Depression and Wilderness

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Depression and Wilderness

Viewing 25 posts - 1 through 25 (of 48 total)
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    Stephanie Jordan


    Locale: Rocky Mountains

    Companion forum thread to:

    Depression and Wilderness

    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    I've heard that before – walking around outside in wild areas can alleviate mild depression – nice article

    Stephen M
    BPL Member


    Locale: Way up North

    Just read a book called Hillfit and it mentions the importance of "Green Exercise"

    Justin Baker
    BPL Member


    Locale: Santa Rosa, CA

    I have had a very different experience with this. If I am suffering from the pain of a specific problem it tends to follow me into the wilderness. The only way for me to suppress is through distraction (usually music, television, games). There was a time when I avoided going into the wilderness by myself. When I was stuck with just me and my thoughts, it made things worse. There was nothing to distract me during those long, dark nights.



    Locale: West

    Anecdotally, I had a bought with depression last year, and getting out was what it took to fully shake it.

    Nice article.

    W I S N E R !
    BPL Member


    For me, wilderness works like a charm to drive away the blues.

    But is it simply wilderness or recreation/vacation/leisure time in wilderness?

    There's a difference.

    Access to "wilderness" experiences, especially in highly urbanized areas, has a lot to do with family income. And family income tends to have a pretty high correlation with stress and depression.

    Being dirt-poor in a beautiful place isn't too peachy either. Think about crime/stress/suicide/depression rates on reservations.

    Dale Wambaugh
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    Nothing like exercise, fresh air, quiet, broken routines, new horizons, and successful fulfillment of plans and goals to perk us up. Not to mention FUN :)

    jason quick


    Locale: A tent in my backyard - Melbourne

    Great article.

    …not dissimilar to the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder. Not really a recognised ICD-10 condition per se, but there are strong links between children, lack of contact with nature, and anxiety/depression states during their early childhood years. If you're interested in reading further, explore the book "Last Child in the Woods", by Richard Louv (2008).

    Gerry Volpe


    Locale: Vermont

    Excellent thoughts. I recently had a conversation with some of my students about "self medicating" with wilderness and adventure activities to maintain emotional balance and treat mild everyday manifestations of mental health diagnosis. While the restoritative benefits of nature are oft cited in the literature of "Wilderness" and "Adventure" therapy and are obvious to many it is often anectdotal and theoretical as there seems a woeful lack of comprehensive research on the subject. It would be great to see some done. Significant amounts of brain research seems to back up the the idea that the dissequalibrium fostered through changing ones environment and daily routine aids greatly in making and maintaining positive change and learning in the areas of behavior, affect, and cognition. When all is said and done I am definately my best self when engaged in outdoor activities. Great article.

    Ken Thompson
    BPL Member


    Locale: Right there

    Too bad the problems with home life wait for your return from the wilderness. Sure it feels better to get away from them for awhile.

    James Castleberry


    I too greatly enjoyed this article and it hit home in many ways. I would second the mention of Richard Louv's work on the importance of getting "vitamin N" especially for children. As Ken points out, the home problems remain when you get back but at least the wilderness offers a temporary escape and more often than not, provides the appropriate backdrop to do some spiritual growth. Bucktoof's comment about income and access to nature is certainly a valid one and worth considering and relates to the work that Louv is doing.
    I would also like to say that this article is a good example of the type of non-gear related articles that can be of immense value to BPL readers.

    Joe Clement
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southwest

    Wish I could take off about 3 weeks and treat today's sudden-onset depression.

    Robert Ellinwood


    Google the term "Shinrin-Yoku" and you'll find the Japanese have been researching exactly this feeling of "lift" that being in nature gives us. They have documented the physical, biological changes within us that occur as we spend even brief periods outdoors in the wild.

    Thomas Jamrog


    Locale: New England

    One critical point to add to this discussion is the reality of experiencing depression upon return to what I call the " shower world" after one has experienced months of backpacking. It has crippled some, even leading to some suicides.

    Kathy Hoffman


    Locale: Foothills of San Gabriel Mtns.

    First, I have to say that I have been extremely fortunate, in that my personal experiences with depression have been mild, and short lived, and my heart goes out to anyone suffering depression. I have seen the devastating effects with a family member.

    With that said, I seem to have a different experience on wilderness and depression.

    Getting out in the wilderness didn't just make the depression go away for me. In my experience, the times where I felt depressed were times where my life was out of balance, or I needed to make changes in my life. Getting out in the wilderness helped remove the daily distractions and forced me to deal with myself. All those hours by myself actually made me deal with my own thoughts and feelings, and once I did that, the answers came pretty quickly. The wilderness, at least for me, seems to coincide very much with what John Muir said……."for going out, I found, was really going in". It helps me to connect not only with nature and wilderness, but helps me to connect….with me.

    I'd be very interested in hearing if anyone else experiences that as well.

