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Top 10 Mental Health Lessons From The Appalachian Trail

Written by: Elizabeth Arnold, MAPC, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

I stood there, soaked to the skin, gazing at the rebar-secured “stairs” looming in front of us that identified the start of the next 2,000-foot climb. After grueling days of miles in the rain, standing before these stairs, I felt a little undone. For several long moments, I waffled in indecision: should I call it quits for the day, find another way around, skip this section, wait for better weather conditions, or bail on the trail entirely. But in a moment of clarity, I knew what I had to do. The tortoise was right. I would never arrive at my goal by standing still; I had to keep moving forward.

Having 809 miles to reflect during my section-hiking excursions has afforded me the mental space to ponder the lessons I learned on the trail and how they directly related to life “off the trail,” especially mental health development. Using “the journey” as an analogy for life, with all its different terrain, mountains and valleys, injuries, obstacles, decisions, relationships, and breath-taking summits, I offer my Top Ten Mental Health Lessons from the Appalachian Trail:

1. Going is faster than stopping.

This seems obvious until we find ourselves stuck in Indecision Gap or the Status Quo Lodge. However, whether we seek more clarity, peace, resilience, connection, purpose, belonging, fulfillment, or joy, taking consistent steps forward will help us reach our destination. For those of us who get paralyzed by perfectionism or decision fatigue, it’s ok to pick one direction, take that first step, and trust God’s shepherding. Goals are achieved by people in motion; indecision blocks progress. We prayerfully use our God-given resources to put a plan into action and ask God to guide our steps. We will arrive at our destinations by making decisions and continuing to walk in faith.

2. All mountains are climbed one step at a time.


When it comes to mental wellness, our goals may appear as insurmountable as mountains. From our vantage point, the destination may seem totally out of reach, especially if we are lacking certain skills or a travel guide. We may be tempted to look for side trails, quick fixes, and any possible options to skip difficult sections, especially as our emotional pain levels increase.

However, the journey itself is part of the healing process as we build capacity, resilience, and healthy attachments. Most mountains are navigable solo, but an experienced guide can customize a travel plan to help us reach the summit in the least amount of time and effort possible. Whatever approach we choose, the important thing to remember is to break the mountain into smaller segments. Every mental health goal can be subdivided into smaller, manageable tasks. It’s not complicated or glamorous but requires consistency, dedication, and support. One step at a time will help us reach our destination.


3. Zero days are important to sustain progress.


In the backpacking world, zero days are the days we don’t hike, typically to get off the trail, head into town, shower, resupply, eat real food, and rest. The human body has finite resources that must be renewed to function properly. God’s kindness gives us sleep and the gift of Sabbath. Our bodies, minds, and emotions can heal, be restored, and thrive when observing rhythms of rest. In fact, incorporating margin into our lives helps us be more human, living fully into the people we were created to be in this world. For even healthier lives, sprinkle periods of rest throughout your day, week, season, and year. We were designed to enjoy guilt-free respite to unplug from the regular grind to refresh and renew.

4. Success is 80% mental,15% preparation, and 5% execution.


Many performance experts tell us showing up is half the battle. However, so much must happen between our ears to even stay on the trail. Long-distance backpacking is largely a mental game; no matter our physique, age, or experience, we will make it to the end of the trail if we think we can. Weather, discomfort, pain, loneliness, or weariness will not win the day when we have a goal and the determination to get there. Our mental health development requires that same commitment and belief in our God to accomplish His transformation in our lives. Belief largely determines action, confidence, and follow-through. Additionally, preparing for a multi-week backpacking trip requires us to research, obtain necessary supplies and equipment, and plan. Once on the trail, the only items available to us are those essentials we’ve stashed in our packs, our traveling companions, periodic resupplies, and God’s natural provisions. Similarly, the structures and strategies we implement for our mental and emotional health will give us the greatest chance of success. Our plans can include the people we enlist for support, accountability partners, dedicated therapy sessions, moments of time carved out to spend with God, and space to journal, worship, and pray. Once we have equipped ourselves with the proper mindset and developed our plan for success, the only thing left to do is show up and work the plan. Execution may still have its challenges, but when the goal has been set and we are equipped for victory, resistance to reaching our destination is practically eliminated. It’s all a matter of taking the next step. Then the next.

