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A hike might save your life someday.

A hike might save your life

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.

John Muir

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.

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.

Friendship.

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.   

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How to disconnect from technology, hint: it’s not as hard as you might think

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to disconnect from technology these days. From smart phones to connected watches, digital personal assistants to connected appliances, technology and our lives have so many touch-points. Heck, even that clock on my microwave is a non-yielding blast of cold digital color.

Why disconnect from technology?

Some augmentation is good, but when you end up speaking to Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or Google more than people in your home—when you end up using technology as a crutch to help you connect less rather than a tool to help you connect more effectively and more deeply, you might have a problem.

You don’t need to do something drastic to try disconnecting.

Here are five things you can try today to help you disconnect from technology. These suggestions will help give you the space between digital and real-life reality to reset and re-evaluate how to use technology to create deeper communication.

Turn off all notifications for a day

Both Android and iPhone have a do not disturb mode. Activate this mode for an entire day and see how it changes your perspective on the phone in your pocket. It’s kinda like leaving your phone at home, except with the added benefit of having it close-by in-case of an emergency.

Take all meetings in person

The first time I saw it, I could barely believe my eyes. People in the same office were using video conferencing to meet with each other. Sure you don’t have to leave the convenience of your own desk, but there are certain human mannerisms and communication subtleties that can’t be fully appreciated from the comfort of a computer screen. Spend one day conducting all intra-office meetings in person.

Eat lunch with a human

Whether you work remotely, or in an office, it can be tempting to sit on your couch or at your desk and have lunch. Instead, if you work in an office, ask an office friend or a colleague you don’t know, to grab a bite. If you work remotely, eat lunch with a friend or colleague in the same town.

Instead of Googling, phone a knowledgeable friend

Have a question about health? Technology? Science? Home repair? Instead of looking the answer up on Google, phone a friend or walk into a store. Sometimes there are tips, tricks, and context we get from humans that we don’t get from a written article.

Call instead of text

Ok, this one still involves technology, but this is a good example of using tech to connect more deeply. Texting can be impersonal and isn’t always great at conveying exactly what you’re attempting to convey (emotion, context, empathy, etc). For an entire day, if you have more than two text exchanges with someone, pick up the phone and give them a call.

Disconnecting from technology doesn’t have to be hard. These are simple steps you can take to adjust how you use technology in order to communicate more deeply.

Of course, if you’re interested in a weekend cleanse of technology, please join us at Camp Press this year. 🙂

All for now! Leave your tips on how to disconnect from technology in the comments.

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Top hiking gear from the community!

If you’re a gear-head like me, the mere thought of shopping for a new piece of hiking tech probably gets you excited. I found out during a couple live adventure chat sessions that I’m not alone. Members of the Hiking with Geeks community weighed in on their top hiking gear. Some of it is for thru hiking, and other items are great for every day. Although, to be honest, I’m the sorta guy that uses hiking gear year round as my regular travel work rig.

Below you’ll find the gear mentioned in the chats over the last few months. Enjoy!

Top hiking gear from the community

These are items that have been recommended by community members. Hit them up on Slack (their usernames are listed next to their recommendation) or @ mention them in the gear channel.

Hydration

Osprey Manta AG 28 Hydration Pack – 2.5 Liters -wrradez
Tritan Squares Water Bottle -dominique
Camelbak Unisex Adult 100 oz Antidote Reservoir -longstride

Tech

USB-C / Type C Input & Output RAVPower 20100mAh -longstride

Traction

Kahtoola MICROspikes Traction System -valcanogirl73
REI Co-op Carbon Composite Men’s Power Lock Trekking Poles – Pair -longstride

Footwear

Vasque Sundowner Boot -ecsralnc
Lowa Renegade Hiking Boot -longstride

Camping

Therm-a-Rest Z Seat -longstride
The Happy Camper – Hammock Camping Shelter System -analog

Insulation

KAVU Jacket (specifically ridgeway) -longstride
Smartwool NTS Micro 150 Combo Tee -longstride

Got something of your own to add?