Be Present in Nature and Recover from Addiction

This morning I did what I do every morning. I went to be present in Nature. I put on my takkies and I walked up my favourite mountain between Fish Hoek and Glencairn: Elsie’s Peak. Call it my next addiction but Walking in Nature is what I do now. Every day.

I made it up there with the sunrise and I saw the most incredible things. My senses awakened: the visual glory of smoky views across False Bay to Simonstown and Cape Point. The sun sparkling on the ocean around Fish Hoek Bay to Strand. Fragrant perfumed Fynbos flowers in all their glory and the many colourful Sugarbirds, Sunbirds, Robins and Starlings. I grabbed the rocks as I scrambled up to the beacon, feeling their smooth roughness.

Fire up Those Happy Hormones

I always know when my endorphins start flowing because suddenly there is a magical moment. I feel as if I could join the Sugarbirds flitting about on the Proteas. Nature is my answer to all my problems. Walking is the drug I have taken to, and it stokes my fire within. Firing up those happy chemicals is essential to the balance of life. Especially if you have addiction issues.

How do we keep the happy hormones pumping without additives and false stimulants? Why do people smoke, drink, take pills and eat dagga cookies? Are we all searching for that elusive constant state of happiness and joy? And why? Why do we fear living life in its raw beauty? Is a sunrise better without the drug or is a sunset better with the drug? I know the answer to that one!

I count myself lucky that my father taught me a deep love for Nature. My parents took us into the Drakensberg mountains in KwaZulu-Natal a lot, and we also had regular beach holidays. We had a thatched ‘berg cottage and I walked and walked and walked. Then I chose to live in the mountains for 4 glorious years, the happiest of my life! Nature is grounding and Nature can help heal addiction.

Nature is Grounding and Healing

And addiction is often the result of childhood trauma, as I have discussed in previous blogs. The grounding healing in Nature is good for that child who experienced trauma and has spent most of their adult life NOT being present. Have you ever felt as if you are dabbling your toes into life, not diving in deep? Have you ever felt as if you are splashing around in the shallows and have yet to see what lies deep below the waves?

I know that I have. I am not sure why. I probably have childhood scars. All children get scars, and all children are affected differently. Even from a cross word from an angry parent or teacher. I have done so much in my life, but I have often felt as if I have lived my life on the surface shallows.

Bryony Porteous-Sebouhian talks about Nature as her antidote to trauma. “I consider myself to be very privileged in that, growing up, nature was very important to my parents and family… Understanding the importance of nature and its ability to soothe and heal from a young age meant, by the time we left the council estate and moved to a small village, wild, green spaces had been imbued with a kind of sacredness for me and I spent long hours, on my own, wandering the paths, fields and woodlands.”

She adds that when you tune in to your natural surrounds, using all five (make that six) senses, it is grounding. I find it odd that people have to relearn their connections to Nature and how vital it is that we get OUTSIDE regularly! I am dragging my kids outside whenever I can, off their phones and technologies to move and shake and see the birds and bees, the trees and flowers, the mountains, and the beaches!

Humans are Disconnected from Nature

Richard Louv calls human loneliness the result of a widening gap between Nature and people. People are faster and faster losing touch with the web of life and our place in it. His latest book is called Our Wild Calling and it is an urgent call for people to wake up and see what we are doing to Earth and what we can do to save Earth and ourselves. Human health depends on Nature. People are feeling lonely, feeling depressed because they are not living in Nature, are not understanding how biodiversity and ecosystems work, how the environment very much depends on our use and habitation of it.

Louv reckons we are suffering from “nature deficit syndrome” even more thanks to Covid, social distancing, mask-wearing and fear of each other. I mean, when last did you touch a tree, smell a flower, or dig in the soil with your bare hands? Take the masks off people!

Boost those Happy Hormones!

Let’s get back to how we can boost our happy chemicals or hormones without drugs or alcohol. For me, Nature is the place where I boost my endorphins. Endorphins are one of the Big Four and emerges from pain. Loretta G. Breuning writes in Psychology Today about the ways we can naturally boost our happy hormones.

She notes that “Endorphin causes a brief euphoria that masks pain. In the state of nature, it helps an injured animal escape from a predator. It helped our ancestors run for help when injured. Endorphin evolved for survival, not for partying… Endorphin was meant for emergencies.”

