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Depression and Wilderness
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Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Stephen Mather on 11/08/2012 18:03:31 MST Print View

I believe that the book "National Parks: America's Best Idea" mentions that going on extended trips into nature helped Stephen Mather with some of his lesser bouts.

jeffrey armbruster
(book) - M

Locale: Northern California
"Depression and Wilderness" on 11/08/2012 19:33:44 MST Print View

Like Kathy and Corrina, I find that going into the wilderness by myself for several days certainly puts me in touch with my inner self. Let me be clear: I go into the wilderness to hopefully lose myself in the beauty and power of the mountains. Ideally I don't want to be thinking about my workaday self at all; wilderness is refreshing and revitalizing precisely to the extent that my everyday issues are left behind and possibly even the sacred--if I can use that word--is rediscovered outside of me, but in a way that informs and rymes with a certain sacred within me. Hope that this doesn't sound too woo-woo. But as Americans we all have the Transcendentalists kicking around in our make up; I think that I'm gesturing in this direction.

But things don't always go like this! I do sometimes bring depression or complex relational issues into the wilderness with me and don't always find that I shake them. I do however almost always find that solitude and exercise help me to work through issues more productively than if I was trying to do this back home, with all of its distractions. I've had solo wilderness trips where I rarely felt that I launched into beauty in a satisfactory way. I went in with issues and they dogged me throughout. But what better environment for a quiet, honest assessment of my life? Wilderness as retreat is important too. I've come to feel that these kinds of trips are easily as valuable to me as the more wilderness-drunk trips that I also experience. Working through issues while backpacking is helpful and legitimate; it's just not what most of us would want to be doing at the time!

Having said all of this, psychotherapists have a very high success rate in treating depression, often without drugs. Sometimes solitude is counterproductive; what's needed is a second person who can listen and respond in helpful ways. But you don't want to make this person your hiking buddy, for their sake! My fairly severe depression was alleviated--cured, really--I don't suffer the way I used to at all going on 25 years now, without drugs--by standard psychotherapy. It didn't take that long, either.

Kathy A Handyside
(earlymusicus) - M

Locale: Southeastern Michigan
Re: Depression and Wilderness on 11/09/2012 08:42:23 MST Print View

Thank you, Cameron, for a wonderful article! As a person who has been diagnosed with clinical depression, I can attest to the truth of how getting out in nature can help so much. I am on medication and am doing so much better, but I still need my communion with nature to feel whole again.

Elsie Ashworth
Sometimes it's better to stay in on 11/09/2012 09:01:32 MST Print View

I have spent a lot of my life living and working outdoors in isolated places, so I don’t underestimate the value of losing oneself in nature, but I also know how lonely such places can be. This article doesn’t really take account of the different ways that the wilderness experience interacts with mental processes, especially solitude. If you find that getting outdoors reduces your anxiety levels, and gives you peace, then it makes absolute sense to do so, but for many people, at certain times in life, it may not be the right thing at all. It's most helpful to do what you honestly want to do at the time, not what you or anyone else feel you “should” do.

Lesson 1: stay safe

If you have a lot on your plate, it may not be a good time to add to your perceived responsibilities. The need to stay safe in the outdoors, especially in winter, necessitates a responsible and thoughtful attitude towards route planning, kit and fellow travellers, that can be at odds with the need to just switch your brain off, to give yourself a break from ongoing mental pressure. I nearly fell off a cliff once, because I forgot to properly tighten my climbing harness. I was well-rested and well-fed, but completely distracted by months of personal conflict, which had boiled over into an argument just prior to the climb.

Lesson 2: it’s ok to stop for a while

One of the most problematic aspects of depression can be a strong tendency to blame oneself for perceived failures - effectively self-bullying. Once this becomes a habit, being alone with one’s thoughts can be very painful, and being outdoors, especially alone, can seriously exacerbate this. Trying to go out when depressed can be akin to forcing yourself to do a long walk whilst carrying an injury. If you don’t stop, take it seriously, and allow it the necessary time to heal, you can delay recovery, or even push yourself into deeper difficulties. This is the time to allow yourself some compassion, even if it means ignoring goals you have set for yourself, such as a seasonal expedition.

Would you tell a depressed person that they’re a failure, that there’s “nothing really wrong” with them, and they “just need to make an effort to get out” ? I am NOT suggesting this was what Cameron said in his article, but it is a common reaction to depression, both from sufferers themselves, and people around them, and it can result in people trying to “fix” problems by throwing themselves into exercise in an effort to “be better”. It comes from a fear of acknowledging the fact that something is really wrong, and an ignorance of the fact that depression can be successfully treated. Needless to say, it’s unhelpful. It’s naturally distressing to see time being wasted and goals falling by the wayside, but being kicked back down by this attitude does not allow people to get back on their feet.

