in nature is a powerful way to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. For example, a study done by researchers from Stanford divided participants into two groups and had one group walk in nature while the other group walked in the city. Despite spending the same amount of time walking, the group that walked in nature showed decreased activity in a part of the brain associated with depression. Another Stanford study found that spending time in nature reduced anxiety, rumination, and negative moods.
A similar study from Japan had one group walk in nature for 30 minutes while another group walked in the city for 30 minutes. The next day, the groups switched. Researchers examined participants after each session and found that those who walked in nature scored better on every physiological indicator of stress, including lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower heart rates, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nervous system activity, and lower sympathetic nervous system activity. In short, having a walk in nature, even if it’s just a local park, is one of the most valuable tools available to reduce your stress quickly.
You get more sunlight and fresh air.
Since we all spend so much time inside, we feel like it’s normal and we are unaware of the negative health effects. For one, we are often not exposed to enough sunlight. In fact, we’re told that sunlight is dangerous. However, too little sunlight means most of us are vitamin D deficient to some degree. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with heart disease, brittle bones, immune dysfunction, and depression. For young adults in recovery, the increased risk of depression is a particular concern, since depression may increase your risk of relapse.
We are also largely unaware of how poor indoor air quality is. While we hear a lot about smog, pollen, and other outdoor pollutants, most people are unaware that indoor air quality is typically much worse. Consider carbon dioxide, or CO2, for example. Researchers estimate that CO2 at 930 parts per million results in a cognitive decline of about 21 percent. Meanwhile, studies have found that the average elementary school classroom has a CO2 concentration of about 1000 parts per million. We turn oxygen into CO2, and our air conditioners and ventilation systems largely recycle that breathed air. The result is that we are lethargic and can’t think clearly. Getting outside as much as possible makes you feel better and think better.
You get more exercise.
Getting outside encourages exercise, which is great for you in many ways. Exercise improves your mood, strengthens your cardiovascular system, pumps oxygen to your brain, and helps you sleep better at night. As the studies above showed, exercise is even better for you when done in nature, and that alone makes exercise more enjoyable. You can explore and try new things, rather than just put in your time on the treadmill or stationary bike.
You experience awe.
One of the greatest benefits of spending time in nature is having more experiences of awe. Paradoxically, awe is not relaxing, but rather thrilling and humbling. When you stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon, for example, it’s almost impossible to comprehend the scope of what you see. It changes your perspective of your place in the universe. Research shows that experiences of awe are psychologically good for you. Psychologist Paul K. Piff from the University of California, Irvine has done studies that suggest awe-inspiring experiences promote prosocial behavior. In one experiment, participants were shown video clips that were either funny, neutral, or awe-inspiring. Participants who viewed the awe-inspiring clips later showed more generous behavior. Piff speculates that exposure to awe-inspiring scenes reduces your sense of self-importance and makes you feel like part of something much bigger. This is exactly what the 12-steps try to achieve through self-inquiry, social connection, and volunteering.
You connect with others.
Spending time in nature with friends and loved ones can be a great way to connect. Instead of staring at your phones over dinner, you’re out in nature, where you have to pay attention to your surroundings and to each other. What’s more, if you’re hiking or doing some other activity, you’re communicating at a time when you’re all in a better mood, feeling less stressed and anxious. If you’re engaged in cooperative activities like rowing or rock climbing, you have to communicate and cooperate. You learn to trust each other, and this sense of connection is crucial for a successful recovery.
Learning new skills builds confidence.
There are lots of things you can do out in nature and so spending time in nature is a great opportunity to learn new skills. Outdoor skills are especially good for boosting your confidence because many of them build self-reliance. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, you have to rely on yourself and your companions. You become acutely aware of this if you’re doing something potentially dangerous, like rappelling, rock climbing, trail riding, or kayaking. You have to assess the risk involved with these activities and work on your skills so that you can handle them. The good news is, every time you complete a difficult hike or get to the top of a mountain, you know you’ve done something challenging and worthwhile that you can be proud of.
Burning Tree West is a transitional college program dedicated to helping adults between the ages of 18 and 29 recover from addiction. Our campus is located in Tucson, Arizona, near the campuses of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Our program is designed to help young adults overcome addiction, build foundational life skills, and pursue their educational and career goals. Contact us today for more information.