Woman hiking with group for addiction treatment and the great outdoors

Addiction Treatment and the Great Outdoors

Addiction Treatment and The Great Outdoors: Finding Healing in Nature

Most of us know from experience that getting into the great outdoors can lift our mood and help us feel better physically and mentally. Research proves that our instincts are right and that getting outside is good for us. For people with addiction issues, both addiction treatment and the great outdoors can be a significant part of the recovery process and treatment program.


Addiction is a brain disease, so anything that boosts brain functioning may indirectly help with recovery. So can anything that helps improve mental health because addiction is often associated with mental disorders that co-exist with addiction in a cyclical pattern. For example, depression can cause you to self-medicate with alcohol, which initially helps you feel better, but over time causes you to feel more depressed.


How the Great Outdoors Helps Improve Mental Health and Brain Functioning

Our knowledge is still evolving, but we’ve learned quite a bit about nature, mental health and the brain. We know, for example, that people who have a view of green space from their homes have a lower risk of anxiety and depression. We also know that increasing green space reduces the odds of using benzodiazepine drugs, often used to treat anxiety.


One way to measure mental health is by looking at stress hormones, and other body chemicals levels and how being outside can help regulate them. A study examining cortisol and amylase in people who visited either a wilderness, park or indoor exercise facility found that people who visited the natural environments had measurably lower stress markers.


Being outside is also good for overall brain functioning. That’s why it’s important to consider the benefits of combining addiction treatment and the great outdoors. One study of adolescents measured their concentration after taking a break in different types of spaces. They found that performance on concentration tasks was significantly higher after time spent in a green space and that a larger park gave more of an increase in performance than a smaller one.


To some degree, being able to get into nature can help equalize the differences in mental health-related to social and economic factors. Unequal socioeconomic status is related to differences in mental wellbeing, but research shows that the gap is 40% lower for people who have good access to green areas. Access matters because the effects of getting into the great outdoors can’t be duplicated by simply looking at pictures of it. One study found that smells and sounds related to parks and forests lowered physiological stress more than looking at photos of them.


How Much Time in Nature is Enough?

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend hours outside every day to get the positive effects of nature. A study found that people who spent just two hours a week in parks or other natural green spaces were much more likely to report good psychological health. It didn’t matter if people spent the two hours outside all at once or spread it out over time.


The pattern held for the old and the young, male and female, people from both urban and rural locations and rich and poor areas.  It was true for people with high and low occupational status, those who were and were not physically fit, and those with and without a chronic illness or disability.


Why is it Good for Us?

There are many theories about why addiction treatment and the great outdoors may be good for us, and there may be truth in all of them. These are some of the possible factors.


Negative ions

Some of the mental health benefits associated with being outside may be related to negative ions. Ions are molecules that have lost or gained an electron. When they lose an electron, they become positive ions, and when they gain an electron, they become negative ions.


A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that negative ions are effective for treating chronic depression. It’s believed that this occurs because when they reach the bloodstream, they initiate a process that increases levels of serotonin, the body chemical most closely associated with mood. Animal studies show changes in serotonin levels after negative ion exposure.


There are far more negative ions outdoors than inside buildings because sunlight, wind and moving water help break apart air molecules and create them. Many plants also produce them during their growth cycle.



Sunlight has a very different effect on our bodies than indoor lighting does. For one thing, it helps create vitamin D, which is important for many aspects of health, including immune system function and reducing inflammation. It also affects brain health, because as an article on vitamin D and depression points out, there are vitamin D receptors in parts of the brain responsible for mood and behavior. People with low vitamin D levels have an increased risk of depression.


The positive effects of sunlight go beyond vitamin D production. The brightness and spectrum of the light have other effects. Light therapy, when people expose themselves to artificial light that partially mimics sunlight, has been proven to treat multiple types of depression effectively.


Light also affects anxiety. In an article on the effects of morning light, a researcher explains that ”If people are exposed to light in the morning that mimics the wavelengths of daylight, they become better at coping with anxiety-provoking experiences. The light simply improves the communication between the regions of the brain that are central to our handling of emotions such as stress and anxiety.”



