On the Path to Healing & Hiking for Mental Health

Originally posted on The Trek on January 31st, 2017

I’m sure to most of you it is a no brainer that there are some physical health benefits to hiking. It can help you control your weight, blood pressure and blood sugar, strengthen your muscles, and can even reduce your risk of heart disease. What some may be less aware of is the fact that hitting the trail can deeply affect your “mental” wellbeing as well. Many hikers experience the phenomenon of the trail’s life changing abilities every year. It may come as an epiphany; a new realization of self-worth, or it could be more gradual.

Mental Illness:

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Mental illness comes in many forms: post-traumatic stress, bipolar, and anxiety disorders, depression and schizophrenia just to name a few. They also may come in various degrees and intensities. Let’s lay down some facts, shall we?

  • According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness.”
  • The National Institute of Mental Health concludes, that out of adults living in America, 1 in 100 (2.4 million) of them live with schizophrenia, 2.6% (61 million) live with bipolar disorder, 6.9% (16 million) live with major depression, and 18.15 (42 million) live with anxiety disorders.
  • The American Psychiatric Association estimated that “the United States experienced a 24 percent increase in suicide between the years 1999 and 2014—rising from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 people—with increases for both males and females in nearly every age bracket.”
  • Suicide was the 2nd leading cause of reported deaths in the United States in 2015 for those in the 15-34 age range according to the Center of Disease Control (CDC), and 10th when you combine all deaths in all age ranges.

My Experience:

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I heard the rumor that “the trail heals,” but hit the trail not really knowing what to expect. My expectations? “I think I’ll leave the trail more physically fit than I currently am, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a slight boost in confidence.” My reality? I came out as a different person entirely, for the better.

I should mention that I’m a long-time sufferer of depression and anxiety. Not the kind you get on occasion when you’re dealing with stress, but the kind that lingers over your shoulder day in and day out, and rears its ugly, unwanted head at random. At times it can be paralyzing, but now I’ve come to terms with the fact that this is something I have to live with. With the undesirable cards that you’re dealt, you can choose to not play the game at all (what fun would that be?), or counteract that feeling of “ugh” by playing your hand as strategically as you know how to with total uncertainty.

Now I’m not stating that hiking long distances will cure you of any mental illness you may be suffering from. I’m also not seeking a pat on the back (“Go get ‘em, tiger!”), but I think it’s worth mentioning that you can go walking into the woods with a troubled mind, and come out feeling not just accomplished, but courageous.

How Hiking Heals & Hiking with a Purpose:

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I hope to spread the word of how getting out in nature, even for just 90 minutes according to a study recently done by researchers at Stanford, can help alter your brain functions in a positive way. The Stanford study in a nutshell? They discovered that those who walked out in nature had a decrease in “rumination” (as they describe negative thought patterns often relating to guilt/embarrassment), than those walking in an urban atmosphere. They also noticed less neural activity in areas of the brain relating to mental illness risks with those in walking in a natural environment versus those in an urban one.

My experience roused me to take the second time around on the trail to hike with a purpose, therefore I decided to hike for mental health. I want to raise money for The Brain and Behavior Research (BBR) Foundation where 100% of proceeds go towards grants for scientists to conduct research to better understand various types of mental illnesses. More about the BBR Foundation here, their scientific breakthroughs here, and if anyone is interested in donating to my fundraiser, you can do so here (Hey! Thanks! You’re awesome)!

Wait… What? I Want to Hike for Mental Health too:

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If you’re looking to hike for mental health yourself, you can set up a fundraising site for the BBR Foundation here. You can also set up a fundraiser or join a hike through the Hike for Mental Health Organization where proceeds will go to both the BBR Foundation and to preserving wilderness trails.

If you’re a veteran who has served in combat and have been honorably discharged, you can apply for the “Walk off the War” program to be part of a warrior expedition here. If your application is accepted, you will receive a monthly stipend for re-supply, gear and clothing, and likely transportation, lodging, and food organized from the community. If you want to donate towards Warrior Hikes, information to do so can be found here.

“Hike Happy!”

…and to help you do so, here’s a totally unrelated picture of my cat with a feather “mustache”

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for the National Suicide Prevention LifelineOutside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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