How the Trail Helped with My Anxiety
One in four people worldwide will be affected by a mental health issue at some point in their lives¹. I am one of these people. I am also one of the 18.1% of adults in the United States impacted by anxiety². I have been struggling with anxiety for many years, and have discovered, as have many others, that time spent outdoors helps me feel immensely better.
The experience of preparing for the trail, hiking the trail and returning from the trail brought with it a plethora of different emotions, triggered by the unique demands of a thru-hike. I grappled with the anxiety of starting the journey, noticed an improvement in my anxiety levels during the hike, and reconciled the differences upon my return home.
Before the trail I was intermittently plagued by different types of fear. Fear of inadequacy, failure, embarrassment, loneliness, starving, freezing, never seeing a bear, being attacked by a bear, and most importantly, not being able to dig a cat-hole quickly enough and thus pooping my pants.
The upside was that pre-trail anxiety was alternated with the pure excitement and joy of knowing that this adventure was finally going to happen.
I kept my anxiety at bay before my thru-hike by doing everything in my ability to prepare. I used the AT Thru-hiker gear list, and thoroughly researched every item to see which one would best suit my needs. I spent hours scouring The Trek, White Blaze, and gear review websites. I read every AT book I could get my hands on. Over-research is one of the ways I handle anxiety, but everyone has their own way. If you need a resource, Appalachian Trials is an excellent way to mentally prepare yourself for what lies ahead.
Nature and Mental Health
Many studies are now concluding that time spent in nature is beneficial to human health, which can seem like a no-brainer for people considering a thru-hike³ ⁴. People in Japan and South Korea are seeking solace in nature with prescribed or self-motivated forest-bathing, also called Shinrin-yoku. Thru-hiking is following these same inclinations to spend time outdoors, but taking the experience to the extreme.
There are many reasons why people embark on a thru-hike, and many—like myself,— are hoping to find something on the trail that they couldn’t find in their previous life.
On the Trail
It’s questionable whether the trail solves any of the problems that people are hoping it will, but it will undoubtedly have an impact. As the most important questions in my life became “How far am I hiking today?”, “Where is the next water source?” and “Do I have enough Snickers to last until my next resupply?”, I noticed my normal state of high anxiety and alertness to diminish. Outside of the positive impact that being outside has on mental health, I believe this is due to four main factors.
Have you ever heard of the paradox of choice? When people are given more choices than they could possibly decide to make, they can become paralyzed with the unknown, of choosing the wrong option of seemingly infinite options. The trail took away the stimuli of everyday modern life, as well as the multitude of choices I was faced with everyday. It gave me the clear and omnipresent goal of hiking North. Every tiny decision I made, whether it was where to camp, or if I should keep hiking another few miles, was in the scope of the overarching goal of reaching Katahdin. I no longer had to constantly agonize over my life purpose, my career, my place in the world, or the expectations of society (at least not as often). I was doing this one important thing and I felt as though it was special enough to deserve all of my attention. This helped the anxiety slip away.
2. Slowing Down
I’ve heard many people refer to the beauty of taking life at three miles per hour (for me, it was more like taking life at 1.5 to two miles per hour). Thru-hikers still encounter roads, traveling by car, and being in public spaces, but it is in stark contrast to most people’s prior lives of driving everywhere and spending the majority of the day indoors. It’s definitely cliche, but taking each day one step at a time can really help ease anxiety. Walking slowly and steadily toward Maine reminded me that moving forward even a little bit would get me closer to my goal, and breaking things down into attainable steps helped me not get overwhelmed by the big picture. For example, only focusing on what needed to happen to get to the next resupply, rather than the 1738 miles left to hike. I’ve tried to translate this mindset onto other big goals I want to accomplish post-trail.
3. People Are Awesome
Bombarded by the news cycle and tenuous political climate before the trail, I was convinced that the world was going to shit. However, once I actually went out and interacted with the public, the majority of people were kind. I was completely overwhelmed by the selfless compassion of strangers and the countless trail angels that went out of their way to help, feed, and brighten the day of thru-hikers. Sure, plenty of people will pass by when you’re trying to hitchhike, but the one who stops will completely make up for it. I guarantee that any thru-hiker will have a story of someone who touched them with their unbounding kindness and generosity. Not to mention the amazing fellow hikers you will meet. Stepping back from the influence of media and experiencing this kindness firsthand helped me to trust humanity more and pointlessly worry about the state of the world less. Especially when there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
When something serendipitous happens on the trail, like a hiker breaking a carabiner only to find a new one on the side of the trail, people will whisper with wide eyes, “The Trail Provides”. I’ll agree that the trail provides, but sometimes what it provides is shitty. In case you haven’t heard, it rains on the Appalachian Trail. And sometimes you’re hiking on the third day of rain in terrible shoes that make your arch stab with every step and you have two enormous swaths of inner-thigh chafing since your shorts have been wet for 36 hours that is slowing your pace to a crawl while you waddle up the trail like an injured duckling. I’m not complaining. These experiences can be humbling. They remind us why we put ourselves through the pain and reduce once enormous anxieties into thoughts that can be more readily let go.
For these reasons—and I’m sure many more—I felt different when I re-entered the bustling life back home. I felt calmer and less likely to react to things that previously would’ve set off a cascade of emotions.
It’s been four months since I summitted Katahdin, and there are parts of my life where the anxiety is slowly creeping back. I still don’t know what to “do with my life,” and I still feel pressure to choose something I feel society at large would approve of. But underneath that, deep in my bones, I can feel what the trail has ingrained in me, and just like the AT tattoo recently had etched on my wrist, I have a feeling it’ll last a lifetime.
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