Two days after a work layoff I stepped into the forest. The gray had crept into my hair, worry lines creased my face, and my stomach was a knot of emotions. Stressed by work was an understatement. But the moment I came back with only the thought of hiking, something shifted. I felt a rush of air as the entire world moved. I intended to hike as something to do, but something else happened. I soon realized I was hiking for anxiety.
Some readers may think, well, duh. You weren’t at work. Of course you weren’t anxious.
And that’s true. I wasn’t at work. Unemployment stress was repressed somewhere in the depths of my mind. The pandemic was also out in full-force, so there was that. These things still mattered, but they weren’t important in that moment. Did I think about all that while I was hiking? Yes. But being out there gave me perspective, both on the present and past.
Somewhere along the way I had forgotten how I felt in nature, replacing it with the grind and desire to make money. After family, work was my only thought. Hobbies and writing were shoved onto the back-burner. They became things I could do later when I had more time. I still listened to music, and I read some, but these were more zoning out releases. I didn’t think about them critically, and pleasure was fleeting.
Reflecting back, I wasn’t happy.
Read on for my personal testament on hiking for anxiety. If you don’t care and want to skip it, that’s okay. The list follows.
I hiked alone the first week. No matter the weather, I hiked. I was in shape (I spent a lot of time in the gym), but I was waaaay out of practice. Once upon a time I could walk a steady twenty miles with a fully-loaded pack and barely break a sweat, and then get up the next day and do it again. I couldn’t quite do that. My body was like, okay, so we’re doing cardio? and my feet were like, what the hell are you doing to us?!
So I started over. Every hike I gauged how I did- how far I went, how long it took, and how I felt. Every hike I pushed myself harder and farther. By the end of that week, my hiking for anxiety was changing into hiking for hiking.
Because of the pandemic situation, my boys ended up stuck at home and going with me. The older boy had weekly online meetings for school, but education was mostly on our own. The younger one needed a physical outlet else he’d tear the house apart board by board.
A Little Background
I used to be a teacher. This was in the before-time, when I was struggling to find a steady gig in an unsteady landscape. I taught English-Lit and creative writing in a world that was slashing arts programs in favor of test-prep classes. It was a string of long-term sub jobs and direct teacher calls. I could patch together meaningful lessons on the fly or run with whatever was being taught.
Back then I did okay.
Teaching this time around did not work out that well. Doing education at home wasn’t hard for me, but the first attempts at a “traditional” classroom setting with them just didn’t work. I thought my touch had atrophied along with everything else I neglected.
So I tried something different.
My style back then was a little different from a “traditional” classroom setting. Even when I was in the shirt-and-tie, I spent a lot of time taking my students out into nature. It required a lot of attention and control, but the pay-off was engagement and results.
It worked just as well as it did just under a decade before.
Seriously…how in the hell did I forget that?
So, anyway, my boys and I were hiking a lot. On the hikes, I would drop in little lessons and thought exercises related to nature. Math, science, history, gym, even music…they were all there. The younger boy complained without fail the first mile, but would soon replace his gripes with unending questions the farther we went out. The older boy, ever-excited for the next hike, both encouraged and taunted his little brother in a bit of brotherly love colored by schadenfreude. We walked through the summer.
That’s when I noticed a change in them.
My older boy always had a little social anxiety. He didn’t fear crowds, but he certainly wasn’t the first one to speak up and was hesitant around anyone he didn’t know. He had trouble with disrupted schedules. Noisy rooms bothered and distracted him, and his thought patterns seemed disconnected. Hiking gave him time to reflect, challenged his body, and quieted his mind. He asked more questions, and his line of questioning became more coherent. He’s still quiet, but he’s calm.
My younger boy is a raging ball of nervous energy. This is the kid that gets up at 5:30am and runs full-bore until he collapses at 8:30pm. Bounding from one activity to the next, he leaves a trail of chaos behind him wherever he goes. He talks constantly, and fills the voids with singing, imaginary conversations, and laughter. Everything is a game and a contest. To get him to focus, we need to challenge him. Hiking gave him the same quieting effect, but it also gave him focus and a physical challenge to conquer.
I have two very different boys with very different forms of anxiety displaying very similar effects.
Hiking for Anxiety
This brings us to how hiking can be used as a natural remedy for anxiety. We’re going to dive right in without any other fluff.
NOTE: I am not a doctor. Check with psychological and/or physical professionals before you start hiking. Doctors have begun prescribing hiking for a variety of maladies, but how much and how hard should be leveraged against your situation and physical condition. Even a stroll around a quiet, local park can do wonders for your mental and physical health, so don’t discount it as “something I can’t do.” Just ask your doctor, okay?
1. Hiking Breaks the Monotony
Hiking allows you to let go of your daily worries and process what’s going on in your life. You’re still going to think, but you’re better able to focus on fewer things at a time and do it more efficiently. Why not just do it at home in a darkened room, then?
Even the happiest people are affected by the dreaded “daily grind.” This can weigh heavily on our minds. When you take a hike, even if you’re doing it every day in the same place, it’s out of the ordinary. Unlike us, nature does not go through the same motions every single day, so there is something new to see, even if it’s just the weather or the changing of the seasons.
Hiking for anxiety adds gentle layers of distraction. You’re thinking about the act of hiking, like checking your footing, watching direction, and how to handle obstacles. Nature shows you it’s splendor and mystery, so you’re thinking about plants and animals around you, the sounds you hear, and the smells you smell. You’re going to think your own thoughts, but there is less room for those thoughts to swirl around and get tangled.
