Like the old adage about teaching a man to fish, teaching relapse prevention techniques is one of the most crucial components of a quality addiction recovery program. Addiction is a chronic disease with high relapse rates. Though relapse is common, having a toolbox of ways to avoid potential triggers and deal with stressful situations is key to maintaining sobriety, or at least recognizing quickly that you’ve “fallen off” and need help getting back on your sober path.

woman sitting on floor tending to potted plants.

Exploring Relapse Prevention Techniques: Gardening

Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Gardening

It is no surprise that humans benefit significantly from nature. People are typically drawn to a healthy green space over other types of environments. Our bodies are intrinsically tied to plants and nature and for good reason.

Today, addiction treatment professionals agree with what gardeners have known all along – gardening can have a significant positive impact, not only on our overall mental well-being, but our physical health too!

Engaging in therapeutic horticulture can range from starting a vegetable garden to expanding your indoor plant collection, or even discovering the art of Bonsai! Some of the best benefits plants and nature have on individuals include:

  • Gardening reduces stress. 
  • Individuals who start gardening discover a stronger sense of connection with others and the world around them. 
  • Keeping a garden helps promote physical activity.
  • An increase in physical exercise helps lower blood pressure. 
  • Physical activities and exercise can help battle symptoms of depression and promote feelings of contentedness.

At the end of the day, spending time around nature, plants, or the great outdoors helps people find balance. And when people find balance, especially in recovery, they begin to find the willpower to change their long-term lifestyle factors for the better.

mans hand adding seeds into dirt.

Caring for a Garden Has Both Physical and Mental Health Benefits. (Photo Credit: Binyamin Mellish)

“Your intuitive powers increase when you are with plants because your mind is silenced, and you become more aware in the present moment.” 

Sanchita Pandey

Addiction Relapse is Not a Singular Event

Around 75% of clients who attend drug and alcohol addiction treatment will relapse, usually within the first year after treatment. For many, relapse is frightening. But, it is essential to understand that just as with any other chronic disorder, relapse is common and simply indicates that you need to make adjustments and try again.

Nonetheless, relapse is dangerous for individuals who have weaned themselves off of drugs as they are more susceptible to overdose. Understanding how relapse progresses, common relapse triggers, and having a relapse prevention plan in place is instrumental in maintaining your sobriety journey.

Emotional Relapse

Though most people refer to relapse as a singular event of consuming drugs or alcohol after having been “clean” for x-amount of time, relapse is actually a process that happens gradually, typically over weeks or months.

The first of the three stages is emotional relapse. During this time, an individual isn’t even thinking about using drugs or alcohol again, rather their physical and emotional behaviors start to decline. They become more restless, irritable, and anxious, experiencing mood swings and negative thinking. They might stop going to meetings, begin to isolate themselves and stop prioritizing good eating and sleeping habits. If recognized, emotional relapse is the easiest point to rebound from.

Mental Relapse

Eventually, the toll of these negative behaviors leads to mental relapse. During this stage, you begin to think about using again. Starting with fleeting thoughts of escape, to glamorizing past use, and even specifically planning it with the notion that it’ll be “just once” or you’ll be able to “control it this time.”

Drug cravings begin to take over. Once you’ve entered the late stages of mental relapse, it isn’t long before it turns into physical relapse.

Physical Relapse

The last of the three stages is physical relapse. At this point, you’re putting yourself in high-risk situations where consuming drugs or alcohol are highly likely, and turning around is near impossible.

There is a multitude of potential triggers and stressful situations that begin the cycle of relapse. Understanding what your common triggers are and how to work through them, as well as recognizing the symptoms of emotional relapse is critical for relapse prevention.

woman smiling and looking at her potted plant.

Gardening Can Help Give a Person a New Sense of Purpose. (Photo Credit: Ketut Subiyanto)

Importance of a Relapse Prevention Plan

Here at SJRP, we understand the importance of having a relapse prevention plan in place when clients leave our substance abuse treatment center. A personalized plan helps increase awareness of relapse-inducing behaviors and provides a plan for relapse prevention.

These plans, commonly printed on a small card in your wallet or saved in a notes app on your phone, will typically include contact info of your primary support person/people, descriptions of internal and external triggers, a list of healthy coping skills, and your personalized strategy for handling a situation when you’ve been triggered.

