Mental Health Is A Lot Like Hiking | Part 1

I’m still learning that mental health is not a place you arrive or achieve or win. Mental health is the journey itself. Not to be too on the nose, but it’s the actual path, and it reminds me so much of hiking.

I can do the work to prepare for a hike; exercise, build endurance, even read the trail map and other hikers’ reviews of the trail. I can get my pack together, make sure I have water and snacks and a first aid kit. I can buy the absolute best hiking boots, poles and put together the perfect layered outfit for the journey.

Even with all the preparations and research I will not know what that trail is like until I’m on it. I won’t know how steep that incline or decent just up ahead REALLY is, until I’m there. I can’t know that the descent at Lost Maples State Park will cause a 6 month injury. It is impossible for me to know that my very high end and broken in hiking boot will hit a rock just right, causing it to slip down the hill, forcing my ankle roll, tossing my foot under my body, twisting my knee and causing a level 2 tear in my MCL. Even on the last mile of the hike, as the adrenaline is all that’s keeping me going, I won’t know how bad the injury really is until I’m home.

Hiking Lost Maples State Park
Hiking Lost Maples State Park, before the descent and before I busted my knee.

I can’t predict what animals I’ll experience or the dangers that might quite literally cross my path. There’s no way for me to know that there is a copper head I’m 1 foot away from stepping on until I’m right up on it. The bison on the trail 6 miles in to a 7 mile loop at Caprock Canyon, I had no idea he’d be there.

The mental health journey is the same. You can be trucking along the path, doing all the work, reading all the books, doing yoga and meditation, being vulnerable at therapy, examining yourself and adjusting your reactions. It can be the absolute smoothest path, easy going, and all of a sudden you turn a corner and you are absolutely slapped in the face with something you did not, at all, expect.

Hiking Caprock Canyon
Hiking Caprock Canyon State Park. This picture was taken a few minutes before we came along a bison on the trail.

Last week I had my first panic attack in close to three years. I really thought I was done with them. I thought I’d done the work enough to be clear of those nasty buggers.

Boy, was I wrong.

My last one was nearly three years ago. I was in the PTO room at my daughter’s school (pre homeschooling and pre pandemic). The fire alarms went off. We thought it was a drill admin forgot to notify us about. As we were lackadaisically collecting our things, my friend’s husband came running in the room saying he’d seen the fire trucks coming to the school and came to see if we were ok.

You’d think that would be the moment. It wasn’t.

We walked outside the PTO room, we walked halfway down the stairs to the landing and saw the principal standing there, near the entrance of the school, talking to fire fighters. She looked concerned, worried even. Most of the kids were already out of the school. The look on her face concerned me, but I was still fine.

Understanding this wasn’t a drill, but also there was no visible flames or smoke, we went to grab our things. As we were turning to head back up, the firefighters met us on the landing in full gear, helmets on. We stepped aside to let them go past. It still plays in my head in absolute slow motion. As they passed us, the air wafted past and the smell of their gear hit me in the face like a ton of bricks.

Stronger Than Fire The Day

If you’ve ever experienced a house fire, you know that smell. I ran back to the PTO room in full panic attack mode. One of my calls to get me out of it is, “I am safe. Bill is safe. Issa is safe. We’re all ok.” Except this time I didn’t know if Issa was safe. I was able to pull myself out of it because I needed to find her. Which I did, safe outside, in line with her class, completely unsuspecting. I just hugged her and met eyes with her teacher. I’m sure she could tell I’d been crying as I mouthed to her, “it’s not a drill.”

I learned recently that the olfactory cortex, or the smell sensing portion of the brain is right up near the hippocampus, where memory is stored. There’s essentially a superhighway between the smell processing part of the brain and the memory storing area. You smell a thing and it goes through your nose and passes through the olfactory bulb. That smell info is sent to the amygdala and hippocampus for processing. Your sense of smell is the only sense that gets processed in this area, which is why smell is the sense most strongly linked to the parts of the brain that deal with emotion, learning and memory.

Yes. My mind was blown too.

This is why certain perfumes remind us of people. The smell of cookies brings you right back to baking them with your grandmother. This is also why the smell of those fire fighter’s suits, sent me right back to the day of the fire and triggered an intense emotional response…panic attack.

Truly, I was convinced that was my last panic attack. It’s been years. I’d crossed that hard part of the trail for the last time. I thought I’d be walking down hill, easy peasy. Except as you recall, I had that level 2 tear in my MCL on the decent portion of that trail.

We can do the work, but we still can’t predict the trail with absolute certainty.

To be continued in the next blog post…