7 Reasons Hiking Calms My Anxious Brain
I’m as indoorsy as they come.
I spend my days indoors as an editor, and in my free time, I can usually be found reading, writing, quilting or making jewelry—also indoors. Friends and family regularly joke that my pale skin has never seen the sun.
Related: 4 Ways to Spend More Time Outside
A little under a year ago, I was finishing my master’s degree program and beginning the dreaded job search. As the stressful hunt wore on, my anxiety got increasingly worse. But nothing I tried seemed to ease my shortness of breath, stomachaches and frequent acne breakouts.
“Exercise!” my fiancé would suggest. But I was never the type to sweat it out in a crowded gym. Then one sunny day in Chicago, he and I decided to go on a hiking trip at Starved Rock State Park, about 100 miles outside of the city.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
Hiking has not only eased my anxiety, it’s also helped me find meaning in many different ways—both big and small. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:
1. It’s not always about getting the perfect photo for social media.
Although I’m hesitant to admit it, I’m a slave to social media—Facebook and Instagram are my favorites. On my first hike at Starved Rock, I found myself wanting to share my beautiful surroundings with my social following. I kept bugging my fiancé to take “just one more selfie” and I kept trying to find the perfect photo to capture our day. The next hike, I barely looked at my phone. And I felt so much better. So what if I don’t take a photo that perfectly captures how much I enjoyed my day? What matters is I enjoyed it, not how many people would “like” it. Nothing substantive comes from garnering a lot of likes from a photo, but there are numerous benefits to detaching from technology, exploring nature and learning to “just be.” The serenity makes me feel gratitude for what is right in front of me.
2. The everyday worries in life start to matter a little bit less.
This past winter, I took a trip to Hawaii. One day, we decided to conquer the strenuous, steep hike to the top of Koko Head Crater in Oahu. And let me tell you, when you’re struggling to climb 1,048 steps, panting incessantly and dripping in sweat, you start to worry a little bit less about a passive-aggressive email or a pesky cold sore. Those kinds of worries seem insignificant when you compare them to a gargantuan task at hand, like 1,000 steps, and I’m able to easily push them to the back of my mind.
(And, because I want to be honest with you, I did put this one on Facebook. But I mean, we were in Hawaii.)
3. When you’re focused on something physical, your mind can relax.
Last fall, I went on a hike to Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas. We had to pass through a wide river at one point, so I slipped off my shoes and tried to balance as I stepped over the slippery rocks. The precarious challenge in front of me allowed my mind to relax a bit. I feel a similar sense of relaxation in quilting, as the tediousness distracts my worried mind. And actually being out in nature and using my whole body to focus feels refreshing.
4. Getting physically fit in and of itself lowers anxiety.
I do not particularly enjoy going to the gym. I have never felt a “runner’s high” and I don’t feel satisfied after doing yoga or lifting weights. Developing a love of hiking made me realize that when it comes to staying physically fit, you have to find what’s best for you. If that means walking for two hours instead of running for 30 minutes, then go with it. The important thing is to do whatever type of exercise feels natural for you, because staying active has repeatedly been shown to help lower anxiety.
5. The risk can be worth the reward.
On one hike in Maui, my fiancé encouraged us to go off the beaten path. I tend to follow the rules and stick to the designated trails, but he’s an adventurer whose curiosity always gets the best of him. I followed him over a fence and we ended up on rocky shores with crashing waves. I was nervous but excited. I glanced to my left and saw what appeared to be large black rocks speckling the shore. I walked a little closer and realized they were sea turtles—20 of them, each several feet in diameter, sunbathing on the shore. Had we stuck to the tourist’s path, we probably wouldn’t have seen them. Going off the beaten path can be risky, but many times the risk is worth the reward.
6. Silence isn’t a bad thing.
I have a bad habit of talking incessantly to fill gaps in silence when I’m around people I don’t know very well. Although I have yet to hike with someone who isn’t a close friend or family member, I’ve become comfortable with the natural (and long) periods of silence with my hiking partner. I don’t feel the need for senseless chatter, and this has translated into my everyday life. I find myself actively trying not to say something just to say it, whether I’m in the car with my mom, eating lunch with my co-workers or just hanging out with friends.
7. It doesn’t all have to be magical.
Despite my rather newfound love of hiking, I’m not fortunate enough to live in an area with beautiful mountains and endless trails—I call Dallas home. When I moved here, I did some digging, trying to find the perfect place to go on a hike. And even though most of the trails here pale in comparison to my hikes in Hawaii or New Mexico, I’ve found the benefits I reaped are more or less the same: I’m able to relax, take a break from the worries plaguing my mind and just enjoy my time outdoors. Sure, Hawaii is beautiful, but there is also beauty in the winding Texas trails speckled with bluebonnets.
I’m happy to report that I’ve landed my dream job at SUCCESS, but I still have major stressors in my life. And I’ve found that taking a few hours each weekend to go on a hike (or even just a stroll through the forest preserve) helps me relax. And it makes me feel like I can take on anything.