Harnessing the Healing Power of Nature in Dual Diagnosis Treatment

The San Francisco Bay area is home to some of the most beautiful natural environments in the world. Whether you’re hiking between the towering redwoods in in the Muir Woods, gazing at the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, or horseback riding across the majestic Marin Headlands, it’s hard not to be in awe of the beauty that surrounds us. At Alta Mira, we have long believed that there is something innately healing about these natural spaces, and give our clients plenty of opportunities to benefit from communion with nature through our experiential therapies and outings. Many of our clients find that some of their most profound treatment experiences happen not in a therapy room, but while hiking Mt. Tamalpais, walking along Stinson Beach, or sitting quietly in the forest on a spirit walk. This is particularly true for people who struggle with addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders.

From Anecdote to Evidence

The healing power of nature isn’t just anecdotal. A growing body of research is now confirming what people have known for thousands of years: Natural environments can nurture us, calm us, and help us recover from psychological distress. In a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers had participants either hike through a natural space or walk through a busy urban area for 90 minutes. Each participant was surveyed regarding their mood and rumination – or “repetitive thought that is focused on negative aspects of the self” – both before and after their walk. Additionally, brain scans measured neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, “an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness.” The results were extraordinary.

Those who spent their 90 minutes hiking in a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and improved mood. What’s more, brain scans revealed that their subgenual prefrontal cortex activity significantly reduced, confirming that exposure to nature is capable of changing brain function. Meanwhile, no such effects were observed in those who walked in an urban setting. “This finding is exciting because it demonstrates the impact of nature experience on an aspect of emotion regulation – something that may help explain how nature makes us feel better,” says lead author Gregory Bratman, a graduate student at Stanford University.

To Kristen Kalp, who struggles with mental illness, the results aren’t surprising. “I use the outdoors to get into my body for a walk, a jog, a bit of yoga, or lying-on-the-grass meditation,” she says. “Being outside helps clear my head, lift my spirits and increase my focus in the present moment.” For Kalp, water is particularly healing. “I notice all my problems seem lighter and less stressful. Throwing off my shoes and splashing in a stream does more for my mental state than weeks of talk therapy does.” Dick Sederquist, an avid hiker, agrees. After a life-long battle with depression, he believes that hiking is instrumental in helping him maintain emotional equilibrium:

During the worst of my depression and loss of hope and self-esteem, hiking gave me concrete goals, the satisfaction of achieving those goals, and a source of hope and planning. Hiking is like entering a time machine, a timeless experience. Deep in the woods, away from the traffic and noise, all you feel is the exertion, your breathing, and the elements around you. It’s impossible to be distracted by your everyday worries and concerns.

For Sederquist, the healing power of nature is so profound that he incorporates hiking in his ongoing self-care, helping him stave off relapse.

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Nature Enhances Creative Thought

Sederquist isn’t alone in finding focus and cognitive tranquility in nature. In a 2012 study, researchers Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer found “that creative problem solving can be drastically improved by reconnecting with nature.” Participants were invited to go backpacking through a natural environment for a period of four days, and were asked to perform a number of tasks requiring “creative thinking and complex problem solving.” The results revealed that problem solving performance improved by 50% after immersion in nature. As the authors note:

Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. We anticipate that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.

In other words, exposure to natural environments not only soothes us emotionally, but also fortifies us cognitively, sparking enhanced creativity and the ability to solve complex problems that otherwise elude us. In part, this augmented ability to experience positive emotions and think more clearly may be the result of removing the distractions of everyday life.

The Healing Power of Nature in Treatment

While these studies suggest that spending time in nature can be beneficial for everyone, for people who struggle with addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders, the results are particularly meaningful. Rumination, negative self-talk, poor emotional regulation, and feeling unable to see beyond your current situation are familiar struggles for many who suffer from addiction and mental illness. While talk therapies work to disrupt these troubling phenomena and are often highly effective, experiential therapies that allow you to experience the emotional and cognitive benefits of nature can provide new pathways toward healing; because these benefits are conferred not through specific forms of participation, but simply by being in natural environments, they can be particularly inviting to those who struggle with therapeutic engagement or who are reluctant to participate in talk therapies. By offering nature-oriented healing experiences in the context of a comprehensive dual diagnosis treatment program, we create a marriage of nature and science that helps you unlock both your problem-solving and healing abilities and nourish your mind, body, and spirit.

Alta Mira provides comprehensive treatment for people struggling with addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our innovative suite of program options and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward sustainable recovery and renewed stability.