The 3-Day Effect: How Reconnecting with Nature Can Aid Your Recovery
Modern humans (i.e., homo sapiens) have been around for roughly 300,000 years. The digital age, driven by laptops, mobile phones, the internet, etc., has existed since the ‘80s. While there’s no turning back from technological progress, nor would most people want to, it’s important to understand that the digital age constitutes but a miniscule blip on our evolutionary highway. And, some might argue, our bodies and minds have yet to adjust to this historical blip.
For tens of thousands of years, our brains and bodies slowly developed with and adjusted to their surroundings. For example, up until recently, most people grew tired when it was dark and more alert when it was light thanks to our circadian rhythm. But in today’s world of artificial lights and screens, disruptions in our circadian rhythms and a host of related conditions are common.
The point is that nature—and the lack thereof—can impact humans physically, psychologically, and emotionally. For those in recovery reconnecting with nature may be a tool to help sustain a healthy, balanced, and mindful lifestyle.
Nature Helps Restore the Mind & Body
Intuitively, most of us understand that spending some time in nature is a good thing. However, it’s not merely a philosophy or an opinion spouted by outdoorsy types. There is a growing amount of scientific evidence that supports it.
For example, let’s take a look at a popular notion called the 3-Day Effect. David Sawyer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, coined the term. In a 2012 study, Sawyer studied a novice backpacking group immersed in nature for 4 days. The study roughly indicated a 50% increase in problem-solving skills among participants after the immersion. During the study, Sawyer observed that right around the 3-day mark is when participants received a sort of neural reboot and reported being more creative—hence the term 3-Day Effect.1
Multiple other studies also have examined the correlation between nature and our mental and physical health. For example, according to a review published in the Science Advances journal, research indicates that various types of nature experiences are associated with mental health benefits.2 These benefits include:2
- Positive affect (i.e., positive emotions and expressions).
- Happiness and subjective well-being.
- Positive social interactions, cohesion, and engagement.
- A sense of purpose.
- Improved ability to manage life tasks.
- Decreases in mental distress.
Additionally, this same review indicated that nature experiences have been associated with better sleep and reductions in stress, and growing evidence suggests that such experiences are associated with decreased incidence of other disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.1
Wilderness Immersion as a Treatment Method
While many treatment centers now incorporate some form of ecotherapy into their treatment plans, wilderness therapy has become increasingly popular in recent years. In short, wilderness therapy is a form of adventure-based therapy that blends traditional treatment methods with immersion in nature. Although treatment approaches may differ among treatment programs, the natural setting is a shared, key element.
Particularly in early recovery, when many people confront negative thoughts and emotions through therapy and education, a natural setting may correlate to a likelier receptiveness to introspection and dialogue, as well as to an overall enhanced treatment experience.
How to Incorporate Nature into Your Recovery
In a perfect world, the 3-Day Effect would be incorporated into recovery via regular, leisurely walks in the park, weekend camping or glamping expeditions, and/or amazing retreats in exotic destinations. And if you’re living in a perfect world, by all means go for it. But if you’re stuck in the real world with the rest of us, there are still a host of nature-infused options at your fingertips.
These tactics may help breathe some fresh air into your life and potentially aid your recovery.
- Plant and maintain a garden.
- Spend a few hours or a full day at a city, state, or national park.
- Take a mindful walk, preferably within greenways and parks.
- Meditate or simply relax outdoors.
- Participate in outdoor recreation (e.g., hiking, kayaking, fishing, biking, etc.).
- Join a nature-related group.
- Explore outdoor hobbies (e.g., birdwatching, plant identification, etc.).
- Join a nature club.
- Encourage members of your support network or recovery group to join you in outdoor activities and/or group meetings.
Albert Einstein once said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” In recovery, a deep look into the great outdoors might not make everything better. But even a quick glance will likely breathe a little energy and vitality into your day.