My overactive fight-or- flight response would have done me wonders back in the Stone Age, but today, it just makes me wired and tired.
You might wonder how I’d even want to throw on a pack and take my young child out into the bush, often alone, for days on end.
I’ve been thinking about this as well. I’ve decided there’s a big difference between healthy fear and the unhealthy, insidious dread that accompanies my mental health condition. And I believe the more time I spend outdoors, the more my brain is changing and healing, as the restless energy of chronic anxiety is transformed into calm and powerful excitement.
The trouble with trauma is that it is so damaging (traumatic, duh) that it changes the way your brain is wired. Science says “Trauma can cause your brain to remain in a state of hypervigilance, suppressing your memory and impulse control and trapping you in a constant state of strong emotional reactivity.”
What does that mean in plain language? Basically, your brain keeps reliving that sense of pure animal panic you felt during your traumatic experience. You feel scared, panic, wigged out, wired, paranoid, anxious, worried, fearful, depressed, tired, down on yourself, afraid to reach out to others, the works. Sounds pretty sh#t, doesn’t it? But the good news is that brains are pretty amazing organs and while the science is a bit grey, it’s possible to rewire your brain to reverse the effects of that trauma.
As you can imagine, it’s bloody hard work.
Maintaining good mental health takes time and space and awareness of your own thoughts. And as for rewiring it… this is where the healing power of nature really shines. What better way to spend quality time alone with your thoughts, immersed in the soothing sounds, smells and colours of our natural world. It’s also a great opportunity to transform that anxiety into something positive, such as the excitement and buzz of adrenaline you feel when you’re tackling a physical or mental challenge.
There’s that feeling of excitement and anticipation when you are setting off on a tramp, carrying everything you need to be self-contained upon your back. The way your heart races when you’re scrambling up high, every muscle awake, your body strong and alert as you place each foot in front of the other, grasping for rocks and roots as you pull yourself up. That feeling when you finally get to your destination after a long, hard day of navigating your way through rough terrain, around tree roots, rocks, fallen trees and across streams.
Those quiet moments of peace when all your thoughts have blown away in the breeze and you’re simply present, you, your breath, your body and the bush all around you.
I don’t know about you, but tramping makes me feel like a badass. After a few days out in the bush, I feel strong and confident, in awe of the unpredictability of my environment. When I feel fear, it’s the real deal, because of something that’s actually happening in front of me, whether it’s a slip or tumble, a fallen tree or heinous weather. But most of the time, I feel awake and alert, but also incredibly peaceful. Just like there’s no room in my pack for surplus gear that I have no use for, there’s no space in my mind for unhelpful thoughts.
While I have no physical control over when that rush of cortisol (stress hormone) will set in, over time and with guidance, I’ve learned to identify the feeling (it can come on strong, or be quite insidious) and the negative thought patterns that accompany it. Then I try to replace these with new, soothing, empowering lines of self-talk to help minimize my distress, and hopefully, quickly move through it to a better space.
And maybe, if I spend enough time out here, that rush of cortisol will simply help me walk faster, climb higher, see further and listen deeper. To be more in tune with my mind, my body and my natural world.
Victoria and Emilie are walking the Te Araroa over the 21/22 summer season. They are raising funds and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy. To see all their stories, visit wilderlife.nz/adventures_with_emilie/ and follow them @adventures_with_emilie on Instagram and Facebook.
90% of the funds raised are donated evenly between the Mental Health Foundation and the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ Mountain & Forest Charitable Trust. 10% is going towards some of the expenses of walking the trail.
If you’d like to help them out, please donate via their give a little page.