Human beings need food, water, and oxygen to survive and optimal amounts to thrive. There are higher levels of oxygen outdoors, partly because most indoor spaces simply aren’t ventilated adequately. Plants also produce oxygen, so an area filled with plants is likely to be higher in oxygen than one filled with non-living things.


Natural tree-based aerosols

An article on how being in nature benefits your health notes that Japanese researchers have done studies on the practice of walking in the woods, which they call “forest bathing.” Their theory is that aerosols that people inhale in that environment help to elevate certain cells that help the immune system.


Some of the same inhaled compounds may also be helpful for mental health. The journal Biomedical Research published a study, for example, showing that inhaling the oil of Japanese cedar wood was able to mitigate stress and help bring the nervous system into balance. A review of 20 studies on forest bathing concluded that it had a positive benefit on mental health and on anxiety in particular.


Lower toxin levels

Some of the benefits of being outside may be related to what’s not there as well as to what is. Although people tend to think of air pollution as an outdoor problem, the air is generally much more polluted indoors than out. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that “indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor levels.” Of course, some outdoor areas are more polluted than others, but in general, time spent outside is likely to lower your overall toxic load and increase the health of your body and brain.


Attention restoration

One of the earliest theories on how nature benefits us is known as the Attention Restoration Theory. The idea is that people pass through four mental stages on the way to feeling restored. The first is clearing the mind; the stage in which the thoughts and worries clouding your brain are allowed to flow through and fade away. The second stage is recovery from mental fatigue when the brain relaxes after using energy to focus and direct attention.


In the third stage, called “soft fascination,” people become gently distracted and involved in activities that are only mildly stimulating. There’s a reduction in internal noise and what one article on attention restoration theory calls “a quiet internal space to relax.”


The final stage is the deepest and most restorative one. It comes from spending time in an environment that’s separate from your norm, at least psychologically, but preferably physically as well. It should hold your attention without effort. You want to feel comfortable and at ease in the environment, so it helps for it to be somewhat familiar or similar to other places you’ve felt relaxed. It also helps to engage in an activity that’s familiar to you. Addiction treatment and the great outdoors often meet all the criteria and lead to mental and psychological restoration.


Adding Vitamin G to Your Life

Adding a dose of green nature to your life (what some researchers call “Vitamin G”) doesn’t have to be complicated. Maybe you can eat your lunch outside or stop by a park on your way home from work to read for a while. Simply opening a window or orienting yourself to look at a tree outside is a start and not without benefit. Optimally, though, you’ll combine being outside with other things that are good for your health, like walking.


Walking outdoors has mental health benefits that walking indoors doesn’t. Mindfulness, which involves focusing on the present rather than the past or future, is an important part of the addiction recovery program for many people. Rumination, which involves repetitive thoughts focused on personal concerns, is in some respects its opposite. A study on nature experiences compared people who took a walk in either a natural or an urban environment. Those who walked in a natural environment ruminated less and had reduced activity in an area of the brain associated with mental illness risk.


Recovery Programs and Healing in a Natural Environment

If you’re ready to address your addiction in a professional, healing environment, looking for one that incorporates nature is wise for many reasons. Outdoor recovery programs help people achieve what is sometimes called peak experiences, which can compete in the brain with experiences related to substance use. Participants note that some of the important elements in achieving them are the beauty of the setting and separation from the people, pressure, concerns, and distractions of the human-made world.


Addiction treatment and the great outdoors may also help you lower your risk of relapse. A study comparing an outdoor treatment program to customary relapse prevention therapy found that the people who spent time in nature had fewer negative thoughts and less alcohol craving. Significantly, they also had a lower level of relapse 10 months later.


Are you ready to take the next step in your addiction treatment journey and would you like that step to be towards the outdoors? The Right Step Hill Country has many inviting and relaxing walking trails on campus and is very outdoor-focused. We can help you find your way back to yourself. You can reach us at 844.767.9965. Why not call now?


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