Michigan Excursions – Nature Therapy in the Great Outdoors
I work for Sanford Behavioral Health, and as the marketing director, I notice the organization’s communal language. Words have power and we are in the business of stigma busting, so we are mindful about our words when it comes to addiction, eating disorders, and mental health conditions. A few years ago, when we launched our online magazine, we spent the better part of a day trying to come up with the name. I think a few of us take credit for the eureka moment, but someone (I) said, “How about Excursions?” It was perfect. And over the years the word “excursion” has become part of our company vernacular. Excursions also play a role in experiential/exposure therapy.
The definition of “excursion” is first, a short journey or trip, especially one engaged in as a leisure activity. And second, a deviation from a regular pattern, path or level of operation. Both definitions apply when it comes to recovery from a mental health condition.
At Sanford Behavioral Health, excursions are opportunities for our patients to experience real life in the safety of treatment. For us, excursions are anything from planting geraniums, to attending 12-step meetings, to disk golf and ice cream cones. Our residents might go on a grocery store excursion for example. This could be the first time a patient with a substance use disorder shops without buying alcohol. Similarly, an eating disorder patient may practice ordering in a fast food restaurant. Excursions provide authentic opportunities to unpack their feelings and triggers in the safety of treatment.
Since we live in Michigan, one of my favorite excursions is getting outside of the city and experiencing a boost from nature. I am convinced about the positive results, especially in early recovery and I practice what I preach. There are scores of nature trails, state parks and green spaces near Grand Rapids where we are located, and Lake Michigan is only 45 minutes away!
One of my favorite jaunts is the trail at Rosy Mound Recreation Area. Rosy Mound is a dune in Grand Haven, Michigan with about a “7” degree of difficulty, but with benches along the way and a manicured path. I have walked this trail in every weather condition, including dead of winter. And in winter, the 400 steps are so laden with packed snow, it’s like a flume ride. If the flume were frozen and you had to walk instead of sit in a boat with a seat-belt.
The recovery benefits of a Michigan excursion – walk with me.
It’s summer now, and you can set your own pace and rev up all your senses. And if you cannot manage long distances, walk as far as you can. Find a bench and soak up the splendor. Half the benefit of hiking in nature is, well, nature. Take the time to look around, smell a flower, watch a squirrel leap from branch to branch – walk with me.
Practice following the rules and reading the signs
Is it okay to bring my dog? Do I have to pay to enter a park, or put a sticker on my window? Following the rules seems to fall by the wayside during active addiction and co-occurring disorders. So a walk in a State or County Park is an opportunity to practice reading and following the instructions. And with more than 100 State Parks in Michigan, there’s plenty to choose from!
Nature improves your mood. Lessens depression and anxiety!
I may not feel like going for a walk on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, but I am always glad I did. All you have to do is round a corner, come upon dappled sunlight and be present in the moment. Science has proven that viewing the beauty of nature will lighten your mood and lessen anxious thoughts. Exercise improves memory hardware, memory formation and focus.
Walking in the out of doors can solve your problems.
When you are walking a path, one foot in front of the other, thoughts begin to bubble up. Problems are solved. Decisions are made. The senses are flooded with a dopamine rush. And you think clearly and creatively.
Just for the joy of it.
A long walk is time consuming – something that comes in handy in early recovery. Also, walking up hills or on unsteady ground occupies the brain. You are busy thinking about where you are going to step, not where you might drink or use next. Going for a walk helps overall wellness – blood pressure, heart health, and cardio-vascular endurance. But most of all it inspires joy. In that regard, at Sanford we practice a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach, which honors body diversity and encourages movement for health and enjoyment.
Challenging yourself builds self-esteem.
Recovery from addiction, eating disorders, and/or mental health conditions presents a challenge. Whether you start out walking slowly around the block or free-climbing El Capitan, meeting the physical challenge of a walk will make you feel good about yourself and your recovery. And other than a State Park sticker, hiking/walking/bench sitting is free – no memberships required.
I hope you will allow me the heavy-handed color correction above, because this is how it feels to get to the top of the hill. The air is fresher, the colors brighter. And while you are walking, it’s a great time to think about the things you’re grateful for – tune up your positive thinking, mindful meditation and spirituality.
Nature makes you feel like a kid again!
Let’s face it, it has been a tough three years. Being in the moment, especially when you are alone, allows you to tap your inner child! You can be amazed by a bug, fascinated by a flower. You will feel hungrier, sleep more deeply and wake energized – ready to start the day.
Walking in a group inspires the four “Cs”
Community, connection, conversation and commitment! And community is key at Sanford; that is why we have Family Programs and Alumni Groups – to keep connection to like-minded friends. If you join a walking group (or form one) your friends will keep you on schedule. They will make you accountable. And healthy activity with sober/recovering pals is relapse prevention. You carve out time to talk about any issues, laugh and begin to establish a lifestyle that is conducive to mental and physical wellness.
Practice your practical skills!
I have added a caveat to my pro-hiking sermon – be careful. This is born of a foolish, avoidable fall and the fact that those of us in recovery, especially early recovery, must practice being realistic in our approach to life. I fell on a challenging, root-bound trail because I was wearing wedgie flip-flops. It was avoidable because I had tennis shoes in my trunk and didn’t bother to put them on. And when I looked in my backpack first aid kit for Ibuprofen, as I was a couple miles from civilization and in considerable pain, I found a couple soggy bandages, an ancient power bar, a snakebite kit and a flair.
So, take it easy. Restock your backpack. Let someone know where you will be, charge your phone, check for cell service, look at a map and assess the degree of difficulty and wear the correct clothing and footwear for weather and terrain. And while I’m at it, look at the weather forecast, pack plenty of water and health bars and don’t set off in wilderness by yourself without safety gear or pepper spray. There’s a fine line between solitary communing with nature and fashioning a crutch out of a fallen log and whimpering barefoot like those people on Naked and Afraid.
It’s Still My Favorite Thing to Do
I am not deterred by my momentary misstep, and I have learned practical skills from the experience. I’m back on the trail, because an excursion in Michigan nature is still my favorite therapy. It’s also my number one go-to recovery tool. But everyone’s recovery is unique, and I am grateful that the staff at Sanford Behavioral Health understand that mental health treatment is not a sterile process. That treatment includes a variety of real life excursions and exposure to real world situations. Recovery is lifelong, it might as well be filled to the brim with awesome experiences. Happy excursions!