We have entered my absolute favorite season of the year for hiking. This time of year, the earth really likes to show off her colors! If you know me, you know that I have to get into nature at least once a week as a baseline need for my self-care. I have found nothing else in the world provides me the psychological benefits that mother earth provides.
Stress Reduction: I stress out a lot. Too much. Hiking in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, significantly and quickly reduces my stress levels. Research has shown that exposure to nature lowers cortisol. The sounds of birds chirping, the rustling of leaves, and the sight of natural, beautiful landscapes have a calming effect on our overly active brains.
Enhanced Mood: This is probably my main reason for hiking. As someone who has a history of mental health concerns and a vulnerability to them, I take managing my mental health very seriously. Nature is a space where my mood feels the lightest, most peaceful, and happiest. Hiking triggers the release of endorphins, which can lead to an immediate mood lift. I took my daughter on a hike this weekend, and she commented on how friendly everyone was on the trail. I told her, “Yes, nature just makes people nicer and happier.”
Improved Mental Clarity and Presence: The simplicity of hiking – putting one foot in front of the other – helps me be more present and work through my life’s demands without constant stimulation and distraction. Being in nature also helps reduce my problems to their “appropriate size.” I am certainly culpable of inflating the importance of my life’s “problems” and demands. Nature reminds me of my space in the world and helps me hold all of these things more lightly.
Connection to Nature: Hiking transports me into a world so much vaster and bigger than myself. Specifically, I feel connected to our incredible Earth and feel so grateful to be on this journey of life. I hold the paradox of feeling a deep sense of belonging while also feeling small and unimportant. This paradox and connection to something so profoundly incredible as our Earth enhances my sense of well-being.
Social Connection: Sometimes, I hike alone when I need to decompress and work through internal concerns. Other times, I really enjoy hiking in the company of others. Hiking provides a unique space where we aren’t distracted by our phones or anything else in life pulling for our attention. As a result, some of my life’s best conversations and meaningful connections happen hiking with friends. Group hikes offer opportunities for shared experiences, new memories, and meaningful conversations.
Boost in Self-Esteem: When I hike, I have a unique experience of both being completely embodied, and forgetting about my body. I do not hike for specific metrics like distance, or elevation gain, etc. I hike for the experience of beauty and connection. That said, I also feel a deep sense of satisfaction when I arrive at an incredible vista, summit, mountain lake, or waterfall. Hiking provides a sense of accomplishment that can boost self-esteem and self-efficacy. These feelings of accomplishment extend beyond the trail and positively impact self-worth.
Hiking is not merely a leisure activity; it’s a therapeutic journey. Unlike any other therapy, nature offers, in one combination package, the power to reduce stress, improve mood, and connect to ourselves, others, and something profoundly bigger than ourselves. Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or new to the trails, I hope you’ll venture into nature to experience these benefits for yourself. Your mental health will thank you.