Common Relapse Triggers

There are many common triggers and reasons for relapse. Boredom is one of the most significant contributors. Some of the other most noted causes of relapse include:

  • Stress
  • Emotional distress
  • Negative self talk
  • Boredom
  • Withdrawing from your support systems in an attempt to forget about your past and move on with life.
  • Taking on too many responsibilities and not prioritizing self-care and healthy habits.
  • Not being prepared, or being too sure of yourself, at celebratory occasions.
  • Becoming too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT). Though we all experience these things naturally, it is a lack of self-awareness that can perpetuate seemingly normal situations into risky ones.
  • Environmental changes involving family, friends, work, responsibilities, etc.
  • Exposure to alcohol or drug use in your environment. For example, living in a neighborhood with a lot of substance abuse, or passing a liquor store on your walk to work every day.
  • Being in the presence of drugs or paraphernalia.
  • Spending time in places where you once used.
  • Staying in touch with people who you would drink or use drugs with. Simply keeping their contact info in your phone is an unnecessary temptation.
  • Unexpectedly encountering an old trauma.
  • Untreated physical or mental health issues.

As such, our aftercare treatment is an integral component of our residential program. Clients are encouraged to continue individual therapy along with attending local support groups. Armed with a thorough understanding of relapse triggers, healthy coping mechanisms, and relapse prevention techniques, individuals have the best chances of maintaining lifelong sobriety.

Relapse Prevention Techniques: Gardening

There are many relapse prevention techniques including eating a healthy diet, getting quality sleep, exercising, practicing grounding techniques, and so on.

hands using a small spade to dig into a vegetable bed while another set of hands pours water from a can into the soil.

Photo Credit: Johnathan Kemper

One of the best relapse prevention strategies is to take up a hobby. From book clubs to martial arts and everything in between, hobbies help us stay busy, keep our minds occupied, and create a healthy outlet for stress reduction. They can also be a great way to surround ourselves with positive, supportive people with shared interests.

Hobbies like yoga, biking, surfing, or rock climbing promote physical activity. While others can be more creative in nature like painting, writing, playing an instrument, or sculpting.

Gardening and caring for plants is one such hobby. It isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for the body, mind, and soul. Those recovering from alcohol or drug abuse can find particular joy in gardening as they immerse themselves in the rewarding and therapeutic plant world. Here are seven ways gardening and plants can help prevent relapse:

#1 Immersing Yourself in Gardening Helps Prevent Boredom

Boredom is one of the top culprits of relapse in addiction recovery.

Before rehab, your life revolved around drugs or alcohol, and the days were spent constantly seeking the next fix. During your stay at an addiction treatment center, your days were fully planned out, and often surrounded by other people. You were perpetually moving from one therapy to the next, one activity to the next.

But now that you’re back home and trying to resume a normal life, you may find that you no longer know what to do with your time. Finding a new hobby to keep your mind and body busy is vital to preventing relapse.

Enter: Gardening.

Gardens need attention – planting, watering, feeding, pruning, even some talking to. Gardening is a perfect escape from boredom. From food gardens to fruit trees, and flower beds to Bonsai trees, you can spend hours learning about new plants and how to cultivate a working garden for yourself. Once you get your plants together, you can spend your free time caring for them and enjoying their beauty.

#2 The Gardening Community Can be a Wonderful Support Network

An essential part of a relapse prevention plan in recovery is the establishment of positive relationships and the cultivation of community through a peer support group. But support groups can come in all shapes and sizes.

two women chatting while gardening.

Gardening Helps People Build Strong, Healthy Community Ties. (Photo Credit: Zen Chung)

It’s reported that 55% of American households engage in some form of gardening. Meaning, there’s a good chance some of your fellow garden enthusiasts have dealt with drug or alcohol addiction themselves or with family members.

Engaging in a new community that shares hobbies like gardening is an excellent relapse prevention tool, especially if others can relate to your situation. But even if not, you’ll have the opportunity to learn new skills, bond over common interests, and create new friendships.

Good relationships help to boost self-esteem, positive thinking, and overall well-being. Gardening can help you build these types of connections and as you continue to distance yourself from substance abuse, your mental and physical health will flourish.

