A Hike in the Woods: Walking for Mental Health

By UB clinical intern Erynn Besser

It’s that time of year again, the leaves are fading into their hues of auburn and gold; and like mental health, it can be easy to forget to stop and take time to acknowledge its changes.

When I made the decision that in 2019 I would thru-hike the 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine, an endeavor known as Appalachian Trail (A.T.), I had to ask myself, “why?” The answer was simple. Life is full of inevitable stress, and as humans it can be hard to find an opportunity to slow life down and return to the simplicity of just being. The trail offers a nonjudgmental space at no cost; and like mindfulness, the surrounding nature of the trail has a way of helping us return to the present moment. Here are some of the ways I like to pass my time as I hike along the trail; appreciating its beauty and simultaneously bringing my attention to the world around me:

Using your senses: The trail offers an abundance of stimuli that we can take in. While you’re hiking use your senses to draw attention to the environment around you. 

  • What do you hear? Bring your attention to the rustling of the leaves, the whispering of the wind, the light song of a cricket, or a babbling brook. Sometimes, if we listen hard enough, we find a rare moment of silence where we discover a deeper understanding of noise…and ourselves.
  • What do you see? Hiking can be done any time of year and depending on the season, the trail can take on a new identity, the same way we can sometimes do. Bring your attention each individual tree, appreciating and accepting their differences, something we struggle to do with even ourselves. 
  • What do you smell? Believe it or not, “Leaves” is not just a Bath & Body Scent! Draw your attention to you’re the aroma of the world around you as you walk.  
  • What can you touch? Allow yourself to experience the roughness of bark, the softness of grass, and the smoothness of rocks (just avoid the poison ivy).

Breathe: Draw your attention to your breath as you walk. You do not have to change it by exhaling longer or inhaling deeper, simply notice it’s natural flow as you place one foot in front of the other.

Release your thoughts: It’s okay to hike and think about the emotions or physical sensations of day to day life, but bring your attention to that thought, and then imagine yourself releasing it with every step you take, just like the passing ground. It comes, and it goes. Many of us even have thoughts that we hold on to or fear to say out loud. When I hike alone, I like to speak those thoughts. Remember, the trail doesn’t judge. Challenge yourself to share your thoughts aloud, and then allow yourself to forgive…the trail already has.

And so, it’s that time of year again. The leaves are fading into their hues of auburn and gold…and like mental health, if we take the time to acknowledge its changes…we may just learn to appreciate its beauty.

Happy Hiking!

We are now accepting new clients for telehealth or in-person therapy sessions! Please give us a call (888) 726-7170 or email intake@urbanbalance.com to schedule an appointment today!