    Kathy Hoffman


    Locale: Foothills of San Gabriel Mtns.

    That research on Shinrin-Yoku is actually fascinating! Thank you for pointing it out.

    marvin barg
    BPL Member


    Locale: British Columbia

    Thank you for this article. As it points out, getting out and hiking can be a great 'drug' to treat depression. And so it was that I quit taking my depression medication at the beginning of a '08 PCT thru-hike. Things were somewhat OK for several hundred miles, but when some nagging injuries and loneliness for family mounted up, my serotonin supplies vanished. Within days, I was in serious depression trouble. (Referring to my own brain chemistry) I now realize that the boost of helpful neurotransmitters a daily hiking marathon creates is not enough to offset the inherent stress of that very activity. Lesson learned–for PCT '13, my baseweight will need to include other meds beside Vit I!

    Corrina Peipon
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southern California

    Though I do have clinical depression, my experience with walking is similar to Kathy's: When I am walking, I can access my thoughts in the most profound and thorough way. The co-founder of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather suffered from bipolar disorder and was hospitalized several times. I like to think that his drive to create and maintain the NPS derived from his firsthand experience of the palliative effect of nature on his illness.

    Tranina Glover
    BPL Member


    I suffered years ago from manic depression. Going out into the desert organized my day, helped me to write down my thoughts, and lifted the idiocy. Good meditative skills practiced during this bout got me off medication. Now when I'm not feeling quite well, I just go for a walk. To have dirt under your hiking boots helps too.

    John Coyle


    Locale: NorCal

    Interesting that you mention Scotsman John Muir in your article because I believe he was a victim of depression himself after being struck in the eye by a tool in 1867 in an Indianapolis factory that made wagon wheels. The accident blinded him for six weeks, and when he recovered he decided to spend the rest of his life pursuing nature. Muir owned and operated fruit orchards in Martinez Northern California to help fund his nature explorations. There is a seven acre national historic site there with his historic mansion house and sample fruit orchards which is operated by the U.S. National Park Service. You can even sample the fruit if it is in season! I should know, I used to work there.

    Tom Clark
    BPL Member


    Locale: East Coast

    I believe that the book "National Parks: America's Best Idea" mentions that going on extended trips into nature helped Stephen Mather with some of his lesser bouts.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    Like Kathy and Corrina, I find that going into the wilderness by myself for several days certainly puts me in touch with my inner self. Let me be clear: I go into the wilderness to hopefully lose myself in the beauty and power of the mountains. Ideally I don't want to be thinking about my workaday self at all; wilderness is refreshing and revitalizing precisely to the extent that my everyday issues are left behind and possibly even the sacred–if I can use that word–is rediscovered outside of me, but in a way that informs and rymes with a certain sacred within me. Hope that this doesn't sound too woo-woo. But as Americans we all have the Transcendentalists kicking around in our make up; I think that I'm gesturing in this direction.

    But things don't always go like this! I do sometimes bring depression or complex relational issues into the wilderness with me and don't always find that I shake them. I do however almost always find that solitude and exercise help me to work through issues more productively than if I was trying to do this back home, with all of its distractions. I've had solo wilderness trips where I rarely felt that I launched into beauty in a satisfactory way. I went in with issues and they dogged me throughout. But what better environment for a quiet, honest assessment of my life? Wilderness as retreat is important too. I've come to feel that these kinds of trips are easily as valuable to me as the more wilderness-drunk trips that I also experience. Working through issues while backpacking is helpful and legitimate; it's just not what most of us would want to be doing at the time!

    Having said all of this, psychotherapists have a very high success rate in treating depression, often without drugs. Sometimes solitude is counterproductive; what's needed is a second person who can listen and respond in helpful ways. But you don't want to make this person your hiking buddy, for their sake! My fairly severe depression was alleviated–cured, really–I don't suffer the way I used to at all going on 25 years now, without drugs–by standard psychotherapy. It didn't take that long, either.

    Kathy A Handyside
    BPL Member


    Locale: Southeastern Michigan

    Thank you, Cameron, for a wonderful article! As a person who has been diagnosed with clinical depression, I can attest to the truth of how getting out in nature can help so much. I am on medication and am doing so much better, but I still need my communion with nature to feel whole again.

    Elsie Ashworth


    I have spent a lot of my life living and working outdoors in isolated places, so I don’t underestimate the value of losing oneself in nature, but I also know how lonely such places can be. This article doesn’t really take account of the different ways that the wilderness experience interacts with mental processes, especially solitude. If you find that getting outdoors reduces your anxiety levels, and gives you peace, then it makes absolute sense to do so, but for many people, at certain times in life, it may not be the right thing at all. It's most helpful to do what you honestly want to do at the time, not what you or anyone else feel you “should” do.