#3 Growing Plants Provides a Sense of Purpose

Having too many responsibilities can overwhelm people, but having no responsibilities can also adversely affect the human psyche. Humans find purpose in work, and we thrive on working on tasks that bring value to us or the lives of others. Not every individual who completes inpatient treatment has the opportunity to engage in such activities, at least not right away.

Taking up gardening or plant care can help individuals struggling to establish themselves in their new life. Gardening allows you the opportunity to set down roots, literally and figuratively. You’ll find satisfying value in your work as your plants begin to grow and thrive right before your eyes.

#4 Plants Help You Breathe Easier

Though caring for plants does not always mean working outside, outdoor gardens do provide you the opportunity to regularly get fresh air and sunshine. Direct sunlight is our bodies’ primary way of getting vitamin D, which helps fight disease, improve mood, and boost natural energy. Spending time outdoors is good for your body and your mental well-being.

But keeping plants inside the home can help you breathe easier as well!

Some plants are natural air purifiers, and all greenery helps boost the quality and freshness of the air inside your home. Some research also shows that plants in the house can increase overall focus and productivity. Taking a few deep breaths of clean air can help you feel more grounded and in control, especially on days when responsibilities are weighing you down.

#5 Gardening Reduces Stress and Anxiety

Gardening and plant care often involve a process. From watering to repotting, training branches to cutting away dead leaves, preparing soil to harvesting your bounty. Every aspect of gardening allows you to engage in a process that occupies your mind in an almost meditative state.

Directing your attention and focusing on the task at hand allows you to stop ruminating on other issues in your life. Thus allowing you to relax, alleviate stress, and improve your mental well-being. Allowing your mind to relax can also help bring clarity to any conflicts you’ve been dealing with.

man touching and looking at his indoor plants.

Gardening can be used as a mindfulness based relapse prevention tool. (Photo Credit: Jamie Fenn)

#6 Active Plant Care Promotes Physical Fitness

Not every form of plant care involves a lot of physical activity, but the truth of the matter is, gardening can be hard work! Tasks like digging, raking, sowing seeds, bending down, and hauling watering cans and dirt all get your muscles moving and blood circulating.

A mere 15 minutes of moderate exercise each day has been shown to benefit your health and increase life expectancy. Actively taking care of your plants or garden even once or twice per week contributes to your physical fitness!

#7 Growing and Caring for Your Plants Allows You to Cultivate Something You are Proud of

Addiction is a disease that takes everything from the people it affects. It is a complex condition, difficult to overcome, that wreaks havoc on a person’s life. Even so, addiction is not impossible to beat. You’ll feel immense accomplishment when you complete substance abuse rehab. There is so much to be proud of; you’ve come a long way!

But many individuals return to pieces of a life they once knew that now need to be built back up. And working to care for your garden or grow your own food can significantly improve your chances of maintaining sobriety and preventing relapse.

One of the most significant ways you can help yourself keep pushing for sobriety is to continue giving yourself things to feel proud of and create a sense of accomplishment.

Addiction takes a great deal from people. But gardening can give you a sense of accomplishment and pride in your work and the products you produce.

chalkboard sign in the middle of a flower garden that reads: "As I work on the garden, the garden works on me."

“As I work on the garden, the garden works on me.” (Photo Credit: Mike Erskine)

Holistic Drug or Alcohol Addiction Treatment at SJRP

Addiction recovery is hard. And working to prevent relapse may feel like a full-time job. After all, addiction is a lifelong disease. But the work you dedicate to your recovery and healing is worth every effort you exert. A sober life is a beautiful and hopeful life.

Hobbies provide those in recovery with clarity, purpose, and focus in their new life. Amongst other relapse prevention techniques, gardening can help you in your recovery journey by giving you something to care for, lose yourself in, and share with others. 

Here at St. John’s Recovery Place, we want to help you heal. Through a personalized treatment plan, we work to provide our clients with as many complementary, holistic healing services and traditional therapies as possible. We arm you with the foundation and tools you need for a successful recovery, including a support system you can rely on after inpatient treatment ends.

After rehab, individuals are encouraged to join our Alumni Group, continue therapy, and attend local support groups.

If you or your loved one is struggling with a substance use disorder, call us today at 1-833-397-3433 to learn more about our residential addiction treatment program.