Updated: Feb 16, 2021
This Sunday, November 17th, is National Hiking Day. Coincidently with the upcoming mental stress of the holidays fast approaching, this day, or rather a wellness practice for myself, is needed now more than ever in today's go-go-do-do, fast paced culture.
With mental illnesses on the rise, things like anxiety and depression have seemed to become an epidemic normalized as a part of life. But what if mental issues could be reversed? What if anxiety and depression were actually symptoms to get us to do things differently that nurture ourselves rather than a cause to never-ending pain and suffering we just have to accept as apart of our daily lives?
I used to struggle with anxiety and depression since I was 11 years old. I would be that kid always on edge that I would would have sweaty hands and armpits drenching my shirts in the middle of winter. Gross I know. Thankfully that's not an issue anymore. I would have racing thoughts that would put me in a downward spiral of emotions of intense fear and sadness. Thinking there was something wrong with me and that I was too broken to be fixed. I'm glad I've moved through those painfully wrong beliefs about myself. Yet, one key part of my wellness journey to overcoming racing thoughts, limiting beliefs, and fears has been through a diligent practice of hiking.
In 2017, I did a challenge of hiking for about an hour 2 days a week for an entire summer. It felt good, productive and calming. I didn't know how great of an impact it was until I dropped it for a while and felt all the creeping uncontrolled thoughts and fears would stop me from enjoying and actually doing things that moved me forward in my life. In the last years through much awareness and scientific study, I found hiking to provide these 5 benefits to help me go from uncontrollable anxiety and bouts of depression to feeling grounded and at ease in making decisions and moving forward in things I want for myself, because too often the thoughts and beliefs of anxiety and depression would freeze me in a panic in a way where I didn't do anything or talked me out of things that would take me out of my comfort zone.
So let's dive in to the reasons HOW hiking benefits in reducing mental illness....
1.) Hiking Increases Connection
Chronic states of social isolation is linked to anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Internet and social media technology allow us to remain in others lives without actually having to connect with them. We as humans, are social mammals that require real connection with others in order to develop well and thrive. When we don't connect, we feel unwell. Sometimes being with people can be too much for us. Nature is more gentle and has hundreds of thousands of living and breathing organisms. Even the air is filled with living microbes interacting with your airways and skin. Hiking allows us to be with other living organisms, either plant or microbes, and allows us to feel connected as they are just as alive as we are.
It transitions the belief of "I'm alone and no one understands me" to "Awwwee this feels amazing to be surrounded by so much life that completely supports me without judgement." Being in nature keeps us connected, when we otherwise feel isolated.
2.) Hiking Reduces Negative Repetitive Thoughts
The heightened senses of connection of our thoughts that repeat themselves start to slow as you become mindfully aware of just how fresh the air is passing through your lungs and find small relief in the clear air when you are hiking in nature. It's as if the extra clear oxygen nourishes the cells to open and relax. As the breathe becomes deeper, clearer, and more relaxed the mind starts to follow along with the eyes relaxing its strain from phones, computers, and To-Do lists. Hiking in nature connects us to be present in the moment with other natural living things that it interrupts us in a way where our thoughts have difficulty concentrating on what is going on in our mind when we start to feel all the different senses of our body sending the brain messages of what is sees, smells, feels in the natural environment.
I encourage you to test out going on a hike for 30 minutes to preferably an hour when you notice constant negative thoughts playing over and over again. Usually they are the same negative thoughts said in your mind multiple times in one day, taking away your ability to enjoy your day or focus on other mental thoughts that build you up rather than tear you down. Take note of the thoughts and feelings you experience at the beginning and again at the end. Notice the difference. The more times you hike the more you will the notice the difference widen from cluttered, jumping, fast paced thoughts to clear, calm, and even paced thoughts.
3.) Hiking Reduces Stress
The nervous system controls our ability to move in and out of feelings of stress. Stress is natural and is necessary for survival. However, we live in a culture where we glorify being busy and overworked, putting many in a chronic state of overwhelming stress. Learning about the nervous system allows us to have more control over our internal state and manage everyday stressors, and when taken care of move through larger stressors such as grief from a loss of a loved one.
Being in and surrounded by nature has shown to regulate the nervous system. Hiking in nature allows to reduce stress more quickly as it compounds the stress reduction involved with physical exercise along with the added stress reducing benefits of being in a natural environment. Even a 10 minute hike can easily reboot your mind and body to be more calm to take on a hectic day.
4.) Hiking Regulates Mood
The human body has over a hundred billion nerve cells. Your entire body is literally filled of feeling messages. How we feel indicates whether we do or don't do something. Before we take action we feel an emotion. Having anxiety, depression or another mental illness greatly impacts the ability for us to do things we really want to, but our feelings of not wanting too or fears of what may or may not happen haunt us to remaining stuck.
Specifically, the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area, as opposed to participants who walked in a high-traffic urban setting, showed decreased activity in a region of the brain associated with a key factor in depression.
5.) Hiking Improves the Ability to Focus
Hiking in nature gets us grounded so we may better heal and thrive in our everyday lives. A study has shown that time in nature was found to have a positive effect on mood and aspects of cognitive function, including working memory, as well as a dampening effect on anxiety. This supports that mental fatigue and concentration can be restored or improved by spending time in or looking at nature.
I don't know how many times I have gotten myself unstuck from swirling through options on making a decisions by going in the woods. Whenever I hike, I feel my mind calm and then open up to focus on a clear solution simply by allowing myself the time to get unstuck by going out for a hike.
Enjoy these benefits this, Sunday November 17th, on National Take a Hike Day or for longer lasting benefits take up your own challenge of hiking in nature. There really is no wrong way to do it, only if you don't do it at all. So grab a friend, your dog, or go it alone and experience all the wonderful health benefits that hiking has to give!