If your best friend was injured and scared, would you try and persuade them that what they really wanted was to go a long hike, or would you tuck them up in bed, and tell them to take it easy? If you want to help yourself, you may feel better if you do something slightly irresponsible, silly, childish and completely pointless, in a safe environment. I don’t recommend that you drink yourself into the gutter, but allow yourself to put down self-imposed burdens of what you “should” be doing. Don’t get up early and “make the most of the day” if the sunshine is so at odds with how you feel that it makes you feel worse. Stay in. Eat nice food, junk food included. Sleep as much as you need to, not as long as you “should”. Watch stupid TV shows that make you laugh. Watch sentimental films that make you cry. Examine your problems in manageable doses, in a safe place where you can break down if you need to, and if you become exhausted, distract yourself so you can get some rest.

Lesson 3: it’s OK to call for help

A lot of outdoors philosophy involves learning to look after oneself, and gaining satisfaction from being able to plan, navigate, and physically accomplish challenging routes, using one’s own skills and determination. It’s a matter of pride that we can look after ourselves. But sometimes things go wrong in life, just like in the outdoors, and you can find yourself in deepening trouble, with bad weather on every horizon. Perhaps you are carrying the mental equivalent of a grossly overloaded pack, on a difficult route that you convinced yourself was good idea, and it’s getting dark. Your skills and equipment suddenly seem foolishly inadequate. You blame and curse yourself. You feel angry enough to bang your head against the nearest sharp rock, just to emphasise to yourself what a stupid idiot you are. It’s time to back off, and call for help. You don’t want to. A combination of pride, combined with terror that help won’t come, may stop you making that call for a long time. You’re covered in sweat, and it’s getting cold. Make the call.

Lesson 4: Find someone who can help you develop the skills to look after yourself at home, as well as in the mountains.

We are not taught the essential skills of being to navigate your own mental landscape, and the result is that when something goes wrong, it’s easy to feel so lost and scared you end up running around in the mist in panicked circles. Do what you would do in a strange, and challenging new country - get help from a professional guide. You can’t learn everything from them overnight – it will take time, but if you really need to lighten your load, they will show you how. The best thing of all is to be able to be happy with your real life, rather than having to escape yourself by going off on expeditions, from which you dread coming home. The outdoors is a friend that will always be there for you when you want to see it again. When you want to go out again, you will, and it will feel really good.

Rebecca Cummings

Locale: So. Cal
Wilderness is not an instant fix on 11/10/2012 19:19:10 MST Print View

Thanks for the wonderful article and for the line from E.O. Wilson, our modern day Thoreau. About ten years ago, feelings of hopelessness led to my first trips in the wilderness. Backpacking was all I could think to do. And these trips were HARD. Hiking from sun up to sun down, carrying 50+ lbs and sometimes weeping from the exhaustion. But there was something about the effort, the daily rituals, the sights and the smells, just the plodding along, that felt much more real than anything I left behind. But wilderness was never an instant cure and I don't think your article ever implies that it is. I took my problems with me and I returned home with them. Even so, I viewed those problems with a bit more distance, with a bit more rational calm. And even when I couldn't get out there, just the thought of wilderness was freeing. It was a relief. I now had a portal into another world. Today, sometimes just thinking about future and past hiking trips calms the nerves.

Kathleen B

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Mike's Illustration on 11/11/2012 12:53:03 MST Print View

Mike Clelland! should get a lot of credit for that hauntingly beautiful illustration that is what I consider a valuable part of the article.

RA Amundsen
Long walks on 11/13/2012 12:59:07 MST Print View

While backpacking might be a good idea at some stages of depression, I'd pare it down a little for the earlier ones: take long walks.

When I had "the blues" a few years back, preparing for days or weeks in nature was out of the question. Way too much stress on a system already on its knees.

Just walking out the door on local paths in woods and parks was something that seemed to have a positive influence. I got physically tired and had breaks from the dark stuff.

What might be an even better question is whether backpacking can prevent or soften the onset of depression.

marvin barg
(Grampa_Kilt) - MLife

Locale: British Columbia
Re: Mike's Illustration on 11/13/2012 13:32:18 MST Print View

Here! Here!

Kenneth C Herbst

Locale: The Alamo City
thank you on 11/29/2012 10:36:48 MST Print View

Very thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

Appreciate your insights into the restorative powers of mother nature.

James Thom
Fantastic article on 07/16/2013 12:51:37 MDT Print View

Hiking and running have helped me overcome drug dependencies, depression and solidified my perspectives towards modern consumer culture.

It is difficult to put into words the concepts you have discussed, but when you know, you really do know, that nature makes things good again!