Nature Connectedness for Recovery from Substance Use Disorder

The pathways to nature connectedness have been applied widely to the development of activities to develop a closer relationship with nature for wellbeing. They’ve also provided a design framework for physical spaces. We’ll soon publish a paper on a pathways informed audio meditation that improves mental health. Last week saw the publication of a paper describing how the pathways to nature connectedness can be used to aid recovery from Substance Use Disorder (SUD). The work was completed by colleagues at the University of Derby and I was involved in the initial conception and made a small contribution to the paper, now published in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. It’s exciting to see the power of working with nature for wellbeing, and the utility of the pathways to inform such work.

Substance use disorder (SUD) affects millions of people. Various approaches to treatment are used including medication and counselling. Twelve step programmes (TSPs) have been found to deliver outcomes for the maintenance of abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. TSPs promote ‘restructured cognitions’ to help move away from thinking that perpetuates addiction. Accepting ‘powerlessness’ at Step 1 indicates the need for a “higher power” (Steps 2–3). With the impact on others (Steps 4–9) leading to a determination to move beyond self-centredness (Step 10) and seek a deeper, more spiritual, meaning in life (Step 11). Finally, there’s a shift from a focus on self to a focus on active service and altruism (Step 12). Previous research has found that a strong sense of spirituality was linked to reduced relapse rates. This suggests the effectiveness of TSPs lies in the creation of a spiritual connection.

Spiritual health is associated with psychosocial well-being which brings meaning and purpose. Spirituality is a key component of TSPs where participants seek a ‘higher power’, or “a god of our own understanding”. So, a goal of the TSP is the formation of a spiritual connection as fundamental as the idea of God (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1976). For flexibility around the higher power, TSPs are described as spiritual rather than religious. However, terms such as “spirituality” can present significant challenges for some, and atheists and agnostics have lower levels of TSP engagement. Therefore, alternatives to traditional deities are required.

One such alternative is nature and the human-nature relationship. Connecting with non-human life offers an opportunity to form a relationship with a higher power. Nature connectedness describes an individual’s relationship with the wider natural world and is linked to spirituality and is part of a meaningful life that facilitates a spiritual connection. The five pathways to nature connectedness provide a framework for developing nature connectedness. So, in the pilot it was proposed that they’d help individuals to use nature as a source of connection – to a power greater than themselves. Thereby providing an alternative to traditional deities within a TSP.

Nature as a Higher Power

A positive relationship with nature, where nature is offered as a higher power provides an alternative focus for people engaging in a TSP. The purpose of the pilot study was to see if using a pathways informed approach and higher power of nature worked for individuals in early recovery from SUD. Twelve volunteers from an aftercare programme of an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment centre in the UK took part. Each group engaged in four weekly one-hour sessions.

The nature sessions were designed to activate the pathways to nature connectedness (senses, emotion, beauty, meaning and compassion). For example in one session, the group were invited to consider the beauty of birds: their colour, form, and flight patterns. Paintings and photographs were displayed, and bird feathers made available to touch. Birdsong was played quietly. These sensory experiences were used as catalysts for discussion about any emotions associated with birds. The group were invited to share any meaning they found in the experience. For compassion, endangered and extinct bird species were introduced.

The control group followed an open 12 Step meeting format with a reading from Narcotics Anonymous (NA) text. The readings focused on themes such as “higher power”, “spiritual connection”, and “spiritual awakening”. The group then discussed their response to the readings.

Various measures were taken before and after the programme and, although a small pilot, significant improvements in nature connectedness, well-being, quality of life, and spirituality were found in the nature group. In contrast, no significant differences were found when a traditional deity was selected as the higher power in the control group. Of note was a five-point increase in the ReQoL 10 measure, indicating a clinical level of improvement in quality of life for the nature group.

In qualitative analysis, participants referred to pathway’s elements (e.g. beauty, senses meanings) showing pathway activation during the sessions. The approach and ability to form a connection with non-human life also led to a greater sense of social connectedness. The study provided further support for the effectiveness of the pathways approach to reconnect people with nature and improve wellbeing, but more importantly showed the effectiveness of the pathways within a therapeutic setting.

The approach also seemed to help those involved find renewed meaning in life with those taking part referring to removing negative energy, finding peace and stillness which then helped them connect with the higher power of nature.

While promising, the results are from a small pilot to support proof of concept. However, the results suggest that nature, and a reconnected relationship with it through the pathways approach, can be used as an alternative to traditional deities and could well be a highly effective approach for those recovering from substance use disorder. More widely, the study provides further support for the fundamental importance of a close relationship with nature.



Rhodes, C., Lumber, R. (2021). Using the Five Pathways to Nature to Make a Spiritual Connection in Early Recovery from SUD: a Pilot Study. Int J Ment Health Addiction.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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