We’d all love to feel calm (less stress) and have more confidence in everything that we do. Here’s one quick and simple way to feel better immediately – go take a hike! Nature can help you, and the more you get out of your comfort zone while exploring the outdoors, the better.
I just returned from my annual Montana trip. I’m a mountain girl at heart, and yet I have always lived at sea-level, so this is always a meaningful trip for me. This past trip really drove home how much I’ve learned from nature and how much I’ve gotten out of the years of returning to the mountains, progressively accomplishing harder climbs, namely: confidence and a sense of calm.
This year I wanted to share my magical place, and all that it gives me, with some loved ones. So, I combined an annual girl’s trip with my Montana trip. My girlfriends were happy to oblige after hearing my sales pitch about the abundant natural beauty of Montana. Even though my friends are generally not hikers, they were game to give the mountain vacation a try.
And then the questions began. The gazillion questions. About everything and anything. Questions coming from fear and anxiety, wanting to know as many details as possible to try and prepare. Trying to understand the unknown:
- How long will it take us to get to the top?
- Where will we eat lunch?
- Where will we go to the bathroom?
- Is there snow at the top?
- Will there be a lot of water in the river we have to cross?
- How long will it take us to hike to the top?
- Will it rain again? Should I keep my jacket on?
If you’re ever hiked somewhere new, you know these are not easy questions to answer. What my friends didn’t understand is that I really had no clue about what was going to happen. All I knew was the direction we were going to hike. When it came to their ability, pace, hunger or the weather – anything is possible.
I had forgotten the discomfort that can arise for a newbie when they’re about to do something out of their comfort zone. I had forgotten how scary being in the mountains can be for others, because it’s become almost second nature.
But it wasn’t always like that for me. I had to dig deep to remember how it was for me in the beginning. When crossing over inclined snow patches on the side of a mountain was scary. When a river crossing brought on fast breathing. When I wasn’t sure if I could hold it together on what felt like a never-ending climb to the top of a peak, at oxygen-thin elevations. My girlfriends going through their challenges were a good reminder of the confidence and calm the mountains give me.
When you’re in the mountains, you never know what might happen next. Be it a water crossing, snow field, steep inclines, big boulders, animals, weather – just one step at a time, one hurdle at a time – and experience has shown me that I’ll be just fine.
I get a particularly strong boost of confidence after returning from a challenging climb, one that scared me and maybe one that had a few mishaps. Not because I want to get hurt, but because I overcame the challenges. Maybe I have some cuts or bruises from a few close calls, but I was never truly in danger and overcoming my fear and trepidation makes me stronger.
This confidence isn’t just for the mountains, it carries over into the rest of my life. I know that whatever life throws at me, regardless of how hard it feels at the moment, I’ll be fine in the end. I’m not perfect at this, I’m human, but I am a lot better than I used to be before mountains were in my life.
Calm leads to awe
There is nothing more rejuvenating than a 6-hour hike. Between the physical exertion and, sometimes, the boredom, my mind slows down to a calming and rejuvenating state.
When this happens two things typically shift for me.
- This is usually when I start to see things that I didn’t quite notice before; the amazing wildflowers, the tiny forget-me-nots, glacier lilies, Indian paintbrush, the bees buzzing all around them, a glimpse of a marmot, the layers in the rock across the valley. Noticing the small beauty around me brings in feeling of appreciation, gratitude, connectedness, and awe.
I’ve noticed how these observations during the long hikes start to carry over into everyday life. I start to feel more present and see the small things around me that I really appreciate. These small appreciation moments bring me more happiness on a daily basis.
I used to pay disproportionately more attention to the big things, the big moments, which meant I missed a lot of small opportunities to appreciate and feel happy more regularly and consistently.
Life is full of small details, small moments, which means that if I’m not careful, I might miss out on much of my life. For me, happiness is about lots of small moments. The big moments are about excitement, elation, amazement, exuberance… those are big emotions that take a lot more energy and aren’t likely to be sustainable. I prefer to enjoy the small moments, which can lead to happiness and contentment for long periods.
- On these long hikes I also get to a state of calm that is similar to boredom, but which I’d like to call clarity. This is when the chatter quiets down, when the to-do lists fade away, when I’m on the brink of thinking “how much further?” This is when the magic happens, my creativity gets activated. When I suddenly feel like I can solve all the worlds’ problems. I get some of my best writing ideas or stories in these moments (and keep kicking myself for not bringing a notebook and pen).
This is one of the reasons that I never listen to music or try to entertain myself on a hike, I know this will deprive me of clarity and the creative juice that I love to drink.
I’m not saying that you have to go on a 6-hour hike to get these benefits, but I certainly notice that, for me, the benefits increase the longer I spend on the trail. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, try getting out in nature, doing something fun and getting a little bit out of your comfort zone to see how dramatically it can shift your mindset.
There are lots of other ways that nature and outdoor activity can help you in your career and life overall. Here are several studies as food for thought if you’re not convinced that connecting with nature, be it mountains, trees, or the ocean, is just what the doctor ordered.
- In this study, University of Michigan students were given a brief memory test, then divided into two groups. One group took a walk around an arboretum, and the other half took a walk down a city street. When the participants returned and did the test again, those who had walked among trees performed almost 20% percent better than the first time. The students who had taken in city sights instead did not consistently improve.
- In this study, researchers found a decrease in both heart rate and levels of cortisol in subjects who were in the forest compared to subjects in the city, concluding “stressful states can be relieved by forest therapy”.
- In this study, subjects who took a 50 min walk in nature compared to an urban environment enjoyed affective benefits (decreased anxiety, rumination, and negative affect, and preservation of positive affect) as well as cognitive benefits (increased working memory performance).
- In this study, researchers worked to deplete subjects’ ability to focus. Then some took a walk in nature, some took a walk through the city, and the rest just relaxed. When the subjects returned, the nature group scored the best on a proofreading task.
- This study found that people immersed in nature for four days boosted their performance on a creative problem-solving test by 50%.
- This study found that the great outdoors is a restorative environment that can recharge you from the mental fatigue caused by working.
- This study shows that even looking at pictures of nature works as well.
Do you need help to find ways to get out in nature? Or maybe you feel like you just don’t have the time. Regardless of the reason, if you want to a partner to help you take advantages that nature can provide, I’m here for you.