Mental Health Notes from a Hiker in Quarantine

It was June 7, 2018. I’d spent three days in Kennedy Meadows waiting for a hiker called Enterprise to catch up, and it was that night around that campfire when I started falling in love with him. We drank beers and talked nerdy to each other, but as the night deepened, the subject of mental health came up. Both of us had our struggles, and we were both using the trail to help pull ourselves out of slumps. It wasn’t a cure, but it certainly did some good.

What to do About Mental Health Now

When stay-at-home orders were first issued, I saw some hikers justify heading to or staying on trail anyway because it was how they treated their mental health, and I can’t help but sympathize. As my own mental health went on some unpleasant spikes recently, I found myself wishing I was on trail myself. Instead I’m staying home and staying safe, and trying to apply what I’ve learned to this newest adventure we’re all in together. 

As a disclaimer, I am not a mental health professional or any kind of expert. I can only speak from my own experience with my ADHD, depression, and anxiety. I found solace on the trail in the past, but now I’m trying to distill some of the most important lessons I learned like focusing on simple goals, connecting with community, and taking care of my physical health, and I’m trying to apply what I’ve learned to a life very different from what I’d imagined.

Simple Goals

People have been telling me to focus on simple goals as long as I can remember, but the Pacific Crest Trail finally made the concept tangible for me in 2018. If you focus on the thousands of miles left to go before you get to Canada, you might burn out early, overwhelmed by what seems like such an unattainable goal. When I was out there, though, I found it was easy to take an already simple, if large, goal and break it down to manageable chunks. I never planned much farther than the next resupply, and sometimes found myself just aiming for the next water source. 

When goals are simple, precise, and actionable, they are achievable. But life off-trail is a lot less simple, and I find myself overwhelmed sometimes. The overwhelm can get even worse when my mental health takes a turn because, as Dickson et al write in the intro to this study, previous work “suggests that there are multiple processes involved in goal setting and pursuit that may be impaired .” Goals are important to mental health, but mental health issues making goal setting and pursuing more difficult. Sounds like a catch 22, but I’ve gotten through so far on the theory that any goal is better than no goal to pursue.

My Quarantine Goal

Maybe there are more important things to focus on, but I’ve always wanted to write a novel, and I finally did it! I succeeded because I was able to break the goal down this time in ways I’d never done before—I started by dividing it into five 10,000-word chunks, and as I outlined I broke it down to 200-word increments. As I wrote, I only focused on what I could get done in a 15 or 30 minute “writing sprint.” It was satisfying to see exactly how much I could write in 15 minutes, and by breaking the story down to those 10,000-word chunks I had moments to celebrate all through the process, which helped keep me motivated. I wrote my first ever novel during quarantine, and it felt great. 

Achieving any goal helps my mental health because it tells the intrusive thoughts that they’re wrong about me. You can also set goals specific to your mental health like the Michigan Medicine Depression Center talks about here. Sometimes even getting out of bed is a struggle, and if that’s something you’re struggling with, great, you know your goal: get out of bed by x time. It doesn’t matter how small the goal seems; if it felt like climbing a mountain, congratulations on climbing that mountain.

Community

A small goal like getting out of bed can feel isolating because you feel like nobody else is struggling with this, but if you reach out you might just find that someone else is on that same hike. One of the things I love best about thru-hiking are the communities we form. We’re all facing similar difficulties as we work toward the same end-goal, and we support each other. We say “the trail will provide,” but really, the community brought together by the trail is doing the providing. 

Material support is important, but even just the simple connection makes a big difference. As Stephanie Gilbert writes for the National Alliance on Mental Health, “we’re social beings, and we are not meant to live in isolation. Community is critical for us to thrive, especially for someone with mental illness who is already experiencing the common symptoms of loneliness and isolation.” Once my mental health takes a turn for the worst I tend to isolate myself even more, but after going through that once before I know the warning signs better and know who I can reach out to.

Embrace Technology

We can’t go out to bars together, and we can’t go to each other’s homes, but we do live in 2020 at least. A video chat is only a shadow of in-person interaction, but it’s better than nothing, and on the upside, I was able to invite friends from across the country and across the world to my birthday party. I’ve been able to regularly have game nights with friends from a city I don’t live in anymore, and when that wasn’t enough I took leftover birthday cake to friends living closer by. We stood six feet apart in the rain for an hour, and it was one of the best hours I’ve had since this all started. 

If the challenge of thru-hiking is part of what makes such tight-knit communities out there, maybe we can form tighter bonds with our local communities in the midst of all of this. I’ve seen more of my neighbors than I ever have before, and I’ve seen people more willing to help each other than ever before, and that gives me hope.

Nature and Exercise

As a hiker, exercise and existing in nature are tightly linked for me. Even this Mental Floss article about the relaxing effects of nature ends on a note about “the exercise that generally goes hand-in-hand with spending time out of doors,” and its positive effect on endorphins. This posed possibly the hardest problem for me at first.

When my trails were taken from me I stayed stubbornly inside because what’s the use in a walk around the neighborhood? In my initial research for this article I read about how calming green spaces are, and it just made me angry. I know green spaces help me relax, and I know that green spaces are good for my ADHD, but I can’t get to my trails! Sure, the suburbs are better for green spaces than when I lived in a tumble-down inner city apartment, but who cares about these stupid tiny parks for children in view of the stupid suburban homes with their monoculture lawns! I couldn’t stand it. 

Finding Nature

But there are a few small trails, and for a hundred yards at a time or so I can go without seeing a single house. I even found a little semi hidden clearing in the tiny patch of woods between two power lines that I now call my office. If I do no other walking, I at least go the half mile to my “office” and I write until my computer runs out of battery. I started running again too because the tiny trails around here aren’t enough to make my muscles scream at me like a long day of hiking. Once I got myself out and moving again, my anxiety quieted to a dull roar that I could at least work through, at least most days. 

Now as things start reopening I’ve been able to visit some hikes on state land, and I’m so grateful to the burning feeling in my calves as I climb Mount Washington again and again. It’s not thru-hiking, but even a day hike is powerfully helpful. 

Conclusion

Thru-hiking didn’t cure my mental health issues, and it never could have. Even on trail sometimes these things can nag at you. But hiking did put me in a space where I naturally had the tools to walk through what was bugging me. Without even trying, I found myself being present and mindful as my therapist had previously advised. I have to try more here and now in this new adventure, but at least hiking taught me some of the tools that are getting me through this time that I’m forcibly off-trail. 

Writing this was an act of reminding myself what resources I have, but it took a long time to write because it has taken a long time to accept what the current reality is and work through the new mental health challenges I’ve found here. In addition to everything I’ve written about above, I’m finally seeing a therapist again, and have gotten back on meds. This isn’t the last step, but I feel like I’ve hit another 100-mile marker on a thru-hike. More work awaits, but there are accomplishments to be proud of just where I’m at.

If you’re struggling, please reach out to someone. I’m a firm believer therapy can help anyone, so if you have the resources to I encourage you to see someone. And if things are dire, there are numbers you can call or text. In the US the 24-hour crisis line is 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255), or you can text “home” to 741-741. 

Stay healthy, stay safe, and I’ll see you down the trail.

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Comments 1

  • Avatar
    Jhon (Yermo) : May 28th

    I really enjoyed your article. Have you ever heard of Nimblewill Nomad? He calls the little urban and suburban areas you are looking for SHARDS of WILDERNESS. I just adore that term and I am always on the lookout for those SHARDS.
    Thank you for your article. This old coot really enjoyed it.

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