Panic Attacks and Bears, Oh My

Jessica Coleman writes from Virginia where she lives with her partner, human and feline children. She is a therapist and yoga instructor, trained in therapeutic yoga. She believes that the key to life is working on flexibility, mentally and physically. In Jessica’s spare time she enjoys reading, arts and crafts, and exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains..

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“The world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

As a mental health therapist, I sometimes need to get creative when working with metaphors. It is so much easier to project our challenges onto something we can get a little more perspective on and get out of the microscope. Luckily, nature is a readily available metaphor that anyone can find some sort of relation too. So many of my own experiences out on the trails typically mirror what is going on in my personal life.

For example, when I’m faced with a challenging choice. Let’s say that there’s a tree in the middle of the trail. You can see that there is a path on either side. You can see both bicycles and feet have gone on either side. Which side do you choose? Both paths take you to the other side of the tree and have the same number of perceived challenges and let’s also assume that there is no traffic coming from the opposite direction. This predicament is not unlike considering two sides of the same coin or two choices for an action item.

Back to mental health. Trees and trails have been gaining more notoriety for their healing properties both physically and mentally. Forest bathing is the new term for what we can call one awesome way to be able to access nature’s benefits. In the past, I’ve gotten the pleasure of leading a yoga practice and a hike together out on the trails and that was such a great way to bring several movement practices into experience. Not every experience has been what I would consider a “fun” healing experience. Healing is certainly not the most fun time when you are going through it.

So, while hiking a trail this past summer, I had to ask myself a few questions.

Why am I crying? 

Why can’t I breathe?

I thought nature was supposed to be good for my mental health.

There have been several times that I’ve cried while in the great outdoors. The usual suspects are seeing something beautiful, cue hoodoos, or from the challenges I’ve posed for my body on say, a hundred-mile distance. Yet, on a chill couple mile hike during a beautiful morning, with neither of these conditions being present, here I was, having a panic attack. Granted, I’d be trying to fool myself and you if I said that I had no idea why I was having this attack in the middle of this beautiful space. Life has been wild for the past year and a half after a halfway across the country move with two kids. Adjusting and reintegrating myself in a new space, while split between parts of the country, was leaving me with nothing to give. This panic attack came on my last full day on this trip. I didn’t feel ready to come back to real life. I realized right then, I needed to figure out what practices to bring back with me. The gratitude that I felt for the literal earth that was holding me and helping lead me on the right path was overwhelming.

Anxiety is nothing new to me on a personal or professional level. We are all so unique in where anxiety shows up for us as well. The trail has always been there for me, no matter what I’m doing on it. Yoga, hiking, running, or riding a bike like a novice on trails has always given me a sense of safety and freedom. Each experience, even on the same trail, can be completely different.

Part of healing is not, how can I just pretend this isn’t happening or how do I stop it, but more how can you move through it. Putting our feet one in front of the other on a trail can show us just how many ways we can get to our destination. Sometimes, there’s a fallen tree we need to move over. Isn’t it interesting how that is challenging to the point of energizing when we get to that? However, when we meet obstacles in the real world, we shrink back, look around and say what should I do? How can we move that into the real world?

A few weeks after this panic attack in the woods, I was catching up with an old friend and we were talking about how the anxiety and panic sets in, and we can’t always tell why. In reflection, I think that’s not quite so true. Oftentimes, we know we’re worried about something and maybe we would prefer to not feel that, so instead of giving it space, we say, I have no idea where that came from!

Interestingly, so many of our feelings have similar responses. Our minds can’t always accurately interpret whether it’s supposed to be pleasant or unpleasant. For example, being nervous and excited. Sometimes, it nervous and excited! As a fun safety feature, our brain is trained to see the unpleasant to help us know when to act. Just like when you’re hiking, if you see a stick on the ground, you might double take, thinking it’s a snake. To be fair, it’s also very possible it was a snake. I have seen several snakes this year and that’s when some snake education comes in handy!

I’d love to say, here’s this 5-step plan to help you cure your anxiety with trails. However, it’s not about curing anything. Being human, means we also change and adapt, just like in nature with the changing seasons. We too can keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter the season. A therapist that you really connect with can be a great tool on your journey with anxiety. They can be support, a resource and can help you practice tools that you can implement in your life in a way that works for you. For example, my own therapist tailors information and tools to what will work for me, such as suggesting hikes or using hiking metaphors, as opposed to a one size fits all approach.

P.S. If you know anyone in the mental health profession, please check on them today!

About the Author

Jessica Coleman writes from Virginia where she lives with her partner, human and feline children. She is a therapist and yoga instructor, trained in therapeutic yoga. She believes that the key to life is working on flexibility, mentally and physically. In Jessica’s spare time she enjoys reading, arts and crafts, and exploring the Blue Ridge Mountains..

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