Adventure Anxiety: How Mountains Heal
When I turned ten, I became a familiar face at my city’s hospital. Doctors couldn’t figure out the cause of my stomachaches, fatigue, and irritability, so I was diagnosed as lactose intolerant. (Spoiler alert: I am not lactose intolerant.) We soon realized the treatments weren’t working, and I was called in for more tests. Shortly after, I was diagnosed with severe anxiety. My school record remained to say that I was lactose intolerant.
This mishap meant that by 12th grade I still wasn’t allowed to purchase chocolate milk—and I love chocolate milk.
So how do the Appalachian Trail and anxiety mix? If anything those should be kept far far away from each other, right? The person I was four months ago would have agreed tremendously, but I can no longer recognize that person due to a recent change of events.
For as long as I could remember, I’ve been afraid of many things that people write off as normal: cashiers, phone calls, drive-throughs, hugs, photographs, sleepovers, etc. (We would be here all day). I’ve tried medications, shock therapy, even wax coatings (to prevent me from biting my nails). Nothing worked. Nature was the only consistent source of peace in my life.
This past year I took a huge leap of faith and moved away from home for the first time. 1,775 miles.
I realized that no matter how hard I worked in my living situation, I would still be stuck in the same patterns that caused my anxiety. It took heavy research but I was confident with my decision. I was fairly alone in my decision.
Most of my family doubted my ability to survive on my own, and I never thought it’d be easy, but I knew moving to the mountains was worth the struggle. I took a job in the Rockies that provided housing; that way I could still save money while working on my mental state. The anxiety that would inevitably come with moving away was overcome by the tranquility of nature and the joy it brought me.
Hiking turned me into a better, more comfortable version of myself.
Without even realizing it, I was able to communicate and make friends much easier out on the trail. It was like a safe haven; everyone was there experiencing the same beauty in their own special way. That is to say, no hiker is on the trail looking to judge another. “Hike your own hike” became my saving grace.
The Rocky Mountains have molded me into a more independent and free person, and this is a driving force behind my motivation for thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’ve seen tremendous growth in myself by being exposed to nature for the past four months, and I’m excited to see how much I could improve by hiking the AT. Who knows, maybe by the time I finish thru-hiking I’ll be able to go through a drive-through without having a panic attack.
I’m both terrified and thrilled for the challenges the trail will bring me. I feel crazy for feeling excited over wet socks and weeks straight of oatmeal. The mental game of the trail will only make me a stronger person and I can guarantee you’ll see a new Jacob when I summit Katahdin.
My advice to those reading this who similarly experience heavy anxiety.
Do not depend on others for your source of happiness, find the niche, the small piece of earth that stands out to you. If you have found something in life that brings you peace, hold on to it and never let go. Chase your dreams reasonably and give yourself time to prepare to smell the roses. Allowing yourself to surrender to nature isn’t’ something society teaches us to do, but we must learn on our own. No hiker starts hiking by climbing a 14er, even the professionals start small and make mistakes along the way. Be unapologetically yourself, because that’s the only way you will truly embody happiness.
You don’t have to move 1,700 miles away from home to break free of your anxiety; nothing works that fast. But understanding what isn’t working is the first step to fixing your life.
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