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Ecopsychology As Therapy For Treating Addiction

Immersing oneself in nature and appreciation of life helps heal

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Shopping for fulfillment

Most of us will admit to some amount of addiction. Some of us can’t do without our morning coffee, some of us can’t step away from our phones. Some of us turn to alcohol, other substances, such as opiates. There’s porn, and then there is being a workaholic, a gambler, or a shopaholic.

And many more.

My husband accuses me of gardening/renovation addiction. I can’t put down seed catalogs. If you have seen a gardening magazine, you know they are highly unrealistic depictions of how gardening is — and any house project is mostly hot mess chaos until reveal day.

I counter that he can’t stop with the technology gadgetry porn. But which activities and substances really qualify as addiction? And what is the overlap between substance and activity addiction?

First, what is addiction?

When we are stimulated by anything, brain receptors flash and a sort of tweet of sweet dopamine fires in the neurons.

Dopamine is not the only “more please” neurotransmitter, but it is the quickest and most effective at getting us to want to repeat the behavior.

Any kind of immersion into an interest is not addictive in and of itself, but many researchers today note that the same dopamine receptors in our brains are activated in several of us in relationship to habits and routines, and our increasing dependency on the convenience of food, substances, technology and more.

The pandemic, notably, has disrupted this, and that’s a double edged sword.

Several overlapping criteria apply in designating an addiction. There is not total agreement in order, or even descriptions, of symptoms. Some research says that obsession happens before social disengagement, for example. A social scientist may say that poverty and/or greed are drivers of it.

We are all programmed to certain behaviors, for example, and taught they are socially acceptable. Consumption of goods and new products, for example, or social drinking.

Can’t stop obsessing

But in general, the signs of addiction are constant rumination about the substance and/or activity, disengagement from former interests, depression, increasing isolation, tolerance to the substance or activity that becomes “normal.” That is, without my sugar, internet, Instagram, or Bingo night, (whatever)“I don’t feel quite myself.”

A person can’t stop checking their device, and/or supply. This, of course, leads to more and more of the stimulus required to feel the same amount of “high.”

Our brains are susceptible to addiction in the modern age.

In Ecopsychological theory, the answer lies in our 200,000 year human history as tribal nomads, and seasonal seekers for food and shelter. We had most of our needs met by immersion in community with one another, and with nature.

Now we have few communal ties that remain for a lifetime. Our elders may have retired to Florida. Our built-in nanny, Aunt Sue, may have moved on from child nurturing to computer programming. We live online as much as we live within the physical world. Often, even more so.

Do you live indoors on an abstract interpretation of what is real — digital data, money, deadlines, messages, or do you live outdoors in three-dimensional immersion of the natural world?

If you do go outdoors, do you take ear buds, or your phone? Or do you feel, see, smell, taste, move through, and hear the real world?

Herein lies the crux of it; we rely on the natural world while we live virtual lives, and the disconnect affects us deep within our ancient psyches and bodies. The illusion that we don’t need nature, is false.

We need both, of course, to navigate now.

Our evolved connection to the seasonal hunting/gathering/agricultural cycles, the night sky, our fellow creatures and forests, our communal food and shaman ways, is largely gone.

In fact, few deny anymore that our species is neglecting it altogether with the result being a global climate crisis, extinction, disasters, and plagues.

What is the life that heals?

Ecopsychology simply states that we evolved with nature. We need nature. Try sustaining any kind of life without nature!

To fill the void of this missing connection, we have created new connections: The World Wide Web, social media, celebrity and media stimulation, substances and activities that either substitute for family or tribe, or dull the pain of losing it.

Many of these become addictions.

Sensory immersion in nature re-connects us to our origins. Living indoors, and living online, is not how we evolved.

Substance abuse addictions and behavioral addictions used to be viewed very differently, and were quantified in the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) and the ICD 10, (International Classification of Diseases) as very different disorders. But now medical science, social science, and even — albeit slowly — legal institutions, recognize that all types of addiction are in play in modern society.

Treating these modern challenges requires lots of solutions, not just one or another.

The opiate epidemic, for example, needs to be addressed sometimes with medication, sometimes with hospitalization, sometimes with relocation, job training and legal options that are treatment and not punishment based.

However, all addictions require education, available resources, parental guidance, and alternatives.

Nature immersion, including communal involvement with each other and the world that shares our network and DNA is one intervention that can be useful in each and every case.

The life required in healing is the biological life that is the biosphere. Our network must include all systems that support life: pollinators, bees, birds, forests, seas, and all their systemic inter-connections.

To treat an eating disorder without considering a healthier diet, plant based balance, our agricultural ways, nutritional cooking, shared foodways that emphasize our human connections, and an examination of how our eating habits affect us, for example, would fall short. Examining things such as fast food, industry profits, and societal needs factor in. Why do we choose the delicious fries over the better choice of kale and carrots, it’s a whole system.

We share one planet now, and we are connected like never before. We can use our technology to improve and to connect even farther. But, it also helps to remember how we got here in the first place, and to treat one another not as addicted losers, but as compassionate human beings.

Our belonging to each other and the planet — ecopsychology — is a great foundation to address our many issues with the most powerful medicine of all, our belonging.




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Christyl Rivers, Phd.

Christyl Rivers, Phd.

Ecopsychologist, Writer, Farmer, Defender of reality, and Cat Castle Custodian.

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