Hiking into Healing

My anxiety is allergic to the outdoors. When I walk for hours along a wooded path or affix my limbs to a rock crag, I don’t think about my weight, or if he’ll call, or biting the inside of my lip. The sticky brain gunk that fuels my visions of destruction and self doubt are obliterated, and I focus intently on the task at hand. I breathe. I climb. I balance.

A lot of you probably don’t know that I suffer from anxiety. As a teenager, I put out matches on my wrists each time a boy broke my heart, and as a young adult, I was riddled with eating disorders. They were secrets I kept to myself, and because I was so high functioning otherwise, no one seemed to notice. Through each phase of my life, I’ve watched the teeth of these monsters back farther and farther away. When I started climbing, they fell off the face of the Earth.

Hiking and alpinism are the efforts I undertake to tackle dread and create harmony in my mind. I plan trips and execute, leaping whole-heartedly into danger and unpredictable weather conditions. When I succeed, my confidence soars, and when I turn back, I humble myself to a new lesson. Climbing silences the rogue spirits in my underbelly. This is meditation on steroids, an exorcism for the secular.

The first time I ever went backpacking, I fell in love. Something about the notion of carrying everything you could ever need on your back transfixed me, and I still find it a perfect metaphor for how we should endeavor to walk through life. In the backcountry, there are no mirrors to ogle, and sweaty dirt tans are the height of fashion. For the first time ever, my body became a tool for survival, and I began to marvel at its potential for strength. I started seriously questioning the value of excessive items and if their actual (or emotional) weight was worth the effort.

Yes, emotional density matters on trail as well, and what you carry in your mind can make for a heavy heart on the mountain. The more I climb, the more I find myself searching for weight I can ditch: the malicious boss, the roommates’ grudge, the emotionally unavailable man. I hike to remind myself that I am perfectly capable when alone, and I feel a steady contentment rising with each outing.

It wasn’t long before these practices took root in my ordinary life as well. Cut the fat and donate the surplus became my new mottos. I moved out of my apartment and into a small room, ditching my Prius for a cheapo adventure-mobile as I downsized. The more I stripped away, the less I missed, and the extra money created the freedom I needed to pursue meaningful work and find a healthier life balance. I strayed far away from over-optimization and other facades that sought to provide a perfect solution. No Fitbits or espresso machines. I went small. Once minimalism enveloped my city life too, I felt like I could finally breathe.

I still push myself, perhaps harder than I should. There is no utopian force field that safeguards a person in the wild. My muscles throb and the ripped callouses on my hands shriek at me as I try to contort them to type quickly on a keyboard most weekdays. Self-doubts still ruminate when I sign up to tackle new objectives with more technical elements, but my newfound clarity allows me to fight back stronger than before. My road to empowerment is the jagged ridge I ascend, a serrated knife that mirrors insecurities back at me until I lacerate them from my being.

Mountains break me and heal me; it’s a lifelong romance with blood and smiles.

8 thoughts on “Hiking into Healing

  1. G says:

    What a wonderful blog. I discovered hiking to rid myself of my anxiety and depression. The trees are my therapist. They listen to me.
    I am trying to break free from technology however, here I am reading your blog and writing my comments…on my cell phone.

    • Emily Pennington (BrazenBackpacker) says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words! The more I get out, the more I don’t want to go back in! This weekend, I undertook a big solo backpacking trip up Alta Peak. It was so empowering to hit a huge mountain alone. I feel strong and ready for the week ahead! Glad you’ve found the trees too. <3

  2. Sally says:

    This is perfect, written words to describe the ultimate goal of my hikes. I leave it all in the car and feel a hundred times better when I get back…

  3. Kaya says:

    Great post. I have never looked at hiking as a way to relieve myself of my anxiety. I have always looked at is as more of a way to exercise. I am happy that I found this post and will be able to look at hiking in a new way. Thanks for sharing.

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