This week we will look at how nature, and the lack thereof can affect mental health. From a story of sexual abuse survivors in the mountains, the depression that comes after hiking a long trail, and the science behind the healing powers of nature, this is an eclectic issue! I struggle with anxiety and occasional depression, so mental health is a topic I have my own experience with, and thus I may interject more of myself than usual into my summaries.
*Trigger warning: brief mention of sex trafficking*
This long-form piece by Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, is possibly the most powerful Outside Magazine article I have ever read. Williams tells the story of 6 women, all victims of sex trafficking, on their first journey into the backcountry. The exclusivity of the outdoor world is partly due to the idea that you have to have the perfect gear and knowledge to spend time outside. This story is an example of why that isn’t true. One of the women, Kris, has never heard of the brand Patagonia, but she is still able to scale a mountain wall.
Williams makes it clear that this is not your typical outdoor healing story, for healing from a trauma as deep as sex trafficking is complex. “The tough-it-out-to-toughen-up plotline is so familiar, we all assume it’s true. Many wilderness-therapy courses conform to the narrative, a male-centric, quasi-militaristic hero story that says that what doesn’t kill you, yada yada,” said Williams. The mountains didn’t cure the women of pain, but they left them with a greater appreciation for and understanding of their bodies.
As I dig deeper into forums, articles, and podcasts to plan my coming thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I continue to hear that one of the hardest parts of the trail actually comes when it’s over. Despite the extremely tough, long days thru-hikers experience on the trail, they often say they are dragging their feet towards the end. Although thru-hiking is a privilege many people will never have access to, it is no light vacation. From what I have learned, the 4-8 months you might spend on a thru hike often change how you view yourself, and thus re-assimilating into “the real world” can be difficult.
Though there is no cure for mental health struggles, I find that my muddled mind calms a bit in the forest and when I move my body, and this is part of the reason so many hikers don’t want to leave the trail. Thru-hikers who have experienced this post trail depression recommend keeping in touch with your trail family, starting a creative project, minimizing time on social media, and continuing to get outside. Otherwise, psychologist Cory Nyamora says to just be easy on yourself and give it time.
In an interview with National Geographic, the aforementioned Florence Williams explains how our brains change when we’re outdoors. When someone asks me where and when I am most content & centered, I say it’s when I’m lying down in a forest looking up at the sun coming through the trees. Very specific, I know, but this phenomena is actually supported by research. In Japan, this practice of forest bathing is encouraged by the government, as it has been shown to improve public health.
Williams also says that nature can almost be a religion for some people because it offers a full-sensory experience. I have struggled with spirituality myself, and a connection to the natural world is the closest I’ve gotten to a religion. Unfortunately, many people, especially marginalized communities, are unable to get to a national or state park often or ever, but Williams says even having a house plant can help fight depression and anxiety.
I appreciate you deeply for reading! This week, try to incorporate one extra hour of time outdoors into your schedule.