5. Reframe, reframe, reframe.


One mental exercise we often practice on the trail is reframing obstacles, inconveniences, and generally negative circumstances into things challenging, humorous, and positive. For example, rain becomes liquid sunshine; hours of incline let us savor the steepness, building quads and character; and exhaustion turns 8pm into “hiker midnight.” Reframing can be a powerful tool in our mental health arsenal, allowing us to maintain a more positive mindset and hope for change. For example, the feeling of overwhelm can be the trigger to break things down into baby steps; experiencing confusion and lack of direction can give us permission to step back, pause, and wait upon the LORD’sleading; and when we feel ourselves exhibiting symptoms of depression, that can be the notice to implement our emotional safety plan and reach out for additional support.

6. Celebrate the little things.

Colored leaves, an interesting bug, the different shades of green moss, clouds in the sky, dry clothes, wet wipes, a flat campsite, a warm meal, “trail magic,” the next step, the breath-taking view at the top of a grueling climb – all these are gifts of the trail to celebrate and can be found around each bend. Looking for “wow” moments cultivates a heart of gratitude and wonder, keeping us in a positive mindset open for growth and transformation. When we practice being present, we become aware of the miracles surrounding us and have an opportunity to express gratitude for all that is good and right and true. God graciously designed gratitude as a drug-free, physiological mood-enhancer. So, whether we are attuned to external factors in our daily lives or positive internal shifts and discoveries, we can appreciate His goodness to us. We get to thank Him for everything, including warm blankets, five minutes of exercise, baby smiles, sending a note of encouragement, sunshine, a freshly made bed, four hours of uninterrupted sleep, two minutes of meditation, a healthy meal, the next breath, and another glimpse of Jesus. Celebrate all good gifts and rejoice often.

7. Listen to your body.


Pushing ourselves outside our areas of familiarity to reach goals is imperative. However, it’s just as important to become aware of our bodies’ needs. Arriving at the next summit is not a victory if we become dehydrated with heatstroke. We need to learn to listen to our bodies, minds, and souls on our journey and become aware of the early signs of lack of sleep, water, nutrition, and relaxation. We need to give ourselves permission to hold margin around our mental, physical, and emotional reserves that allow us to have capacity for the unexpected and maintain a resilient lifestyle. The journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to acclimate ourselves to sustainable rhythms.

8. Hydration is seriously underrated.


Water is the largest component of the human body: overall our bodies are 60% water, and our brains are comprised of an astounding 73% H2O. As vital as this fluid is to the optimal operation of our bodies, most people find adequate water intake difficult to achieve. During training one season, I decided to experiment on myself and made the suggested amount ‒ 64 ounces of water ‒ my goal. I was shocked by the way my muscles responded – going farther without fatigue and recovering more quickly during breaks. If our mental health goals include clearer minds; enhanced ability to focus; improved sleep; increased nutrient assimilation; more stamina; reduced headaches, brain fog, anxiety, and depression, one low-cost modification we can incorporate into our lives is simple hydration.

9. Community is priceless.


Our God exists in perpetual community – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we have been created in His image. In other words, our need for relationship is hard-wired into our DNA. Almost 100% of the people I’ve met on the trail have support of some kind, either friends or family back home, a hiking partner, or “trail angels” who provide section support. Even the solo hikers typically end up with a “tramily” (i.e., trail family) that look out for each other, provide moral support and encouragement, and are generally willing to assist each other, whatever the need.


Each of us desires connection and belonging to something greater than ourselves. When we know another soul has our backs, we can go farther and faster, with more confidence and success, than if we were making the journey alone. Supportive presence is a basic human requirement for healthy mental growth and emotional development.


10. Our efforts will be rewarded.


Just like climbing thousands of feet to the summit of a breathtaking view, the journey toward mental and emotional development can be extremely challenging, yet tremendously rewarding. Sometimes we feel like one step forward, two steps back. But don’t give up. I am “confident of this that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

God is working in us. We need to be patient with ourselves and actively wait on the LORD and His timing. Psalm 130 sums it up best – “I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in His word, I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with Him is full redemption.” Jesus is our ultimate destination and sweetest reward.


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Elizabeth Arnold, MAPC, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Elizabeth Arnold is founder of Reimagine Life, providing an holistic approach to mental health and emotional healing specifically developed for Christian women who have experienced abuse and trauma. Her advanced training as a Christian Mental Health Coach combined with her own experience as a domestic abuse survivor, give her a unique insight into the lives of women struggling to reconcile their circumstances with their faith. With a passion for the health of the Church, Elizabeth is dedicated to helping women overcome the hinderances they currently experience so they might fully embrace their God-designed identities and live lives of peace, meaning, and joy, securely anchored in Jesus Christ.

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