    Lesson 1: stay safe

    If you have a lot on your plate, it may not be a good time to add to your perceived responsibilities. The need to stay safe in the outdoors, especially in winter, necessitates a responsible and thoughtful attitude towards route planning, kit and fellow travellers, that can be at odds with the need to just switch your brain off, to give yourself a break from ongoing mental pressure. I nearly fell off a cliff once, because I forgot to properly tighten my climbing harness. I was well-rested and well-fed, but completely distracted by months of personal conflict, which had boiled over into an argument just prior to the climb.

    Lesson 2: it’s ok to stop for a while

    One of the most problematic aspects of depression can be a strong tendency to blame oneself for perceived failures – effectively self-bullying. Once this becomes a habit, being alone with one’s thoughts can be very painful, and being outdoors, especially alone, can seriously exacerbate this. Trying to go out when depressed can be akin to forcing yourself to do a long walk whilst carrying an injury. If you don’t stop, take it seriously, and allow it the necessary time to heal, you can delay recovery, or even push yourself into deeper difficulties. This is the time to allow yourself some compassion, even if it means ignoring goals you have set for yourself, such as a seasonal expedition.

    Would you tell a depressed person that they’re a failure, that there’s “nothing really wrong” with them, and they “just need to make an effort to get out” ? I am NOT suggesting this was what Cameron said in his article, but it is a common reaction to depression, both from sufferers themselves, and people around them, and it can result in people trying to “fix” problems by throwing themselves into exercise in an effort to “be better”. It comes from a fear of acknowledging the fact that something is really wrong, and an ignorance of the fact that depression can be successfully treated. Needless to say, it’s unhelpful. It’s naturally distressing to see time being wasted and goals falling by the wayside, but being kicked back down by this attitude does not allow people to get back on their feet.

    If your best friend was injured and scared, would you try and persuade them that what they really wanted was to go a long hike, or would you tuck them up in bed, and tell them to take it easy? If you want to help yourself, you may feel better if you do something slightly irresponsible, silly, childish and completely pointless, in a safe environment. I don’t recommend that you drink yourself into the gutter, but allow yourself to put down self-imposed burdens of what you “should” be doing. Don’t get up early and “make the most of the day” if the sunshine is so at odds with how you feel that it makes you feel worse. Stay in. Eat nice food, junk food included. Sleep as much as you need to, not as long as you “should”. Watch stupid TV shows that make you laugh. Watch sentimental films that make you cry. Examine your problems in manageable doses, in a safe place where you can break down if you need to, and if you become exhausted, distract yourself so you can get some rest.

    Lesson 3: it’s OK to call for help

    A lot of outdoors philosophy involves learning to look after oneself, and gaining satisfaction from being able to plan, navigate, and physically accomplish challenging routes, using one’s own skills and determination. It’s a matter of pride that we can look after ourselves. But sometimes things go wrong in life, just like in the outdoors, and you can find yourself in deepening trouble, with bad weather on every horizon. Perhaps you are carrying the mental equivalent of a grossly overloaded pack, on a difficult route that you convinced yourself was good idea, and it’s getting dark. Your skills and equipment suddenly seem foolishly inadequate. You blame and curse yourself. You feel angry enough to bang your head against the nearest sharp rock, just to emphasise to yourself what a stupid idiot you are. It’s time to back off, and call for help. You don’t want to. A combination of pride, combined with terror that help won’t come, may stop you making that call for a long time. You’re covered in sweat, and it’s getting cold. Make the call.

    Lesson 4: Find someone who can help you develop the skills to look after yourself at home, as well as in the mountains.

    We are not taught the essential skills of being to navigate your own mental landscape, and the result is that when something goes wrong, it’s easy to feel so lost and scared you end up running around in the mist in panicked circles. Do what you would do in a strange, and challenging new country – get help from a professional guide. You can’t learn everything from them overnight – it will take time, but if you really need to lighten your load, they will show you how. The best thing of all is to be able to be happy with your real life, rather than having to escape yourself by going off on expeditions, from which you dread coming home. The outdoors is a friend that will always be there for you when you want to see it again. When you want to go out again, you will, and it will feel really good.

    Rebecca Cummings


    Locale: So. Cal

    Thanks for the wonderful article and for the line from E.O. Wilson, our modern day Thoreau. About ten years ago, feelings of hopelessness led to my first trips in the wilderness. Backpacking was all I could think to do. And these trips were HARD. Hiking from sun up to sun down, carrying 50+ lbs and sometimes weeping from the exhaustion. But there was something about the effort, the daily rituals, the sights and the smells, just the plodding along, that felt much more real than anything I left behind. But wilderness was never an instant cure and I don't think your article ever implies that it is. I took my problems with me and I returned home with them. Even so, I viewed those problems with a bit more distance, with a bit more rational calm. And even when I couldn't get out there, just the thought of wilderness was freeing. It was a relief. I now had a portal into another world. Today, sometimes just thinking about future and past hiking trips calms the nerves.

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