When I say mental hygiene, I mean the psychological things that men must consider to remain active and healthy in the long-term. In particular, this article focuses on the parts that must be considered while on the trail, so all of my examples will relate directly to their use on the trail.
If you’re looking for something a little more on the physical side of being a guy, consider my article on trail hygiene for men. Those tips will head off a lot of problems, especially my #1 condition.
Before we get into the grooming items of mental hygiene, though, it’s a good idea to examine what makes men “men.”
How Men are Physically Different
…beyond the obvious parts, that is…
- Men tend to have thicker skin, denser musculature, lower nerve density, and a higher resistance to cold. This means they generally feel less short-term pain. Men are also more likely to be physically stronger and able to activate fast-twitch muscles more efficiently, but are more likely to tire out faster. Recovery time is also longer, and they have stronger memories of pain.
- Men have higher caloric needs (muscle fuel), and have naturally higher metabolisms to activate fast-twitch muscles. This also means they also have lower resting heart rates so they can get their blood pumping faster, and slow it down, quicker than women.
- Men are better able to sense movement at the cost of noticing small differences in color or texture.
- Brain-wise, men tend to be more connected within their hemispheres, optimizing motor and spatial skills. Women are more connected between hemispheres, so they’re better at analytical and intuitive skills. This is true across the brain except for in the cerebellum, where it’s reversed, meaning men are better able to coordinate muscle movement.
So, in sum, men are wired to live hard and fast.
Therein lies the problem.
A Word of Caution
These are generalizations based on averages. You will not think like every other guy. Cognition is not only affected by physical makeup and brain composition, but social norms, experiences, and upbringing (nature and nurture). Physically, every person is also different, so while your best friend may be a total power-lifting beast in the gym, the same guy might get cold easily.
This means that your mental hygiene will be as unique as you are, but there are a few things that tend to be common among men.
Mental Hygiene Conditions
“Conditions” may be a poor way of saying it, but it works for our purposes. Don’t think of these “conditions” in the term of “disorders” because, point-blank, this is just how men are wired. That would be like blaming poison ivy for being poisonous. That’s ridiculous- it can’t help being poisonous, that’s just how it is.
The difference here is metacognitive. Or, as the Buddha put it, What we think, we become.
We are able to recognize how we think and become more efficient at thinking. As a human being, there is no excuse for blaming our actions and reactions purely on nature. If we think it, we can become it.
Dulled sensitivity to pain is the reason many men fail to see a doctor on a regular basis, or not give a full list of what ails them. To complicate matters, pain sensitivity seems to change as we age. Even more complicated is that women are more sensitive when young, and then while pregnant seem to have the same pain tolerance as men. And then they flip back. A lot of it has to do with body composition and hormone levels.
I mean, WTF human body?
Simply put, men have a harder time recognizing something is wrong unless we’ve felt it before. When we do recognize something is wrong, we’re more likely to “tough it out” because that’s what we’re taught. We’re indoctrinated to ignore an important facet of mental hygiene.
On the trail, this leads men to “act like a man” and put themselves at risk when they don’t have to. Many of the things that experienced hikers caution against, like blister care, hypothermia, and nagging injuries will be ignored by the manly man so that he can conquer the mountain (or whatever it is he’s doing). That’s the manly thing to do, right?
Even men who know better fall in the trap of ignoring the little nagging things. And when you do that, you’re opening yourself up to a whole world of hurt.
What to do?
While you may survive the problem, your best bet is to slow down and examine every little thing that you notice. If something feels off in your boot, it’s okay to stop and take a look. Feeling cold? Put on a damn jacket. Hungry? Eat. When you’re tired, rest. If the trail is too hard, and you have a twinge in your knee, it’s okay to find an alternate route or turn around.
And, remember, this extends to anyone you’re with. Don’t force a march on anyone because you feel fine. Man up, accept reality, and extend your- and your companions’- hiking life.
Also note that this “toughing it out” mentality extends beyond just physical ailments…it includes mental ailments.
Here’s a surprise that should surprise no one: men are just as likely to become depressed as women. The difference is that men are more likely to not get diagnosed or seek help. Again, it’s a case of negligent mental hygiene-i.e. taking it like a man. In some cases, the man may not even notice he’s depressed because those feelings have been repressed for so long. Many times, a man is more likely to seek help for physical ailments linked to depression than the mental ailments.
That’s because men aren’t supposed to cry, right?
Sure, scrappy. Keep thinking that way and, one day, you’re going to blow. It could be anger, it could be substance abuse, it could be bottom-scraping depression. However it hits you, it’ll hit you hard. In fact, this reality often leads to another uncomfortable reality: men are more likely to become suicidal.
