How Hiking Helped My Anxiety
During my sophomore year of college, a friend of mine had a panic attack in the hallway. Her breathing because rushed and labored, and she wept as her face became flushed with heat.
Another friend and I helped my friend calm down over the better part of an hour. We counted breaths in and out with her and fanned her with pieces of computer paper. She stopped crying and eventually her panic and anxiety- which she described as a weight on her chest- dissipated.
This was my first real experience with what anxiety could build to.
I’d never personally dealt with anxiety while growing up or in college.
After college though, anxiety became an unwelcome companion. I graduated into the recession in 2011 and struggled to find any kind of full time work. I waited tables for the first three years out of college, because every job application I sent out was denied. I paired my waitressing work with unpaid internships, but I felt stalled.
My lack of steady income, my growing certainty that I would never land a full-time job, and my student loan debt all formed an anxiety cocktail that only got stronger the longer I was out of school.
Anxiety became a daily emotion.
I stressed about spending money. I stressed about earning money. Anxiety caused me to doubt my capabilities- was I smart at all? Was college a huge mistake? Why couldn’t I get my life together- was it because I was, deep down, unworthy of anything good?
As a waitress, I was a low-income earner who worked weekends. That meant my time off was usually a Monday or Tuesday. It felt odd to be off when most of the world was working, and at first it fueled my anxiety. I felt isolated, and that it was one more marker of how I had failed to ‘make it’. I was literally out of step with everyone else.
I’m not quite sure how it happened, but one Tuesday morning I chose to take a walk through the hike and bike trail near my house. It was a mile and a half loop that ran along a river. Shaded by huge green trees, it was an escape from the concrete of my apartment building. I listened to a playlist as I walked the whole loop, and when I got back to my apartment I felt energized. Noticeably so.
For the next several hours I felt great.
I was an athlete growing up, and I knew the positive effects exercise could have on your mood and mindset. I also recognized how being outside my basement apartment boosted my happiness. Being in nature had soothed my anxieties and given me a clear energy boost.
My walks became a weekly ritual. They gave me the mental space to stretch my thoughts out beyond ‘I hate my life.’ It was on a walk that I realized my biggest source of stress was my student loan debt. On another, that I needed to break up with an unhealthy boyfriend. Walks gave me a clarity that I couldn’t find elsewhere.
I started changing things in my to help me feel more grounded and less like I was floundering. As I started to tackle my financial insecurity, my walks morphed into hikes. Hiking was abundant in my city, and it was a free form of entertainment that spoke to my newly frugal heart.
Hiking eased my anxiety even more.
My hikes took me to parts of the city and the surrounding areas I’d never been to. I started exploring more parks, trails and I saw a variety of landscapes. I pushed myself on harder terrains.
The benefits of hiking were more than double what I’d experienced on my walks. I always took my phone, but sometimes there was no service- I was fully immersed in nature. I saw gnarled trees that were older than I was. I climbed up rocks that were larger than my car. Often I hiked near water, and I’d dip my feet in the cool water after a hard hike.
Both getting outside and working out on a regular basis helped my anxiety tremendously. Rather than obsess over the things I didn’t have, I marveled at the things my body could do or that I saw on a hike. Hikes were always a break from my routine. They refreshed my mental energy and helped me look at my life in a new way.
Hiking is now a normal weekend activity for me.
My life has changed drastically from when I first started (happy to say I’m no longer a waitress!), but I still reap the same benefits. Hiking gives me a chance to break out from behind my computer screen, and a chance to explore even more places in nature that I’ve never seen before. They’re my go-to move when I feel anxiety creeping into my life today.
Kara Perez is a freelance writer and founder of Bravely, a financial literacy company for women. She lives in Austin, TX and loves hiking, peanut butter and New Girl.