Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
My brother, husband, and I set out at 8AM on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. As the rental car wound its way up the mountain road, I sat in the backseat silently staring out the window. My heart was heavy with a thousand things. We made the trip to Northern California to visit my dad who is battling metastatic esophageal cancer. I was also fresh from a conflict with my son- another of the millions of interactions in which I’d been a less than ideal parent. My mind was also full of work problems, client concerns, summer plans… the busy mind of a modern professional adult.
I grew up in these rural northern California mountains. I was born in Redding, a small city 90 minutes south of the California-Oregon border. It is halfway between Nevada on the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Surrounded by lakes and mountain ranges, the city serves as an outpost for outdoor enthusiasts from around the world: those brave enough to attempt a summit of the 14,000ft Mt Shasta, waterfall chasers, maintain bikers, house-boaters, and those looking to experience some of California’s remaining true wilderness.
I spent my teenage years adventuring through these wild mountains with a youthful mixture of fearlessness and joy. Of course at that time I had no idea that my dirty hiking clothes and slightly sunburnt face were infusing me with some of the most valuable tools I would come to know in my career as a clinical psychologist.
With my burdened mind in tow, we arrived at the trailhead for Wiskeytown Falls. As I began the steep ascent, I felt my focus shift from the inside of my head to the dirt path in front of me.
I stopped thinking. I began to notice. The lizards, the wildflowers, the sound of the water in the stream alongside the trail, the sound of my breath, the million shades of green, the warm morning sun on my shoulders.
I felt the heaviness of my mind begin to ease. I began to see, to listen, to breath, and to walk.
In the span of a few hours, I experienced a mini-transformation. My sadness and worry dissolved and were replaced by a sense of pride at successfully tackling the mountain, a warm, pleasant awareness of the beauty my surroundings, and a gneral quieting of my usually busy mind.
I felt much better and much more capable of facing the challenges waiting for me at the bottom of the mountain.
Beyond my own personal experience, there’s substantial scientific support for hiking as a “mental health” activity.
Exercise is treatment.
Quite literally, aerobic exercise is one of the best available treatments for mild depression and anxiety. The simple fact is that our bodies and minds are deeply intertwined.
Depression happens when the pleasure centers within our brains become suppressed- sometimes the cause is chemical, sometimes it is environmental, sometimes it is an immune system gone haywire. Mental health treatment for depression involves trying to restart those pleasure centers. Hiking does that. It marinates our brains in endorphins and jumpstarts our neurological capacity to experience pleasure.
Anxiety happens when our thoughts become too loud; especially negative thoughts, thoughts about hard problems, or fears about bad things that might happen. Hiking helps to refocus the mind. One research team found that people who went hiking in nature for 90 minutes reported lower levels of rumination and had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to mental illness. Anxious thoughts become quieter in the face of a sheer cliff, a waterfall, and the physical exhaustion of the body. Hiking helps us learn to regain control over the volume dial in our minds.
Hiking has the power to change our brains.
Mindfulness is another common strategy for promoting mental wellbeing. Very simply, mindfulness is noticing. We modern humans have a tendency to tune into our thoughts and feelings and treat them as more important and powerful than our senses. Mindfulness is the practice of shifting thoughts to be one source of data, one source that is balanced by observations of our body and surroundings.
Hiking is a practice in changing our sensory data- we see, we smell, we hear, we taste, we notice the way that our surroundings interact with our body. We remember that we are part of a larger world; a world that is vast and wild and beautiful. The inner workings of our own mind tend to get a break when we let ourselves be aware of all that exists outside of us.
There’s a meditation to putting one foot in front of the other.
Accomplishment and esteem.
Many of us grapple with big problems- problems that can’t be solved in an afternoon. Unsolvable, or long-range, tasks take a lot of mental effort and emotional computing power. A hike can be completed in an afternoon. There’s an incredible sense of satisfaction that comes from setting out to tackle a trail, actually doing it, and being done. It feels good to see the difference between point A and point B. It feels good to experience the adrenaline jolt that accompanies physical exertion. It feels good to exert, to sweat, to try.
We need Oh, Shit! experiences. We need to know what it feels like to almost slide off the side of a trail. We need to know what it feels like to take a risk and be okay. We need to be reassured of our own strength. We need to see and feel the completion of a goal.
Beauty, play, and an unscheduled day.
Our brains are overburdened. Our lives are overscheduled and it is taking a toll on our mental health and productivity. Being too busy is one of the most significant blocks to creativity. In order to be the creative, problem-solving, kind of folk that most of us aspire to, we must give ourselves unscheduled time. We must allow ourselves time for activities where the sole purpose is to experience joy. Yes. I am talking about play. I am talking about getting sweaty and dirty and being outside until dinnertime. I am talking about moments to laugh at the zigzagging movements of a chipmunk, and moments to take in the awe of a waterfall. I am talking about setting down our screens and letting ourselves be immersed in the three dimensional world that is wild and dangerous and incredibly beautiful.
Hiking is a great way to spend time with other people. It is less awkward then sitting across from a stranger on a first date. It is more beneficial than binge drinking with college buddies. Being shoulder to shoulder on a hike becomes a shared experience. It becomes a bound. There will be stories to tell.
Friendship is a powerful mental health tool. Social support, as we researchers call friendship, is one of the most important buffers against falling apart in the face of terrible events. People who have friends live longer, live more satisfying lives, and are more resilient in the face of hardship. Loneliness is a silent killer.
Going on a hike with friends is hands down one of the best possible activities I can think of to support your mental health. Get out there on Hike with a Geek Day and make hiking a regular part of life.
About the author
Dr. Sherry Walling is a Minneapolis-based clinical psychologist who loves to hang out with geeks. She hosts the ZenFounder podcast about entrepreneurship and mental health, and speaks around the world about mental health in the tech world. To learn more about her work, find her at sherrywalling.com or @zenfounder on Twitter.