All of that pressure without a release valve can lead you to deal with it in a quick, final way. This has a lot to do with impulse control (our next condition).
What to do?
The trail is a release. In a way, it’s a “manly” way of dealing with the problem because it allows you to escape, focus your mind on direct tasks, and eliminates self-defeating thoughts. That is, of course, if you’re hiking smart.
You can become depressed on the trail, but there is no use beating yourself up over what you can’t do. Focus on what you can do. If you’re a flabby, out of shape mess and can barely muster a quarter-miler, that’s okay. Man-up in a healthy way. Take control of your hiking, get better, stronger, healthier, and enjoy what you’re capable of. You might even be able to chew off the miles in little chunks and build up your physique.
Before you know it those depressive thoughts will start to melt away.
If this is your major concern, or you think it might be, check out my article about hiking for anxiety. It’s a nice little breath of fresh air.
3. Impulse Control
Men have a tendency to focus on one thing, find a solution, and them move on. They don’t dwell on it, but they also don’t necessarily examine and plan ahead. Boiled down, it’s a difference between reaction and thinking.
For mental hygiene, this is a strength as well as a weakness.
Reaction is great in situations where immediate action is necessary. You know, ducking branches, catching yourself, fighting wolverines, things like that. It’s not so useful when you’re exposed to a prolonged effect, like survival situations and illness or injury. Men think on their feet.
With all these rash decisions, are men more likely to get lost?
Oddly, no. In general, men tend to be better navigators because of spatial awareness. They are better equipped to create a mental picture of their surroundings, and then do a quick check of the map. While part of it may be pride, spatial awareness may be the reason why so many men don’t ask directions or claim that they’re not lost. They’re just a little “sidetracked.”
The impulse control is the problem. While a man may not get lost, he may make little errors and take more time getting back on the right track. A woman, by contrast, is more likely to take her time, check her map often, remember details of the environment, think things out, and choose the correct course the first time. Or, at the very least, she notices when she passed the same tree twice.
What to do?
Slow down, look around, and check the map often. Feel no shame in getting directions. You may still miss the little things- the weird-shaped tree, the rock that looks like a duck, the two bear turds full of seeds situated at precise right angles- but the frequent map-checks have an added bonus: your spatial awareness of the area will expand.
When you do that, you’ll understand your landscape. You will predict what’ll come next, plan ahead for upcoming problems, and find “hidden” routes. Just, you know, stay in control and try to not jump right into those shortcuts.
Move from one task to the next at a steady, plodding rate. Your ability to react will still be there, but with the added benefit of planning for unforeseen circumstances.
A Final Note
This list of mental hygiene items is by no means exhaustive. Bottom line, though, be a man! But if you want to grow, you need to take the time to think like a woman.
When something hurts or even feels a little “off,” take care of it as soon as you notice it. If it’s bad, get off the trail. Hurts that linger or won’t heal? Get it checked out! Blisters take a little time to heal, a torn ACL takes a lot longer.
If you feel emotionally shitty, don’t ignore it. If the hike doesn’t help, get professional help. The only thing wrong with asking for help are artificial social stigmas. Be a man and laugh at those false ideals.
Learn from your mistakes. Take the time to consider what you did well, what could have been better, and the weak-points in your skills and equipment. Then, rather than dwelling on those problems, take action! Improve your lung capacity, learn how to start a fire with something other than a match and a bottle of lighter fluid, get better fitting shoes…whatever it takes.
And, for the ladies out there, take a few lessons from men. Ignore the social stigmas and the ideas of “being a man.”
- You’re better at noticing when things are off- if the guy you’re hiking with has a change in gait, ask him about it. Also note that not every physical ailment is a hike-ending catastrophe. True problems are usually somewhere in between.
- If he seems angry, frustrated, or is quiet, see what’s up. If you’re feeling anxious, tell him. Not all men are emotional brick walls.
- Finally, try not to overthink things. Identify the problem, deal with it, review it, but don’t get trapped by it. The best course of action is to tackle it as a team and support each other. Strength in numbers, yo!
- The Truth About Sex Differences – Psychology Today
- 25 Fun Facts About What Makes Men and Women Different – Ask the Scientists
- Men and Depression – National Institute of Mental Health
- How do Males and Females Differ in Neurophysiological Correlates of Impulse Control? – Reproductive System & Sexual Disorders: Current Research
- Sex Differences Driven by Impulse – Psychology Today
- Alpha-Male Bravado Signaling Gendered Violence – The Good Men Project
- How to Fight Toxic Masculinity – Scientific American
- Why the Sexes Don’t Feel Pain the Same Way – Nature
- Probing Question: Do Women Have a Higher Pain Threshold than Men? – Penn State News