As someone who has had my own serious battles with anxiety and depression, and has found relief through hiking and spending time outside, I was overjoyed when Madison reached out to me about sharing her story about how discovering hiking helped to relieve her anxiety and improve her confidence.
While we’re not making any medical claims in this post, the positive effects of exercise (and hiking in particular) on mental health have been well-researched and documented. (See also: Forest Bathing and Forest Therapy)
What does mental health have to do with sustainability? A lot, actually. I’m sure you’ve probably heard some version of the saying, “you can’t pour from an empty cup”?
By taking care of your own mental health and wellbeing, you are putting yourself in a better position to be able to give your best to the people and causes which are important to you.
If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, we at the Sustainable Hiking Resource encourage you to speak to someone you trust or to seek help anonymously through the 24/7 Suicide Helpline by calling 800-273-8255.
You are not alone.
Alright, let’s get to Madison’s story!
I have experienced anxiety in multiple ways throughout my life. Many of my relationships have crumbled due to a constant fear of rejection. In high school, I was always worrying about my grades despite being a straight A student, and I could never enjoy playing sports because I was always aware of how much better I could be, or rather how much better I thought I should be. My thoughts often paralyzed my ability to let go and actually enjoy life, but I never knew how bad it could become.
In 2020, my anxiety took complete control over my life. I experienced multiple panic attacks, and struggled to keep my racing thoughts in check. I wasn’t just scared of getting a bad test grade anymore, but I was also terrified of anyone I cared about getting the coronavirus. My fear rose along with the death rate in America, and I felt powerless.
Being anxious during life pre-pandemic was completely different than quarantine anxiety. Before, when I would get worried about classes or what the future held, I would go out to eat at my favorite restaurant, or see a movie with my friends. Now everything was closed. I couldn’t even go to the local coffee shop and get a change of scenery while doing my homework. I was stuck in my house, and staying put is never good for one’s mental health.
College and work both felt like impossible tasks I had to overcome each day along with the panic attacks that routinely overtook my day to day life. I was absolutely consumed with fear, and no amount of medication or meditation seemed to help.
Anxiety not only made me scared of the world, but it also caused me to be cynical and distrusting towards everything and everyone. For a while I struggled to keep my faith and trust that God was going to bring any good out of the pandemic. My faith is the most important thing in my life, and losing my way made me feel utterly hopeless about the future.
In October of 2020, I started hiking for a physical education credit towards my college degree. I was already stressed about my other classes, and I didn’t think I could spare any time to go out in the woods. But I knew I needed the class for my degree, so I grudgingly agreed to drive over an hour away to go hiking.
The first hike I went on was Hollow Brook trail in Bluemont, Virginia. The weather was dark and melancholy, a perfect representation of my mood when we arrived. When I started hiking the trail, my legs were stiff from the cold, and it had begun to rain. I couldn’t help but think that the entire situation was a complete waste of my time.
Although as I walked through the woods, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the landscape was. The red and orange leaves stood out starkly against the dark grey sky, and a cloud of fog blanketed the mountains surrounding me on either side.
My mood slowly shifted with each step I took. I felt calmer and lighter despite the heavy pack I was carrying. Birds were chirping, and I felt peaceful yet wide awake at the same time. It was comforting to be surrounded by the solace of the wilderness.
About a mile into the hike, there was a large, gorgeous waterfall. I stared at it in awe as I climbed the slippery rocks to get a closer look. All of my senses came to life as I smelled the vegetation around me and felt the cool mist dance across my skin. It was beautiful and real, and all I could do was thank God for finally bringing me peace.
Not every hike I’ve been on since Hollow Brooke has been so enchanting, but they have all been rewarding in their own way. Being out in the forest always calms me down in a way nothing else can. That’s why I love hiking so much; it keeps me grounded. It gives me a place to forget everything, but also a place to come to terms with the things in my life I can’t control. I still struggle with anxiety, but it helps to know that whenever I get scared or worried about anything, going for a hike will always make me feel better.
About The Author
Madison is a full-time college student who has always loved the outdoors. She recently fell in love with hiking when she discovered the mental and physical benefits while on a hike for one of her college courses.
All photos used in this article are by Madison Kibler