The Effects of Hiking on Mental Health
Are there benefits to hiking as a coping mechanism for depression and anxiety?
As a recent college graduate, I am no stranger to hardship, stress, and learning as you go. In college, I worked hard to earn excellent grades with the intention that hard work pays off in the long run. But, after graduation I found myself lost. I was stuck in a retail job where I was absolutely miserable. I could not find another job even remotely close to my degree, which is in Psychology. In other words, like many young adults, life knocked me to the ground and I was not sure how to get back up. Anxiety and depression hit like the weight of the world, pushing and pulling me in directions I did not want to go. I only yearned to be successful, make a living, and have the ones around me be proud.
But I was stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts and worries about how to pay rent next month. My mental health was diminishing despite knowing coping strategies and the dangers of letting it get out of hand.
Yet, one morning, the dark, gloomy clouds of life weighed a little too heavy on my shoulders. But the day was forecasted to be beautiful and I refused to let it go to waste. So I found myself at the base of Killington Mountain in Vermont, 3.5 miles from the peak. If I was lost in life, it only seemed appropriate to get lost in the woods.
The trail started with ease; it was flat, well worn, and maintained. Sounds from the local city were drowned out by birds and rustling leaves. Whispers came from the trees as the slight breeze billowed. As I climbed, the quietness only became more intense, almost deafening. But this was the best part: I was alone with my thoughts.
But even more so, I was moving my body. According to George A. Miller, Ph.D and president of the American Hiking Society, research has indicated that hiking as a physical activity has shown to reduce stress and anxiety, improve blood pressure, improve bone density, and other health benefits. It can be low impact or more rigorous, depending on expertise levels.
Coupling physical activity with nature was a powerful medicine. As I neared the peak, as cliché as this sounds, the weight on my shoulders started to lift. Stopping, I breathed deep, the scent of pine filling the air. It felt fresh, almost invigorating. I felt better and my journey was still only halfway complete.
I cannot put into words how it felt to reach the peak. Instead of sitting on my shoulders, it was as if the world opened up before me. I suddenly felt incredibly small. I could barely see life below me, but I could see the stretch of the land all around me. The only sound was the wind and my exhausted breaths. For a small moment, life was simple. It was a remarkable feeling.
From there I started my descent. The dark clouds of life lifted high into the sky, and all of those feelings disappeared with them. While hiking does not solve all of life’s problems, it is a way to cope with negative thoughts. The simplicity opens your mind; the quietness allows you to hear positive thoughts. Is hiking the cure to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and/or stress? Perhaps not entirely, but incorporating the natural world and physical activity is a strategy everyone should have in their toolbox.
Life can bring you down sometimes, but you can get outside and make the best of what you have. So now, I will leave this for you to ponder: if everyone got outside, enjoyed nature, and took in all that our world has to offer, would life be so difficult? Would the mood of individual’s improve to the point where stress is almost non-existent? Where anxiety is almost extinct?
Hiking might not be the answer. But it is the start.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The Seventh Report on the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/hypertension/express.pdf. Dec. 2003