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Large hiker journal

How the outdoors saved my life

Thursday, September 15, 2016

My name is Sally and I am a 30-year old lawyer, wife, and mom of two amazing kids: Charlie, aged eight, and Mina, aged six. About two years ago I faced the enemy of a lifetime: anxiety. I’m not talking about ordinary stress if not an anxiety disorder that saw me making various visits to emergency, crying at night time, and fearing leaving my house every morning to drop the kids at school and head to the office.

It all began when I was lying down one afternoon. My husband, Charles was doing the soccer run, leaving me alone for a bit of blissful peace and quiet at home. I lay down and began rethinking about the stressful situation at work. I was up for a promotion, but knew that the lawyer whose position would soon become vacant (because she was leaving the firm) would support the promotion of her friend rather than myself. It was the job of a lifetime and one I had been waiting a long time to have – it was in the Family Law Department of the firm and I had always wanted to specialize in that field.

As I lay there, my heart began racing – quietly and quickly at first, but suddenly so loudly and strongly that I sprung out of bed, fearing I was having a heart attack. My left arm began to feel numb; I was sure that something very serious was happening to me. I ran to my neighbor's house and she took me to the hospital, where they run various tests – blood tests, and X-ray, an ECG. At the end of it all the doctor told me I had anxiety. How could that be all that I had? He gave me a Valium and told me to take it easy. A few days later, the second attack hit and this time it was really strong – I felt like my lung had collapsed. I couldn’t breathe in enough air and asked my husband to take me to emergency – I experienced all the same tests, and received the same diagnosis. I started drinking every night to cope with my fear, and Charles was very worried about the fact I might become dependent on alcohol. He begged me to seek help as he felt that he was losing his wife and best friend.

>My friends recommended a good therapist, who thankfully helped me take a natural approach to my problem, instead of immediately recommending that I see a psychiatrist or take medication. My therapist explained that far from being a figment of the imagination, the symptoms of an anxiety attack are completely real. When we feel threatened, or ‘fight or flight’ response is invoked and we begin breathing in too much oxygen, too quickly, which causes our heart rate to soar, breathing rate to increase further, etc. My therapist taught me how to recognize when I was under stress, before letting worry take over me and manifest itself in a full-blown panic attack.

She also helped me make my own stress management plan, in which Nature played the starring role. I had read about how simply being in Nature seriously lowers levels of stress hormone, cortisol. Unlike yoga or mindful meditation, two other activities favored strongly by those battling anxiety, the benefits bestowed by Nature are effortless. For instance, in Japan, the practice of shinrin-yoku (‘forest bathing’) is all the rage. All you need to do is walk through a forest or green area in a mindful state, paying great attention to all that is going around you, using all your senses (sight, sound, touch…). Since I live near the woods, I made it a point to wake up half an hour later, just to walk slowly through the pines while I practiced the controlled breathing exercises my therapist had taught me.

That soon gave way to further time in Nature; I had always been a runner, but in the recent years, I had taken to running on my treadmill (in my bedroom) to save time. I ditched the treadmill for the woods, enjoying a super run in the great outdoors and ending with some stretching and breathing. I felt fantastic by the time I got home for breakfast with Charles and the kids.

I was pleased to notice that I also started dropping off the pounds. My doctor enlightened me on the fact that outdoor exercise actually burns more calories than indoor workouts, and I started looking and feeling much better. Most importantly, I stopped having panic attacks almost immediately. When I did notice stress beginning to take hold, I immediately began my breathing exercises… even in the midst of a busy day at the office, I would close my eyes and let my imagination take me back to where I felt my freest, best self. No longer did I have to drink to feel better… I had all I needed right there in the woods.

Sally James is a freelance contributor to Discover Outdoors.

Categories: Adventure, People