How Nature Can Help Curb Addictive Behavior

Find out how a hike can help combat impulsive behavior.

Nature heals—or at least that’s what they say. Over the past few years, various studies have illustrated how Mother Earth leads to lower stress levels, increased production of endorphins, and improved focus and memory. Now there’s a whole new reason to venture outdoors.

According to new research from the University of Montana, increased time with nature helps curb impulsive behavior while stimulating self-control. These traits are especially beneficial for those battling long-term addictions, such as gambling or substance abuse.

The Huffington Post describes the study:

45 undergraduate students each viewed a series of images of either natural (mountains, forests, lakes) or man-made environments (buildings, cities, roads). Then, each participant completed a task designed to measure impulsivity, answering questions like whether they’d rather be given $50 immediately or $100 at a later time. They also completed a task designed to measure their perception of time, in which they were monitored for several seconds and then asked to estimate how much time had passed.

The study illustrated that test subjects who saw the nature photos exhibited a stronger sense of self-control, and those looking at more industrial photos were more prone to instant gratification. The reason, researchers explained, might be due to the fact that the nature-inspired pictures stimulated feelings of calmness and tranquility, two important factors in decision-making.

When we experience relaxation, we are able to feel as if we have a better grip over our free time. To quote the post, “this more expansive sense of time may encourage us to consider the relative benefits of future over immediate rewards.”

Even if you’re not an addict, you should be able to relate to the seductive gaze of instant gratification. Impulsivity is not limited solely to those struggling with addiction. Even if we have minor addictive behavior, such as a post-work glass of wine or checking in with social media, time with nature enables us to soak in the larger picture, and focus on more long-term benefits.

Researchers hope to use the newfound evidence to discover alternative methods in combatting addiction. It could be especially valuable for individuals who face health risks due to their addictions; by spending more time in nature and experiencing a heightened sense of tranquility, these individuals are more apt to make future-oriented choices that will better the outcome of their overall health.

As an added bonus, the study also describes how time in nature can help influence positive environmental decisions:

Thus, the present results have implications for global reductions in impulsive decision-making that may apply not only to disorders associated with impulse control, but also to our everyday decision-making–including those in the environmental realm (e.g., the choice to take public transportation with an increased delay but reduced emissions, rather than driving a private car with a reduced delay but more emissions).

Furthermore, nature illustrates a potential to curb some of the symptoms and causes of addiction, namely stress, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Hiking on a foliage-laden trail, climbing, and kayaking all release endorphins that inspire feelings of well-being. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Queensland in Australia found even 30 minutes in the great outdoors can reduce depression by up to 7 percent.

If you ever need a reason for a spontaneous camping trip, look no further. It does the mind and body good, in ways you may not have anticipated. 

Amanda Kohr is the editor at Wanderlust. You can find her exploring new highways, drinking diner coffee, and on Instagram