The first eight or nine months of my sobriety, one friend and I went on a hike every weekend. Here in Maryland—where the TruHealing Centers headquarters is located—there are tons of trails to explore. We kept trying new ones, noting all the different landscapes within a single state.
It’s a cliché to use nature as a metaphor, but in early sobriety, doing so was helpful to me. As I worked through so many rapidly changing states of mind—and tried to find my essential self without substances—nature both changed constantly and stayed in essence the same. Those hikes were a crucial part of my early recovery. Being out in nature every weekend calmed my thoughts and helped me reflect.
It’s a relief we can still go outside during this crisis. Being cooped up in the house 24/7—on top of the stress, grief, fear, and uncertainty of the pandemic—would be terrible for mental health. Nature isn’t a cure for any substance use or mental health disorder, but it is a great supplemental therapy.
Researchers at Stanford University did a study in which one group walked for 90 minutes along a heavily trafficked four-lane road, and another group spent that time walking in nature. Afterwards, the two groups showed few physiological differences, but the nature group had decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex. The subgenual prefrontal cortex is a “brain region active during rumination—repetitive thought focused on negative emotions.” Both groups had the same physical effects of exercise, but the nature group showed more mental health impact.
Holli-Anne Passmore, PhD student at the University of British Columbia, conducted a study where participants jotted down their emotional responses to either objects in nature or human-made objects. In the over 2,500 photos and emotional descriptions submitted, those about objects in nature showed greater happiness and feelings of connectedness. Interestingly, the nature participants described feeling more connected to other people, not just to nature. “This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” Passmore said. “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”
There’s the visual aspect of nature—some of the things Passmore’s study points out like noticing a tree or a flower—and there’s sounds like birds chirping. An article by Harvard Health Publishing says, “Calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.”
During that hike-heavy period in my early sobriety, I went on a hike with one friend a few days after attending a funeral. The trail had trash everywhere, and it seemed to me like everything was dead. In the days following that hike, it rained a lot. I went back to the same trail a week later with another friend, and it felt like a completely different place. Everything was green and lush and alive. It looked like a storybook setting.
I don’t know how accurate my memory is of the first hike; my perception may have been skewed by the recent funeral. But I do have photo evidence of the second hike—my small body in the distance is one of the only things that isn’t green.
These two consecutive hikes became another great metaphor for me. It reminded me that even though grief stays with you, life keeps moving forward, things constantly change, and growth can always happen. These were important reminders as I dealt with such a painful experience so early in recovery.
When we get sober, we can’t prevent difficult things from happening. But we can learn how to cope in healthier ways. That is also good to keep in mind now; nature is still there during COVID-19 and—as long as we stay six feet apart—we can be in it. TruHealing Centers’ facilities use recreational therapy in treatment, for all of the reasons I mentioned. Clients can get the calming benefits of nature. They can relate exploration of nature to exploration of their new, sober selves.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder during the pandemic, there is hope. TruHealing Centers is open throughout the crisis, with hospital-grade sanitization of our facilities and telehealth options so that you can feel safe in treatment. At our facilities across the country, we will empower you with the tools to thrive in long-term recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-005.