Science has proven time and again that hiking vastly improves your mental health. It alleviates anxiety and depression, boosts creative problem solving, improves Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children and increases cognitive function.
But why do we include mental health awareness in our Hike the World mission statement? Because both of us have experienced the positive effect hiking has on your darkest days.
I lost my mom about seven years ago to a rare form of cancer. Losing a parent is always devastating but watching them slowly slip away is a personal hell that changes you in drastic and fundamental ways. It was as if someone had reached into my chest and slowly squeezed my heart until it turned to ash.
Being deprived of my mom's pure, unconditional love was brutal. Having the shine of that love tarnished by the memory of chemotherapy and hospital visits and surgeries and IV bags was debilitating. I developed insomnia and would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and tears, and immobilized by panic attacks. Despite the many offers of support and love from friends and family, I felt alone, depressed and desperately lost.
I didn't reach out. And I didn't let anyone know this was happening. I shut off and started down an unhealthy path.
Until I found the woods.
I had a friend who noticed that my anxiety wasn't going away. She suggested hiking with her. I hadn't really hiked since my childhood in Switzerland and didn't realize there were so many options in New Jersey.
I lifted heavy weights and did high-intensity interval training so I thought hiking would be easy. But scrambling up rocks and pumping your legs to reach the top of a mountain, loaded down with a weight vest and a backpack, was something entirely different.
It took a few hikes- and a few stumbles- until I finally fell in love with the woods. Ironically that moment came when I was sore, exhausted and completely fed-up with hiking. I couldn't keep up with the group and so I stopped, suddenly resentful and furious about my lack of progress.
Angry tears streamed down my face, mixing with sweat and grief and anxiety, and I looked around. I saw the vibrant blanket of leaves on the rocky trail. I smelled the scent of the woods mingling with the first drops of rain. And I felt my feet, finally, connect with the ground and the earth. And my temper started to dissipate.
I slept through the night for the first time in months.
Something shifted within me that day. Much like hiking, the pace and cadence of grief are different for everyone. It took that break-down on the trail for me to realize that appreciating nature and letting go in the woods could bring me comfort in a way few things ever could.
While grief and loss never fully relinquish their hold on you, I have found that hiking eases their weight. Now when I'm feeling sad, lonely or mired in grief, I head to the woods and I know nature will never let me down.
Want to share your hiking story with us? Send an email to Laura and Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them why hiking helps you.