Mindfulness and Mental Health in the Outdoors
How long after a restorative experience does it take until you fall back into the same routines and behaviors that caused the need for a reprieve in the first place? If you’re anything like me, it’s almost immediate. I can spend a week unplugged and content, but as soon as I’m home I’m right back into work frustrations and endless phone scrolling. The joy of time away never lasts, and the change can be magnified by a subconscious attachment to the expectation of continued pleasure.
I’m on a mental health journey, like everyone else. Where I am precisely changed by the day, especially now in isolation. I’ve got your standard anxiety and depression with an added sprinkle of borderline personality disorder, though I suppose I’m what they call “high-functioning.” Mostly, I have a real problem processing and controlling my emotions, which leads to big mood swings and interpersonal conflict. For full transparency, I take a daily antidepressant (Wellbutrin) and do both individual and group therapy regularly.
Nature, fitness, and friends have always been my biggest outlets when I’m feeling off. Over the past five years I’ve made it a point to find adventure buddies and get after it, patting myself on the back along the way for “figuring out” such an effective tactic for making myself happy. I got out as much as possible, but over time I found myself to be moodier, more anxious, and definitely not happier. “What am I doing wrong?” I wondered.
Hot take! This is where I tell you that spending time outside and “communing with nature” is not the answer. Well, it’s not the whole answer. Which brings me back to the beginning.
A few years ago I discovered Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). What I like about CBT is that it’s an actionable skill-based style of therapy. By focusing on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it helped me realize that the way I perceive and approach life is a huge determinant of happiness. And most importantly, I can change the way I process information. Yes – I can control my own happiness! But how?!
Mindfulness, my friends. Intentional, non-judgmental self-awareness. The art of stepping back, taking a second, and processing before reacting. The kind of mental wizardry that could allow a monk to set himself on fire and not panic. But even at a low-grade proficiency, mindfulness works miracles.
By practicing intentional awareness every day, I eventually realized that the high of an epic weekend was always followed by terrible malaise when I got home (duh). Then I took note that the immediate reaction was always to start making plans for the next weekend, creating a harmful pattern. That might seem like an obvious phenomenon, but it’s not easy to recognize your own habits, especially because so many of the underlying thoughts are automatic and unconscious. And awareness is just the first step.
Once you recognize a harmful pattern, what do you do about it? The answer was to use mindfulness to detach from the positive feelings in the moment, so I wouldn’t be holding an unconscious attachment to them later. This is not easy. The last thing I want to do at the bottom of my favorite downhill trail is to talk myself out of feeling happy about the experience (if I’m even able to remember to be mindful at all). I’d never done self-talk before, and it felt weird. “OK, Steph, you just had your best run of the season, and you’ve got a heck of a lot of dopamine and endorphins coursing through your body. It feels great, but remember that this won’t last forever.” To my surprise, it started to work, and it didn’t diminish my happiness in the moment.
Noticing and talking myself through feelings has helped me decouple experience and emotion. As a result, I’ve become less impulsive, more rational, and my moods are more even. It’s helped me make better decisions planning adventures and bailing on them if things are unsafe, because I’m no longer emotionally attached to the objective. Or better yet, I’ve reframed the objective. It’s not the summit, it’s getting back to the car, as it always should have been. I’m ready to feel the feelings that come along with a sunset on a summit, but I don’t need them. The best part is that it translates to everything in life.
I used to feel like it was very millennial of me to expect to be happy. It’s not. It’s just that millennials seem to ignore the shame and stigma that historically come along with addressing mental health, which is a good start to finding happiness. And allow me to reiterate: getting outside helps, but addressing underlying mental health issues is the key, and there’s absolutely no shame in seeking professional help.
A non-expert mindfulness exercise
Let me preface this by saying: This is not medical advice. I have no credentials in psychology, at least not until they start recognizing years of therapy as degree credits.
There are a multitude of resources online about how to practice mindfulness. Meditation is a big one, and it can be hard at first, but here’s a meditation I think is more entry-level:
Hold an object like a rock or a feather in your hand for several minutes. In your mind, describe everything about the object – its size, its color, its weight, any defining attributes, how it feels in your hand, whether it makes you feel anything, etc. Go into the finest detail. Do this for an excruciatingly long time and notice your mind wandering. When it wanders, simply take note that you’ve become unfocused, and bring your awareness back to the object you’re holding. I find meditation a bit easier when focused on an object and a task rather than sitting still and trying to think about nothing but breathing. The goal here is to be able to catch your mind wandering and bring your focus back to the moment. I’ve found it helpful to diffuse anxiety attacks by bringing my focus to my physical experience in the moment – the light, any smells, the feeling of gravity anchoring me to the ground, which we so rarely take the time to feel. Give it a whirl!
Follow Steph, SheJumps Northeast ambassador, on Instagram @stephosaurus_k.