Reframing My Fear: 19 Days to Go
What if I fail?
With 19 days left until I ship out to California to start the PCT, I am surprised by how scared I am.
I’ve been backpacking for about 10 years, with about 4,000 backpacking miles under my belt. You’d think that all this experience would somehow shield me from the anxiety of taking on another trail… But here we are.
When I hiked the AT back in 2019, I was coming in with a heavy advantage over most thru hikers: I had already hiked hundreds of miles of that trail. I live and hike in the White Mountains (known by some as the hardest section of the AT), and had already hiked Katahdin and the Smokies.
Even then, I was terrified. I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt or even of being a woman traveling alone. No, the pangs of anxiety I felt were much deeper, much closer to my sense of self.
I worried that I’d forget important gear at camp. That I couldn’t keep pace with everyone else. That my depression would drive me off trail. Whatever form my fear would take, it always came down to the same, incessantly recurring thought, “What if I don’t have what it takes? What if I’m not good enough? What if I fail?”
Self-doubt is a wrecking ball.
Whether we call it “imposter syndrome” or “stereotype threat”, self-doubt can be devastating to both our performance and our mood. I feel it in my body first; a churning in my stomach, a heaviness in my limbs. Rather than activating my fight-or-flight response, this kind of stress tends to activate my dorsal vagal response, or metabolic shutdown. My energy plummets, and often I find myself physically paralyzed by fear, struggling to move or talk.
For some of us, the neural pathway that goes from “this is scary” to “I can’t do this” is deeply entrenched. Every time we repeat this pattern, we reinforce it. Over time, this habit can become so familiar that in a weird way it starts to feel comfortable, like second-nature.
When we automatically jump from fear to thoughts of quitting, we draw a circle around our potential. We stop taking risks or giving it our all. We stick to what’s safe, put limits on what is “possible”, and dismiss ideas (from ourselves and others) that challenge our stasis, even when that stasis is harmful or unfulfilling.
Choosing a Different Path
As it turns out, crumpling into a ball is not our only option when dealing with fear. Some people see challenges, instead, as a chance to prove all the haters wrong. When we encounter new challenges that push the boundaries of our comfort zone, we have a choice: Do we cower from them? Or do we rise to meet the opportunity?
When it rains, we can either complain about it and rush off to a hotel, or to splash and dance in the puddles.
When the trail gets steep and psyches us out, we can either turn around or embrace uncertainty and see where the trail leads us.
After all, the distinction between panic and exhilaration is only a matter of perspective. Physiologically, our body experiences both emotions the same way. The heart beats stronger. The breath shortens. An electric tingle surges through the extremities. The stomach flip-flops. Energy coils with tension, ready to burst into action.
Left unfocused, that energy can feel like a tornado of anxiety; but when harnessed correctly, that same energy can be channeled to overcome our challenges and achieve our dreams. It can give us energy and build our resilience. It can open up reservoirs of strength we never knew we had. It is the voice inside that says, “you got this.”
Reframing My Fear
So, armed with the power of free will, I am choosing to reframe my fears about the PCT; to take that swirling energy of anxiety and focus it like a laser beam on the obstacles that stand in my way.
When people say that March start dates are reckless and dangerous, I say “maybe for someone who doesn’t hike in snow half the year!”
When I learn that Sierra creeks could be raging during the thaw, I say, “thank goodness I still have time to refresh my crossing techniques!”
When self-doubt tells me this hike is going to be really hard, I look it right in the face and say, “you’re right, good thing I am great at this!”
Every time I choose to transform my fear into exhilaration, I make that neural pathway a bit stronger. Little by little, choice by choice, I am teaching myself a new habit. And in the process, I am realizing there was really nothing to be afraid of all along.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.