How the Outdoors Helped Me to Overcome Addiction

Finding strength in the outdoors to help me overcome challenges.

By: Craig Middleton
October 7, 2016

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While I was attempting to overcome my alcohol dependency, I discovered that spending time outside was surprisingly beneficial. Of course group therapy and other forms of drug rehab are all great, but one of the key factors that truly helped me was rekindling my love of the outdoors. Though I spent hours outside each day as a kid, I had let my addiction keep me stuck indoors and fixated on drinking. Regardless of what kind of substance abuse addiction issues you are dealing with, enjoying time in the outdoors can help you just like it helped me. The outdoors is a great refuge while undergoing rehab because it meets many of a recovering addict's needs.

Find a New Hobby

My therapist first encouraged me to start spending time outdoors because she really emphasized the importance of hobbies. I learned that replacing old addictions with something new and satisfying helps to provide meaning and purpose. At first, I really struggled to find a hobby, and I'll admit that I was a little skeptical of my therapist's advice, but once I started spending time outdoors, I realized that it could actually be the hobby I was looking for. Personally, my favorite outdoors activity is just plain old hiking, but it's also fun to mix it up with some rock climbing and kayaking every now and then. Regardless of which outdoor activity I pick, it helps me to blow off stress and avoid boredom in a safe environment.

Reduce Depression, Stress, and Anxiety

When I first started hiking, I was really just doing it because I needed to take my mind off of my addiction. However, I was surprised to learn just how much better I felt after a long day spent outside, so I decided to do a bit of research. It turns out there have actually been several research studies done on the mental effects of spending time outside, and all the findings are overwhelmingly positive. For example, a 2015 Stanford-led study found that spending just 90 minutes walking around a natural area had less brain activity in parts of the brain associated with mental illness, and they exhibited less signs of depression and other behavioral issues. All the physical exercises that you experience outside helps to boost endorphin levels and stimulate a good mood. However, even if you aren't breaking a sweat, studies have found that the peaceful effect of nature is still very strong.

Find New Therapy Options

I was surprised to learn that a few local addiction recovery centers around me actually did regular outdoor programs. Wilderness therapy is a relatively new treatment method that focuses on retreats in nature. So far, I've only been on one retreat, but it was so helpful that I plan to try out a few more. Something about overcoming challenges in an beautiful, isolated setting helped me to really connect with some great mentors and fellow recovering addicts during the experience. Though I'm not really ready for one of the more exhaustive wilderness therapy options, like one that requires participants to catch their own food and do extensive whitewater rafting, there are many other options available.

Make New Friends

Unfortunately, I ended up having to halt old friendships that were encouraging me to stay stuck in a cycle of relapse and addiction. Like many other addicts, I found that I was suddenly almost completely friendless. However, it turns out that there are a lot of local meet-ups for people interested in outdoor events. Through my new interest in the outdoors, I was able to find new, sober friends who I could could connect with without needing alcohol. This really helped me to start feeling grounded and involved in the world around me again.


Cover photo: Jake Young

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Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph.