Adventure as Therapy:


"I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in."

John Muir

Want a stigma free tool for dealing with life's issues? Read on.

A conversation at work started me thinking. A colleague asked how things were settling since the divorce. She had not realized that Cai had now lived with me full time for a year. She was supportive and shared that I appeared to be doing better. She also stated, “that is a lot.” I had not thought about it this way, so enjoyed the validation. Then she asked if I was seeing a therapist. My answer was, “yes and no”. She looked puzzled but this is my truth. “I have done a significant amount of therapy but I haven’t been to see anyone”. To those who do not spend large chunks of time in nature this seems a hokey response. Yet, it has taken care of me countless times in the last 5 decades. 

Over those years I have also been to see therapists and the result was somewhat of a mixed bag. More often than not their role was to guide a conversation and take me to some new thinking. They attempted to hold me accountable to something. The thing is my thoughts only go where I am ready to take them and the only way I am staying accountable is if I am willing to. The same thing happens of its own accord when I am in nature. Especially, when I am moving or the sounds lull me to a different level of attention.

Let me explain. 

“Solvitur Ambulando.” The phrase is often attributed to Saint Augustine. But, it comes from Diogenes’ response to the question, “is motion real?” He apparently, got up and walked and then uttered the two words. They translate as, “it is solved by walking”. The 4th Century BC must have been some heady times. I always find that if I want to think things through, going for a walk helps. The cadence of putting one foot in front of the other becomes my muse. It also appears I am not the only one. Jefferson used walking to calm his mind. Nietzsche thought it essential to thinking. Hemmingway reckoned  he incubated his best thoughts when walking. 

Current scientific studies make me happy. Acknowledgment of exercise and nature as interventions to depression is incredible. The wonderful thing is that there are no side effects and a whole host of other benefits. It is funny, I have always known this. When I started climbing in the UK one thing that attracted me to it was the tribe of “lost boys”. I was not the only person with “issues”. We never labeled them, we never even talked about them. Yet, it was obvious that I was not alone dealing with angst or depression. We also all recognized things became a lot easier when we had our climbing fix. I doubt many of us went to counseling or therapy. I imagine few of us even realized that it was a possibility. When I look at the statistics of increasing mental health issues in the US, I ponder.   Have things changed or are we more aware? I also wonder if the issues are the result of a steady decline in our connection with nature. We evolved to fish, hunt, gather and grow, not stroll around a supermarket. What I do know is that some of us knew how to self medicate before we even knew there was an issue. Adventure in wild settings took care of us. An activity like climbing outdoors is going to help in several ways. We are being active and spend large portions of the day in the target heart rate zone. We are surrounded by nature. It is settling and provides examples of how to deal with whatever we are facing. And, we are very present while engaging in the activity. There is no time for the monkey mind to lead us down those recurring dark mental alleys. During these times we also learn to control our mind. We learn how to trust and communicate. We learn how to navigate a route from a bad situation and move to a place that is less hostile. Climbing like walking creates a cadence of its own, the difference is that it involves four limbs. 

When I read books like Spark by John Ratey I become excited. It is a well researched treatise on how aerobic exercise is good for the body. Not only that, it also “remodels our brains for peak performance.” What it tells me is that we can move beyond a lot of the conditions prevalent today. We can lift ourselves beyond toxic stress or depression.

Ratey also states. “Ironically, the human capacity to dream and plan and create the very society that shields us from our biological imperative to move is rooted in the areas of the brain that govern movement.” He lays a lot of importance on how we have moved on from the activities our species was designed for. And, how we have separated ourselves from both physical and mental health. I have a recurring thought. Moving through mountains, canoeing rivers, kayaking oceans are what our ancestors did daily. I have no empirical evidence. But it strikes me as likely that adventure is a very real tool for improving our condition.

With regards to sounds, I like that meditators’ soundtracks are the things I listen to in nature. I love a tent pitched near to a creek as I go to sleep. The sound of wind in the trees. Rain on canvas. The slurping music of a beach or even the ferocious crashing of waves. Research now supports that nature sounds do indeed help with mood, cognition and sleep. Listening to nature  lowers blood pressure and the levels of stress hormone cortisol. Lowering cortisol leads to decreased levels of anxiety and depression. Multiple studies also link natural sounds to improved cognition. 

This suggests that the people who self prescribe with adventure in nature are doing a real thing. Sometimes you do not need a clinician to know what to do. I know that when I found climbing in my teens it provided me with a focus. It also gave me something exciting to do. Good people to hang out with. It provided purpose and a medium for exploring places and cultures. Most of all though, it lifted a large weight from my shoulders. And if I continue to make sure I spend time out in the wild I do not have to deal with that weight. 

What are you doing to lift the weight?

Some Relevant Links & Articles:

Hemingway, Thoreau, Jefferson and the Virtues of a Good Long Walk

Exercise helps fight anxiety, depression

Attention, couch potatoes! Walking boosts brain connectivity, function 

This column will change your life: A step in the right direction

Frédéric Gros: why going for a walk is the best way to free your mind

Why Nature Sounds Help You Relax, According to Science

Sour mood getting you down? Get back to nature

Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance

Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds

Wil RickardsComment