Conquer Mental Health in the Outdoors

It is now more than ever that I am grateful for the push on healing and alternative medicines for mental health issues. In my youth, mental health was still a taboo subject regardless of the fact that almost every student by my side was struggling with it to some extent. The immediate remedy for those struggling with depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD, PTSD, etc.? Counseling sessions. Medication. Isolation. Rehabilitation. To this day these options sound daunting and challenging to me; especially for someone who may be struggling with mental health issues.

For myself, I was very fortunate to be exposed to the outdoors at a young age. Through a lot of struggles and growth, I began to understand how mental health and the outdoors work so well together. In fact, it enhanced my ability to deal with my anxiety. There has been a lot of time and effort put into studies over the years that show the benefits and correlation of mental health and getting outside. Studies show that natural environments in addition to any form of exercise are known to reduce stress and positively influence other components of mental health.

Despite the proven studies, it’s still easier said than done when it comes to those of us struggling with mental health issues. How many times have you let anxiety take the reins on your decision making and limit your exposure to the outdoors? It’s easy to come up with every excuse not to do something. I’d like to challenge you to find every reason to do something. Below are some tools I use to tackle mental health in the outdoors and take on an adventurous lifestyle with confidence.

Conquer Mental Health Outdoors
Flattop Mountain, Chugach State Park, Alaska. PC: Tanner Johnston

PLAN AHEAD:

This is easy if you’re facing OCD, anxiety and other compulsive struggles. You can never be too prepared. Make lists of trails you want to explore, required permits, packing lists, emergency plans, etc. These lists will be your best friend, will put your nerves at ease and even make you chuckle at your over preparedness.

Consider the information you’re consuming leading up to a trip. Take a Wilderness First Responder course, start following outdoor publications that offer tips and tricks and read outdoor-related books that cover items you’re not really familiar with. I started reading books that share stories about search and rescue scenarios because one of my anxiety-driven fears is getting lost on a trail when I am by myself. This really kicked my butt into gear when it came time to prepare for a new adventure alone. And guess what? The day came when I solo-hiked a 16-mile trail that I’d never been on with my two dogs in just a day. Lo and behold, I got lost on the trail with only 3 hours of daylight left and 5 miles to go. Luckily, I had prepared a good bit of food and water to take in the added factors.

I was grateful the worst didn’t happen to us after I made it back to my car that night. I went home and signed up for a Wilderness First Responder course and a backcountry navigation course. Lesson learned: you can never be too prepared and under preparation is a scary reality check.

MAKE A ROUTINE:

Indecisiveness is one of my ‘best’ qualities; another ‘perk’ of having anxiety. I plan activities weeks ahead, go back and forth on whether I should actually go and more times than not find a reason to bail. To overcome this hurdle, make a routine or a habit out of your goal. Are you simply nervous to even step foot outside on the weekends? Start going for a short walk every morning or evening during the week to make a routine of getting outside. Struggling to make a more extended trip out of an outdoor activity? Mark your calendar to visit a new trail that is close by, making it a must to get out the front door. Ask a friend to come with you each weekend. Accountability is key to attempting a new routine, which leads me to my next tool.

Conquer Mental Health Outdoors
Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah

FIND A SUPPORT SYSTEM:

Your support system doesn’t have to be a professional doctor. As an outdoor enthusiast, the best thing you can do is find other outdoor enthusiasts who encounter the same obstacles. There are a plethora of online forums or local meetup groups that have interests in getting out to explore. People at all stages in life gather in these groups. You’re bound to connect with someone who may also be just starting out, who is planning to hike your dream trail or who is struggling with fear and looking for an accountability partner. If an online forum and meeting new people makes your introverted heart nervous, connect with people you already know. Take a close friend or family member on a day hike or weekend fishing trip. Pay attention to conversations your coworkers are having to seek out potential interests you may share in the outdoors. The opportunities are endless!

VENTURE ALONE:

Yes, this might contradict the concept of finding a support system but does it really? Building confidence in adventuring alone has been one of my favorite coping tools in tackling anxiety. While it’s important to initially develop knowledge of the outdoors and gather helpful resources from other adventurists, make it a goal to reach a point where you can leap into adventures on your own with confidence in your decision making and survival skills. Having a partner to take outdoors is always a smart/safe idea and can serve as a great method of accountability. But, enjoying solo moments alone on your outdoor adventure can be a treasure that is simply indescribable. I have learned so much about myself in doing so and the extended quiet time is a great opportunity to reflect, meditate and grow in ways to cope with mental health issues.

Conquer Mental Health Outdoors
Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. PC: Tanner Johnston

DEVELOP ALTERNATIVE COPING MECHANISMS:

You won’t always have easy access to the outdoors or your support system. It’s important to have alternative coping mechanisms to assist you when you are overwhelmed. Some of my favorites are playing with my pups, practicing yoga, journaling, listening to restful music or even using creative juices to put energy towards something new. These are great habits to develop and carry with you once you are in the outdoors. My mom gifted me a little journal when we made our cross-country move from Georgia to Alaska. I utilized this journal to document every location we visited and every special moment we encountered.

Now I take this journal with me everywhere and document everything from a short day-hike to cross-country trips to various National Parks. I love keeping a journal not only because I’ve found that I struggle to recall these memories, but writing down the moments that I am experiencing in the beautiful outdoors puts my mind and heart at such an ease. It helps me forget the negative thoughts that led up to that adventure.

DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF:

Don’t let intimidation be your reasoning for not getting outside. Opting outside doesn’t have to involve an intense 16-mile day hike, scaling the side of a cliff or even taking on a new form of adventure. Take it easy and go for a light walk or swing by the dog park with your fur babies. Even just finding a secluded bench in a quiet park somewhere could be your first steps to conquering anxiety in your desire to get outside. Placing yourself in an outdoor environment can alone put you in a relaxing mental state and give you the confidence to take on a bigger adventure next time.

The coping tools don’t have to stop here. Everyone has something that works for them, but you have to start somewhere. Time and initiative will lead you to understand your mind and body better and how you can conquer the outdoors with anxiety. Anxiety and other mental health issues don’t have to be a limitation. They can be a bridge to new outdoor adventures and to discovering more about what your mind and body need.

Conquer Mental Health Outdoors
Wickersham Dome, White Mountains National Recreation Area, Alaska. PC: Jax Harmon

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Comments (2)

What a fantastic article! Thank you so much for the clear and useful tips.

Very inspiring post, I am so happy that more and more people are coming forward with their mental health issues and they should be seen as any other type of illness. Always look for support, good nutrition, good sleep, good exercise are all excellent ways to have good mental health and of course our medical professionals.

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