The Healing Power Of Nature
Those struggling with substance use disorders and other mental health conditions must often face incredibly unpleasant emotions. Paranoia, craving, distrust, low self-esteem, anger, and sadness can come to dominate one’s life. Relationships can fall apart because of these emotions. It can start to seem like there’s no way out.
But, fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. In addition to the powerful modalities of talk therapy and pharmaceutical medication, the individual in recovery has another key tool in their toolbox: the force of nature itself, the healing power of which can be observed in animal-assisted therapy and adventure therapy.
Studies have shown that, under the right circumstances, exposure to nature can lower stress and mitigate brooding. It can jumpstart positive moods and help someone who’s already happy stay that way for longer than they otherwise would. It can even boost brainpower and improve confidence, potentially taking one a long way toward becoming the best version of oneself.
Unfortunately, too many people are either unaware of the power of nature or either unwilling or unable to take advantage of this crucial treatment modality. What’s more, the very negative emotions that exposure to the natural world could help address might also stop someone from leaving the safety of their home in the first place — especially for something as unpredictable-sounding as adventure therapy.
If that kind of mood seems familiar, the information below may be of value. There’s hard science behind the advantages of taking time to interact with animals and with the great outdoors. Read on to find out exactly what they are and how therapy can feel like an adventure.
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Contact With Animals Can Regulate Mood
One study has documented the effects of a form of therapy many likely haven’t tried. It found that, “reductions in psychological distress and enhancements in psychological well being were significant immediately following treatment and were stable at 6-month follow-up.” In other words, the subjects studied didn’t just get better right away, they also stayed that way for many months afterward.
The powerful form of treatment studied was none other than equine therapy, which involves interacting with a horse in order to gain therapeutic benefits.
A group of people with substance use disorders were studied; as part of their treatment, they spent time bonding with a horse over several sessions. The results of the study speak for themselves; researchers found that, “results demonstrated a significant increase in listening, trusting, supporting, encouraging, respecting and accepting, and negotiating differences. The results also demonstrated a significant reduction in depressive and anxiety symptoms.”
So not only can equine therapy relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression, it can also help one feel safer and become a better communicator.
It’s not hard to imagine why these effects might occur. Spending time with a horse invites one to explore the world from another set of eyes — non-human eyes — which might be a welcome break from the stressors of one’s own personal life and could help with building theory of mind and empathy. The thrill of being on a horse itself could be therapeutic; the accompanying release of endorphins may help to improve mood and treat pain.
Furthermore, gaining the trust of a large and powerful animal could help one feel safe; participating in hands-on activities like grooming or riding a horse companion could help an individual get out of their head and into their body, which might help those struggling with trauma and seeking to ground themselves. Gaining a sense of safety with a horse could also prepare one well for adventure therapy, which is explained more thoroughly below.
Adventure Therapy Can Reset The Brain
Another treatment modality, adventure therapy, doesn’t only sound thrilling but it could reset the brain in a crucial way and help lead to a happier and substance-free life.
Adventure therapy often involves navigating a challenging and rewarding outdoor environment; it might include activities like hiking, camping, river rafting, and the like. It might be particularly effective for adolescents; one study found that this form of treatment “can appeal to youth-at-risk who are often less responsive to traditional psychotherapeutic interventions.”
That’s not to say that adventure therapy doesn’t also work for adults; another study, which examined men and women struggling with an alcohol use disorder, found that subjects’ frequency of negative thoughts and cravings for alcohol were lesser when compared to a control group; in a sense, their brains had reset from the effects of addiction. The people who participated in adventure therapy were also far less likely to relapse, which shows this reset has staying power.
There are many dangers to exploring the wilderness on one’s own. However, many treatment centers have staff members trained in adventure therapy who can help patients explore new and invigorating terrain. Some rehabs, especially luxury rehabs, offer a variety of treatment programs that involve nature and interaction with animals. Luxury rehabs are typically in beautiful natural settings, such as in the mountains or near the ocean. If you’re curious about how spending time outdoors can help you recover, reach out to a treatment provider to get more information. You’re part of the natural world, after all — celebrating that fact in a way that makes you more joyous and more healthy could be exactly what you need.