Now, if you want to stimulate your endorphins, simply laugh and stretch! A great yoga class or funny movie moves your insides arounds a bit in new ways and helps the hormone to flow. The more you laugh and the more you stretch, the more you trigger your endorphin in good ways. It becomes a way of life and the brain looks forward to it.  AND GET OUTSIDE.

The other 3 happy hormones are dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin. The best way to trigger dopamine is not by drinking, no. It is simply by working towards a new goal. Think back to when you were a child: dopamine was released every time you knew there was a reward coming to you. A chocolate if you passed your exams, a medal after a swimming race, pudding after dinner. Now, our kids get dopamine surges when they play Fortnite and MineCraft and other video games.

In Nature, says Breuning, a lion would get a dopamine rush when hunting a buck. Then the lion would get a natural energy increase to hunt and catch that buck. “Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole turned on the dopamine. Just smelling a gazelle turns on dopamine. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward.”

Drinkers have turned alcohol into their go-to for dopamine. But this can be changed. We can rewire our brains to be turned on with the good things. Find a new hobby and work towards new goals in life. Every time you achieve a goal, your brain will reward you with a dopamine high. Read a good book, do exercise, be creative. Train your brain. AND GET OUTSIDE.

Low Happy Chemicals = Depression

It is known that a lack of seratonin is a cause of depression. And depression is often linked to the ego and lack of self-esteem, lack of self-belief. So, when someone believes in you, or respects you, you feel great – the serotonin makes you feel great. If you were respected when you were a child or a youth, that feeling stays with you, and your brain liked it and still wants more.

Some people abuse this need for serotonin and want status and respect for being someone they really are not. Think of a politician! Well, the answer is to simply believe in yourself. Build up your self esteem and make sure you are a person worth respecting. Then when people respect you for your sobriety, your community, your compassion and your ability to be your own person, that will ensure your serotonin is filled. Who needs false status of commercialism or materialism? Who needs to drink to be liked or to look good?

Oxytocin is that trust drug. Says Breuning: “Mammals stick with a herd because they inherited a brain that releases oxytocin when they do… Social bonds help mammals protect their young from predators, and natural selection built a brain that rewards us with a good feeling when we strengthen those bonds. Sometimes your trust is betrayed. Trusting someone who is not trustworthy is bad for your survival. Your brain releases unhappy chemicals when your trust is betrayed. That paves neural pathways that tell you when to withhold trust in the future. But if you withhold trust all the time, you deprive yourself of oxytocin.”

And finally, cortisol. The fight or flight hormone. In the modern world, the fight or flight is stress induced. It is almost a false sense of panic that we all react to. The age of cell phones has only made this worse and we check and recheck our phones, while driving, while on the loo, while shopping, while eating and while socialising.  How can this be good for us?

Some of us like to deal with cortisol by having a drink or a cigarette or a drug. The feeling of a false happy chemical to calm us down – the pandemic of over-the-counter medication is killing people daily. The cortisol surges for a reason so when we dampen it with alcohol, we are numbing the natural bodily secretions with toxins that we think are helping us.

Drinking Does Not Help

Breuning notes that when we drink because we are stressed, we “will lose the information the cortisol is trying to give you, and your happy habit will have side effects. More cortisol will flow, thus increasing the temptation to over-stimulate your happy chemicals. This vicious cycle can be avoided if you learn to accept the bad feeling you get when a happy chemical surge is over.”

We can all learn how to reinforce our happy chemicals without unnatural stimulants. All it takes is self-belief. And rewiring the way we think about ourselves and our lives. We can change what happened to us in the past. We can start new happy habits and repeat them to become part of who we are. Happy habits do not have hangovers or health issues as their side effects! Or the guilt and shame that drinking causes or exacerbates.

How can getting out into nature support our sobriety? Let’s follow this advice from Caleb Anderson in Challenge the Storm. He notes that there is a direct link between time spent in nature and better health and wellness, mentally and physiologically:

  • More Vitamin D (from the sun) – builds a healthy immune system
  • Less depression – clean air and Vitamin D and the fresh realness of nature soothes the soul
  • More moving – hiking, walking, swimming, climbing – when in nature we are forced to move our bodies
  • Better sleep and therefore more energy and stronger immunity – fresh air and movement make us tired in a healthy way
  • Stamina to manage stress and anxiety – boost the happy hormones and channel the stress by moving away from that context that is causing it – into nature
  • Improves focus – at work and at home
  • Becomes the new hobby – hiking, biking, swimming, whichever way you choose to be in nature!


And read the tips from Janet in her blogs too…

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