How Being Outdoors Helps My Mental Health

Contributed by: Sylvia DeMichiel

I have always felt drawn to the outdoors. There was so much I wanted to explore and do, but I was terrified. Any time I tried something more challenging than a casual hike, I became paralyzed. I was overcome with negative thoughts. Things like I’m going to look like an idiot. I am going to fail. People will judge me. I’m going to die. I’m not good enough to do this. I shouldn’t be here. With those thoughts always swarming my mind whenever I attempted to do something outdoors, I would retreat. I would tell myself that those activities aren’t meant for me. Through these last few years, I have proved myself wrong. Below is a small list of how the outdoors has helped me with my mental health and how and why I still get outdoors even when I’m dealing with anxiety and depression.

I learned that I was capable.
When I first started getting into the outdoors, I wasn’t sure of myself. I started slowly and simply—small, local hikes with more experienced people than I was. When someone mentioned doing something longer and harder, I was hesitant. That wasn’t something that I could do, I thought. I started doing it anyway, even when I wasn’t sure. It began with seven miles in a day to my longest day hike yet of 20 miles. Hiking and other outdoor activities like this show me how much I can accomplish, even when I’m miserable. How far I can go when I think I can’t go anymore. How sometimes the most challenging hikes give you the most beautiful views. The moments when I’m struggling, whether it be in the outdoors, at work or my personal life, I refer back to those moments. The moments when I was struggling to climb another hill or take another step, and I did it anyway. I made it and it was worth it. Those hikes are proof that I’m far more capable than I ever imagined.

It helps me learn how to be present.
I often get lost in my thoughts. I overthink something that happened. I talk down to myself about things that I should have done. I worry about what could happen. I tell myself that I’m not worthy. I question my ability. I get tired and just want to drown in my thoughts. When I force myself to get outside even when I don’t want to, it gives me space to just be. Whether it be a quick walk in a local forest or a trip to New Hampshire to go further or rock climbing or camping, all those moments in the outdoors bring me to where I am. I’m watching the trail to make sure I don’t trip. I pay attention to my basic needs for nutrition. Did I drink enough? Did I eat enough? I focus on what’s around me. I listen to the quiet noise of the forest instead of the loud noise of my mind.

It teaches me how not to compare myself to others.
My anxiety and depression fuel me to compare myself to others. I would see a woman that I epitomized and think I will never be as badass as she is; I will never be as successful as she is; I will never be as beautiful as she is; I will never be as good as she is. I would always think I was less than others. Less deserving. Less worthy. And since I was so less than others, what was the point in showing up? I hated this about myself. I don’t like feeling as if I’m in competition with other women or other people for that matter. I took the time to try to understand what I was feeling. I started connecting with them. I began to understand them more as people. I used them as inspiration. I am now surrounded by amazing badass women that inspire me every day. Being in the outdoors fueled the connections with them. I learned from them. They learned from me. I go on many beautiful adventures with these women I was once so jealous of.

But it wasn’t just the women I was comparing myself to. It was people in general. I wasn’t as hardcore as others. I would put myself down because I didn’t want to backpack in the wintertime like my other friends did. Or maybe I couldn’t hike as fast as they can or as long. Or perhaps I felt anxious on climbs that they thought were perfectly fine. What was wrong with me? Then I had this epiphany one day that it doesn’t matter. Who cares if I don’t want to backpack in the winter? I still get out and hike, and it makes me happy. So what if I can’t hike as fast as another person? I still got to the top of the mountain, or even if I didn’t, it’s okay. The benefits of nature aren’t just summiting or being the best; it’s about being outside. It’s about focusing on your own growth and challenging yourself. It’s about what you’re comfortable with.

This past spring, I went for a 13-mile hike with a friend. I was PROUD. I thought we killed it. Then I went on social media, and I saw that my friends did a 25-mile hike. My initial reaction was why did I bother hiking 13? But then I took a step back. I was PROUD and had FUN. Just because my friends did more, that didn’t detract from my accomplishment. It still benefited my mental health. I was proud of them. I was proud of myself.

It doesn’t matter how much you do outdoors or how far or fast you go or how hard you go. If you go outside, and you enjoyed it, or if you challenged yourself, then it’s a win.

Nature doesn’t care who you are.
Let me preface this by saying that people in nature may care who you are, but nature itself will not care who you are. The weather isn’t going to change. The terrain won’t change. Wildlife doesn’t care who’s there. The sun will still shine, or rain will still fall. It treats everyone equally. Hiking three miles outdoors still gives benefits. Hiking in your local area rather than going to New Hampshire or out west is still incredible. Everyone deserves the outdoors. Yes, there are spots where only extreme outdoor athletes may go, but that shouldn’t negate your experience in the outdoors. I remember feeling not good enough to take up space in the outdoors because I didn’t hike as hard as my other friends, but I’ve come to realize in my time outdoors that that’s okay. In nature, I can show up as myself and for myself. I can enjoy it in my own way. Nature doesn’t judge me. I went on a hike, and I sang in the woods when no one else was around because I wanted to. The trees wouldn’t judge me.

This also says that nature is powerful, so precautions should always be taken on hikes, especially with turbulent weather.

It gave me space to show up anyway.
There were a lot of times when I was miserable outdoors. There were many times where I failed outdoors. There were times when I just wanted to be home. There were days when I had to turn around on a hike or get lowered down from a climb. But I could still show up the next day and try again. When I was in a depressive episode, and I needed to do more than one hike for a week, I was able to roll out of bed and go looking like a mess. I went on a one-mile walk, and it helped a bit, and then I moved back into bed. But I was able to show up outdoors. I went to a local park.

The outdoors always gives space for me to show up. Even if I failed before, I can try again. Even if I am miserable on one hike, I can learn from it and show up the next day anyway. I learn my limits. I realize what I need.

It also gives me a place to go when things seem too much or when I know I need to leave my apartment but just don’t know where to go. It allows me to show up as a messy self and try one more time, and always one more time.

My relationship with the outdoors is one of my strongest. It’s my safety net. It’s my security. I will always have anxiety and depression, even when in recovery. Still, I will always have a place in the outdoors as well.

 
Sylvia is a participant of MHC’s Write On! program, class of 2017. To learn more about Write On!, visit www.mhconn.org/writeon.