January 14, 2018
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Hiking: Nature’s medicine for the holidays
Fall is one of the best times of year, especially in New England. It is the time of year when the leaves are changing colors. The weather is becoming cooler. Apple picking ensues. You break out the cute, cozy sweaters. There are so many good things about the fall season.
With the changing of the season, it also means that the holidays are approaching. For some, the holidays can be a stressful time of year. Holidays can be filled with driving to people’s houses, dealing with family drama, and spending money you may or may not have. These things can be overwhelming and can create a high level of anxiety for anyone. So, how do you maintain your level of composure and calmness in such a chaotic time of year?
Well, one way that appears to be helpful is to get outside and hike.
I was recently surfing the internet when I came across an article that peaked my interest: “Doctors Tell Us How Hiking Can Change Our Brains.” Well this seemed like it could be interesting. So, I went ahead and clicked on it. The article discussed research studying how hiking impacts our brains and actually alters its functioning. There were many things that speak to mental health issues but one in particular that stuck out to me was anxiety. So this made me think to myself, can something so simple as hiking really make a difference? After about 10 seconds of contemplation, I thought of course it can. So, you might wonder how you can apply this to the holidays?
Holidays can cause so much stress and anxiety for people. Figuring out a way to decrease anxiety levels makes sense. Hiking is an easy outlet to reduce stress. It seems that there is nothing quite like hiking itself. Hiking teaches us several useful skills that we can use in the moment. These skills are also transferable to our daily lives.
Let’s think about it for a bit.
Mindfulness: When you’re hiking, there isn’t the constant sound of a TV blaring in the background with the latest football game. There isn’t the noise of annoying family members talking nonstop. There isn’t the sound of honking horns and cars zooming by when you’re driving. When you’re in the woods, it’s you and nature.
If you walk through the woods you can hear the crackling of the branches and the rustling of leaves. You can hear birds chirping loudly. You can smell the crispness of the leaves on the ground and the freshness of being outdoors. You can feel the sun peeking through the tree. All things that appeal to our senses happen while we are hiking. All things that helps us to realize and celebrate being in the moment. Hiking helps us to practice mindfulness skills with all the sights, sounds, smells and sensations you can get.
Exercise: Another way that hiking helps anxiety is that hiking is exercise (I know you’re saying, no kidding Renee). While this seems like an obvious statement, the reality is that exercise in general helps reduce anxiety. Endorphins are released and good chemicals start doing their thing. We feel better and happier when we exercise. If you don’t believe me, note how you feel after you do some physical exercise the next time you do. You’ll notice that it just makes you feel better overall. Exercise is physically good for us. But it is also mentally good. So, if you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed from the craziness of holidays, then exercise would be helpful.
Breathing: Another reason why hiking is so helpful is the idea of breathing. With most patients that I see who struggle with anxiety, at some point during treatment, we discuss breathing. Abdominal breathing, square breathing, deep belly breath, whatever you want to call it using breathing as a tool to reduce anxiety is helpful. When you’re hiking your breathing is important and having controlled breathing is the most helpful.
All of these skills will help you get through the holiday season. Not only is the idea of hiking helpful, but it also teaches us to use skills that would be transferable to the rest of our lives as well. Skills like mindfulness and deep breathing would be perfect to use when that particular family member is stressing us out or when the pumpkin pie doesn’t come out just the way we want.
Many times people think that tackling anxiety is extremely intricate. That there is some fantastic ritual you must perform or some really difficult way to combat anxiety and stress. The reality is that addressing some anxiety, including stress around the holiday, can be as easy as doing something like hiking.
The best thing about hiking is that it doesn’t even mean that you have to be hiking the Appalachian trail or climbing Everest. Hiking just means getting outdoors and walking through nature, even if it’s just a short distance. You can find many trails right in your backyard. One of the best parts is that it is free. New England has some of the prettiest places outdoors to visit. So, get outside and enjoy what nature has to offer this time of year. Nature is calling you.