Can you Unplug and Hike for Improved Mental Health?
In about two weeks, I will fly to San Diego and begin my journey hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail. As I pack up my apartment, gain the last approvals from my corporate job, and go on shakeout hikes to test my gear, my emotions have spanned from excitement to fear to “what the heck am I getting myself into??”.
I can’t help but feel the weight of my decision to temporarily uproot my day-to-day life. Leaving the friends, family, hobbies, job, and life that I have created for myself feels scary, and well, a little crazy. I realized, however, that it feels scarier to not chase after extraordinary adventures.
I have thought a lot about what my PCT journey means to me. I have journaled, set intentions, and worked with my therapist (thank you for already being a key part of my journey!) to prepare my mind to accept every part of this journey ahead. Below are my notes on things that I want to take away from my experience:
- Deprogram my brain from how to “be good” or “be successful” or “fit in”.
- Learn to define life through things that make me happy and alive like connection and time in nature and perseverance.
- Allow the hard miles to teach me how to trust my own strength and ability to overcome obstacles.
- Unplug and understand what makes me, me.
- See, firsthand, the healing power of nature.
Time to Unplug
As I prepare to completely unplug, I am looking forward to paying more attention to my inner thoughts, how I speak to myself, and how I process my emotions without the common distractions that we all experience daily. I find myself often existing distracted rather than living purposefully.
Between TV, podcasts, Zoom meetings, and social media, it is entirely possible to move through each day constantly stimulated. I drive my car with a podcast playing. I walk while listening to an audiobook. I work out while listening to music. I hike… in silence.
I have always viewed hiking as a sacred time to check in with myself and see how I am really doing. If I adopted this mindset to unplug in more areas of my life, what would I learn about myself?
Can you Unplug and Hike for Improved Mental Health?
In recent years, research has boasted about the healing power of nature. Studies have shown that the silence, cognitive and physical challenges, and time in nature associated with hiking has the power to:
- Boost Creativity
- Reduce Cortisol (Stress) Levels and Enhance Mood
- Reduce Symptoms of Anxiety
- Increase Cognitive Processes
- Nurture Relationships with Others
So… will hiking over 2600 miles improve my mental health? Maybe! I am ready to unplug and find out!
I challenge you (yes! a homework assignment!) to join me in my experiment to unplug:
- Drive without a podcast/music/audiobook on your next commute or errand.
- Start your day with 5 minutes of quiet time.
- Go on a walk (or hike!) without your headphones.
- Work without music or TV on in the background.
- Workout without distractions.
When you tune into your own mind instead of distractions, what comes up?
Disclaimer: Mental Illness and “Hike for Mental Health”
Everyone deserves to experience the simple joys and have the opportunity to fall in love with life every morning. All too often, we lose people. We lose people to the pressure of fitting in. We lose people to clouds of depression, anxiety, addiction, or eating disorders. We lose people to desperate battles against mental illness.
Mental illness can prevent people from enjoying the little things in life. For people who struggle with mental illness, a walk in the woods is rarely a solution for an altered mindset or reduced anxiety and depression. Hiking in a field of wildflowers, a beautiful sunset, or that first sip of coffee in the morning are just not enough.
Understanding the challenges of living with mental illness is key to supporting those who struggle. And understanding these challenges and finding therapies to support our family, friends, and community who struggle with mental illness requires research. That is why I am working with HIKE for Mental Health to spread awareness, de-stigmatize mental illness, and raise money for innovative mental illness treatments* and trail conservation organizations^.
I am personally donating $1 per mile (up to $2650) that I hike on the PCT. For every step I take, every mile I complete, I will be making a difference with my donation to protect our trails and find treatments for mental illness. I am amazed at how much this is already empowering and encouraging me to get on the trail. My goal is raise over $8,000 throughout my PCT journey. I will be posting milestone updates and donations to my HIKE for Mental Health fundraising page if you would like to follow along or donate.
*The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation is “committed to alleviating the suffering caused by mental illness by awarding grants that will lead to advances and breakthroughs in scientific research”.
^The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Pacific Crest Trail Association are non-profit trail maintenance organizations that “protect, manage, and advocate” for our national scenic trails.
Mental Health Resources
Awareness is key to supporting those struggling with mental illness. If you or someone you know has a mental illness, is struggling emotionally, or has concerns about their mental health, resources are available to you. Visit the National Institute of Mental Health webpage to find the right resource.
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