2. Hiking Helps You Creatively Problem-Solve
We think to solve problems. When there are too many thoughts or conflicts of attention, anxiety sets in. That’s when we get frustrated, burned-out, or make poor decisions. For some of us, it’s much more severe– we retreat into shells, we hide, or we’re paralyzed with inactivity. We know we should act, but we can’t.
Hiking allows you to flush out those extra thoughts, ruminate less, and focus more. With nature nudging you, the most important thoughts tend to float to the top. You will come up with realizations and solutions that were lost in the noise of self-doubt and fear. Even if it’s a challenging hike that requires your full attention, just getting a break from the daily thoughts that hound you allows you to return with a fresh mind. Not only is this good for your day-to-day lives, it’s amazing for creative ventures.
To fully realize this benefit, however, you have to unplug. In ages past, this wasn’t a problem as folks took constitutionals in the countryside to escape the stresses of civilized life. In the modern age, connectivity is a fact of life. You’re not going to escape stress by walking through nature while checking your social profiles or texting. If you feel you have to take pictures, leave the phone on airplane mode and post later. It can wait, you can’t.
3. Hiking Helps You See the Bigger Picture
Perspective is everything. Anxious people see but can’t focus on the world. It’s just added, frustrating noise. Untreated, this leads to helplessness, depression, and other worse situations.
Hiking, however, clears out the noise and changes the view. By looking up at a mountain, standing next to a waterfall, or wandering between trees, you’re reminded just how small you are. When you look down from a vista or tramp out in the open, you’re reminded just how vast the world is. These are important lessons, especially for those caught up in recursive, self-defeating thoughts. This opens the door to introspection.
When you’re hiking for anxiety, you’re on a quest to be reminded there is more and this, too, shall pass.
4. Hiking Conditions the Body and Mind
It’s no secret that, for someone with anxiety, health can suffer. Self-defeating thoughts and fears can lead a person to under-eat, over-eat, neglect exercise, or even exercise too hard. In kids it’s often expressed as restlessness, laziness, or hyperactivity. It really depends on the person.
Hiking, however, can be as gentle or challenging as you want- you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) start as a thru-hiker. When you hike, bones, muscles, and lungs get workouts that improve function, endurance, and efficiency. You begin to look and, more importantly, feel healthier. Arthritis, obesity, diabetes, asthma, and many, many other physical ailments take less of a toll on you. This takes time, but it’s worth it. Even if you push yourself, hiking is generally gentle and safe.
A healthy body also leads to a healthy mind. Studies in ecotherapy suggest that frequent exercise, including gentle hikes or walks, are strong weapons to regulate emotions and combat mental conditions. In addition to anxiety and depression, it has reduced ADHD symptoms in children, as well as the effects of memory loss and Alzheimer’s in the elderly.
Even if you don’t suffer from any of these conditions, the physical and mental changes from hiking enhances self-confidence. Just don’t go into the wild thinking you can wrestle grizzlies or ride alligators.
Not yet, anyway.
5. Hiking is Cheap
In a world fraught with taxes, bills, budgets, fees, and anything else money-related, anxiety can run pretty damn high. When times are tough, it gets even worse. Unlike other activities, though, hiking is relatively cheap. All it requires is proper footwear, water, and a place to go.
I did say it’s cheap, not free. There is a difference, but, in the case of hiking, it’s rather minimal. Footwear can get costly, especially if you want top-of-the-line or specialized gear, but for the casual walker, it doesn’t have to be expensive. You probably have something that will work. For more about getting started read my article on hike planning.
You also don’t have to drive miles to find somewhere to hike- most places in North America have some sort of hiking trail or park within close driving, if not walking, distance. Sometimes there is a cost to getting into parks, but it’s usually minimal, and many offer dirt-cheap seasonal passes that cost much, much less than a gym membership.
There is a good chance, however, that when your hiking for anxiety turns to hiking for hiking, you’re going to want to challenge yourself more. You’ll likely need better gear. Don’t go nuts and buy everything at once- sometimes finding the funds can be their own stressors- but slowly build it up as you progress. Improve your shoes and socks. Replace your clothing with lightweight, quick-dry synthetics. Get a daypack. The list of gear can go on and on.
Just remember, this isn’t a race, so take it slow. Improvement is important, but the first thing to improve is yourself.
Some level of anxiety affects all humans. Whether it’s “normal,” general, social, PTSD, panic, or OCD, as thinking beings we tend to get in these thinking and feeling funks where we overthink and overstress ourselves. When we stress ourselves like this, we activate our flight-or-flight reflexes. While it’s usually good for at-the-moment survival, it isn’t all that good for normal, every day interactions. It’s the double-edged sword of being thinking animals, I guess.
Hiking allows us to slow down, focus, and put our minds in order.
You don’t need any more fluffy statements about how it worked for me. I want to know if it will work for you. There is a very good chance it will.
If you want to know more, browse allwildlike.com for all kinds of hiking tips, gear advice, or trails to explore. If you have any questions, or if you just want to share what hiking has done for you, let me know in the comments!
- Sour Mood Getting You Down? Get Back to Nature – Harvard Medical School
- Mental Health Prescription: Nature – Stanford News
- Doctors Tell Us How Hiking Can Change Our Brains – Lifehack.org
- How Taking a Hike Can Help With Anxiety – Center for Holistic Medicine
- 7 Reasons Hiking Calms my Anxious Brain – Success.com
- Exercise for Stress and Energy – Anxiety and Depression Association of America