By Caitlin Evans
I haven’t always been the outdoorsy type of person. Sure, I had always preferred walking instead of driving, and during the warmer months, my bicycle is my most prized possession, but hiking and camping were something entirely different. Somehow, I had always thought of them as reserved for hardcore nature enthusiasts willing to get sweaty, muddy, and unafraid of bugs or snakes.
But as I started spending more time writing and studying on my computer, I realized that I craved being in nature. I’ve always led a very active lifestyle, but not necessarily one that included woods and mountains. So, sometime after my 20th birthday, I went on my first hike.
Organized and planned by more experienced friends, it was both a hit and a miss. See, I was so preoccupied with all the things that could go wrong, that I managed to have a mini-panic attack within the first hour.
As I sat on a log, contemplating whether I should try to push through to the next checkpoint, or just stay put and send my friends for help, I thought I would never do this to myself again. Not in a thousand years.
But things rarely go in the direction we think they will. As I was trying to calm my hyperventilation and feeling of dizziness, my friend handed me half of a homemade sandwich, along with an orange, and told me to eat them. He said: let’s take a break, have a bit of food, and then we’ll turn back.
Munching away on the delicious food, I started to calm down. As my friends started joking around, I found myself relaxing, taking deep breaths, and suddenly, I was overcome by a weird sense of calm. I knew, at that moment, that I was going to be alright. After all, if I could go through back-to-back dance classes, a little bit of walking (even if it was uphill) would not be the end of me. So, we went on.
My friends kept reassuring me that we didn’t have to finish the entire trail and that we could stop at any checkpoint and head home. The funny thing is, I was the one pushing them on during the last mile.
But why hiking?
Well, the thing that drew me to hiking in the first place was everything that I had read about it. With so many people hooked on this form of exercise, how could it be bad? Plus, I had a bunch of great friends who were very enthusiastic about their weekend hikes. Naturally, I wanted to get as many of the health benefits associated with the activity. Better cardiovascular health? Yes, I wanted some of that! Increased bone density? Of course! Blood sugar control? Source of Vitamin D? Heck yeah!
Additionally, the time during which I decided to try hiking was an emotionally and mentally difficult period for me. With a heavy workload, I was dealing with everyday anxiety. Furthermore, I was recovering from my first burnout brought on by perfectionism and a need to prove myself worthy. The reasons why outdoorsy activities appealed to me were multifold.
For one, hiking has been proven to be beneficial for mental health. As it forces us to focus on simple movement, it allows us to take a rest from obsessive negative thoughts. Furthermore, it grants us a break from technology, thus increasing creative problem-solving. It’s also been shown to improve attention span in children with ADHD.
Since my very first hiking trip, I have become quite an enthusiast myself. Nowadays, I seek out any opportunity to spend time walking in nature. I’ve also come to learn a lot about myself, my limits, and have realized that to make a hike successful, preparation is key.
The fear of the unknown
The very definition of anxiety connects the feeling (which can grow into a disorder) with the natural fear of the unknown all of us suffer from. Often, it’s the mind’s response to stress exposure, and can be connected to panic disorders, phobias, stressful social situations, OCD, as well as PTSD.
Even positive experiences can be a source of anxiety. For example, some people start feeling that unease even when they’re headed for a vacation. Whether this is due to the inevitable exposure to unknown experiences, the overpowering fear of all the things that might go wrong, or simply the idea of returning home after a week or two of relaxation, it’s important to face these challenges in the way that’s right for you.
If you’ve planned a hike and are anxious about it, or if spending time in nature is something that scares you and you’re looking for ways to face your fears, there are several ways you can go about your first hiking adventure.
Pinpointing the source of your anxiety
The first step towards conquering your symptoms is going to involve a lot of reflection. Finding out the why behind an anxiety attack is the most important part of the process. For some, hiking will seem daunting due to being set in nature, away from the safety nets we’ve all come to rely on in our everyday lives. Others will see it as a source of danger, while some might have insecurities about their physical health.
If you’re not already in the habit of keeping a journal, you might consider starting. Letting yourself express your fears on paper might help you do two things. Firstly, it can allow you to voice the source of your anxiety. Secondly, it can allow you to see whether your fears are founded in reality.
It’s also not a bad idea to talk to a therapist who can work with you to conquer these paralyzing fears, and who might be able to prescribe any necessary therapy, including medication.
Actively work on calming your mind
Once you’re aware of the root of your anxiety, you should start working towards resolving these blocks. There are a few practices which can be particularly helpful in these situations.
Yoga and meditation, for example, are beneficial in reducing the effects of chronic stress. When practiced regularly, they can have incredible physical and mental health benefits. Because they are both based on self-awareness and self-compassion, they can be effective at eliminating several stressors. Furthermore, yoga has been shown to train the parasympathetic nervous system through gentle breathing techniques, which, in turn, has a positive effect on physiological symptoms, including heart rate and blood pressure.
You can also try other soothing practices that may help you minimize anxiety. While a disorder may require medication, you can also help your body and mind wind down through drinking herbal tea (chamomile and green tea are particularly helpful), eating certain foods such as turmeric, salmon or dark chocolate, practicing the alternate nostril breathing technique, or taking a daily supplement.
There are some vitamins and minerals that could help control anxiety, including vitamins A, B, C, D, as well as Omega-3 fatty acids. Some can be combined with herbal supplements such as lavender or ashwagandha for the best possible results. Do keep in mind, however, that most supplements contain high doses of fillers, so try to opt for high-quality products, or make your own.
Consider whether your lifestyle needs changing
Sometimes, the best way to beat anxiety is to look at our overall lifestyle. There are very simple things we can all do to ensure a better life quality, and often, we might not even be aware of the things we’re doing that are harming our emotional health. While some changes might require an adaptation period, others you can start implementing right away.
- Try to get between 8 and 9 hours of sleep daily.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise weekly.
- Quit smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.
- Limit your intake of caffeinated drinks.
- Don’t be afraid to seek out counseling.
Remember, your first hiking adventure is something to enjoy
While you might be feeling anxious about your first-ever hiking or camping trip, the key thing to remember is that it’s supposed to be a source of fun, not stress. There are numerous ways to overcome paralyzing fears, but for sure, the winning combination is going to be a mindful approach paired with healthy lifestyle choices, expert counseling, and a lot of preparation.
For an easy way to prepare for your trip, consider this simple checklist. Furthermore, try to go on your first adventure with people you trust, and who are more experienced than you. Finally, don’t forget about the soothing effects of a great meal, so pack your favorite snacks, fill up your water bottle, and put on your sturdy boots.
You’ll see, you’re going to enjoy it – as long as you allow yourself the opportunity to take in all the beauty surrounding you.