Learn / Ecotherapy: Using Nature’s Power to Heal
If you’re considering residential rehab, you might be feeling the need to get away from it all. You might also notice that many treatment centers are located in remote, naturally beautiful settings—and with good reason.
Spending time in nature has a powerful calming effect, and can help set you up for success in recovery. Rehab programs around the country employ the healing powers of the great outdoors, with experiential therapies like hiking, beach walks, and adventure outings forming a core part of the curriculum.
Any of these techniques helps you connect with yourself and the world around you: a relationship the recovery journey aims to right.
Ecotherapy, or nature therapy, is a broad term that loosely describes doing any outdoor activity with the goal of recovery. It can take place informally or in a clinical context, in a group or on your own. It’s not officially recognized in the DSM-5, but it is commonly employed by rehabs around the world.
Nature itself has therapeutic benefits.1 In therapies that use nature immersion, patients spend time outside as part of the recovery process. In some programs, these activities have specific therapeutic goals. In others, patients use mindfulness techniques to soak up the peace and quiet of the world around them.
Getting outside can provide perspective that helps with the challenges of recovery.
Humans haven’t always lived in urban areas. Only 200 years ago, 90% of us lived rurally. But today, more than half of the global population lives in cities.2 Despite its social advantages, this fast-paced urban lifestyle is stressful.3 Slowing down and grounding is a necessary part of the recovery process.
Engaging with nature has immediate emotional benefits.4 And research suggests that this is due to our evolutionary history. Our early ancestors relied on fresh water and vegetation to stay alive. Over time, we came to associate those resources with a sense of safety. Perhaps as a result, the human brain still responds well to these environments.
By spending time outdoors, you can tap into ancestral memories of safety. And when you feel safe, it’s easier to focus on healing.
As a treatment, nature immersion takes many forms. You might meditate in a forest preserve, enjoy a guided walk, or get your hands dirty in the garden. And your treatment center might offer different outdoor therapies based on their staffing, location, and approach. Talk to your rehab’s admissions team to find out more about their available options.
Forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku, originated in Japan.5 This is the practice of using all your senses to be present and mindful in a forest setting. When you go forest bathing, you use mindfulness to take in your surroundings. You might focus on the coolness of river water, the scent of fallen leaves, or the sound of birdsong. An expert may guide you through meditation, or you may spend time in the forest alone.
A guided walk usually lasts for around 2-4 hours, during which you’ll share thoughts with the group as you enjoy the outdoors. Guides invite you to observe the life and landscapes around you, from swaying trees to colorful skies. By focusing on your immediate surroundings, you’ll find it easier to let go of the small things and find a sense of awe for the larger world.
Once the group is emotionally grounded, guides might engage you in a sensory experience like running your hands through the grass or smelling the flowers. This connection with the Earth brings you back into the present, and back into your own body.
Finally, you’ll have time for reflection. Your guide might ask you to meditate or write about the experience. This helps ease the transition back into the rest of your routine. Ideally, you’ll return to it feeling more centered and calm.
You don’t have to be deep in a forest to reap the benefits of nature therapy. Horticulture therapy,6 or caring for plants, is a great way to destress and focus on the present. This is a great option for people with limited mobility, or those who don’t have off-site privileges at their rehab.
Whether you spend time in a garden or just water your bedside fern every morning, plant therapy lets you care for something outside yourself. You can also see the impact your touch has on another living thing. Every new sprout is thanks to your contribution of water, the right amount of sunlight, and attention.
In some rehabs, you can enjoy the perks of nature therapy without even going outside. Studies show that just having a nature view out of a hospital window can improve patients’ mental health.7 This is helpful for people with a range of mental health issues. For example, looking at beautiful nature scenes can decrease depression and anxiety.8
If you experience severe stress or anxiety, you might be surprised how much relief a little time in nature can provide. According to experts, “the higher the stress level, the greater the effect” forest bathing has9 on these issues. It can even alleviate physical symptoms. In one study, just watching a nature video lowered viewers’ heart rates.10 If your body is still healing from the effects of addiction, this could be an important part of your process.
If you have chronic pain, nature immersion can help with both its physical and mental effects. One study found that nature immersion not only relieved pain;11 it also boosted patients’ immune responses. They also reported decreased symptoms of depression.
Further research supports nature immersion as a treatment for depression.12 Most people report reduced depressive symptoms after spending time outside. This may be helpful for people with co-occurring disorders, like depression and addiction.
Nature therapy is a tried-and-true treatment for mental health. A growing body of research supports its use in rehab. And, it specifically benefits people in addiction recovery in several ways:
Cravings put you at risk for relapse.13 And they can occur at any stage of the recovery process. Multiple studies show that after spending time in nature, people have less intense and fewer cravings.14 If this coping strategy works for you, you can use it before, during, and after residential treatment. Nature’s soothing effect is there any time you need it.
Unhealthy as it is, addiction is a coping mechanism. And when you enter recovery, you’ll need to develop new, healthier strategies. Spending time in nature can be an exciting way to connect with people, without using drugs.
This is also why nature can play an important role in aftercare. Returning to social circles associated with your addiction can increase your risk of relapse.17 By taking up new hobbies—like hiking or biking—you might just build a new, sober community.
Clinical Director Brenna Gonzales explains why The Hope House Scottsdale places so much emphasis on getting outside:
“Most people living with addiction are stuck in their houses and are alone. To be outdoors, to reconnect with nature and themselves, gives people the opportunity to experience life again. There are mountains all around The Hope House. Some of the best hikes in Phoenix city are within five minutes of us. We also have a pool that clients can use daily. We take any opportunity we can to get people outside.”
Dr. Thomas Gazda, Medical Director at Soberman’s Estate, talks about how important it is for patients to unplug from distractions and focus on one another:
“Residential rehab takes a person out of their normal environment. These days we have so many distractions at our fingertips: our cell phones, laptop, computers, television. There’s just so many distractions out there and we want to try and get away from that here. Nature is the biggest distraction we like to have out here. It’s a peaceful, quiet distraction. Something that can actually get you more in touch with yourself. It also allows for a certain kind of comradery amongst the patients here because they’re living with each other. They get to know each other, there’s a bond that forms.”
If you prefer solo adventures, you can still relax in nature alone. Swimming in a body of water, hiking to a viewpoint, or even walking in the park can go a long way toward clearing your mind and bringing you back in sync with life. This valuable you-time creates space for your feelings, even when recovery is challenging.
The natural world holds many lessons. Simply observing it can help you connect with something greater than yourself. And nature-based therapies take that a step further, teaching you how to accept the present moment. In turn you can learn to accept yourself, just as you are, at every point on your healing journey.
To reconnect with nature during recovery, explore a list of rehabs offering experiential treatment and learn about their locations, housing options, complementary therapies, and more.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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