Mental Hygiene

In March of 2020, COVID-19 closures began altering our lives in fundamental ways. At the time, I was unusually active on social media in an attempt to clarify and distill information on what was open and what wasn’t open anymore. During that time, I heard a common refrain among folks in the hiking community who lamented the loss of access to places they visited regularly: Hike IS my coping skill.

As a therapist, I spend a lot of time talking about coping skills. I’ve yet to meet a person in therapy who didn’t have some degree of need for better coping skills. And as a person who also hikes a lot and writes about hiking, I long felt that hiking really was the ultimate coping skill – almost to the point where it was the only coping skill I thought I needed.

The literature over the last decade has frequently portrayed hiking as a catch-all activity that can reduce depression, stress, and anxiety. There are countless articles talking about how hiking can improve concentration, can deepen a person’s ability to empathize, can process cortisol from your body, and can help you connect with others. Many people have whole-heartedly bought into this concept, which you see reflected – at least in part – in the dramatic increase in hikers over the past 10 years – myself included.

As paradoxical as it may seem for somebody whose two vocational passions in life intersect in such an obvious and compelling way, my work as a therapist has convinced me that it is a mistake to think of hiking as a primary means of coping with life. Hiking has a lot of limitations: it’s not always possible to hike; it does very little for the sort of distorted thinking and beliefs that often lead to anxiety and depression; it does very little to process and resolve traumatic experiences. And that’s not to mention ever-more-frequent occurrences such as wildfires, heat advisories, COVID closures, and habitat loss serving both as an inhibitor to practicing hiking and as a source of grief.

My conclusion as a therapist is that what people really need is mental hygiene. We brush our teeth. We floss. We shower. We shave. We attend to our physical body in a number of fundamental ways. On our good days, we eat well, and we exercise.

Why should it be any different with our minds and our emotions?

Hiking can be one component in a set of daily and regular activities that add up to produce a consistently clear, balanced, and adaptive state of mind. Hiking 2-3 times per week can be a part of that – and maybe even an important one, at that. But so can mindfulness practices, gratitude practices, meditation, therapy, medication management if necessary, and sustained effort at keeping our damaging and maladaptive thought processes and beliefs in check.

For example, instead of “just hiking,” I’ve constructed a daily routine that serves to keep me accountable, mindful, and attentive to the things I need to take care of. It includes a daily gratitude practice, where I focus on 10-15 things in my daily life, big and small, for which I feel grateful. It includes a mindfulness practice based off of Buddhist texts, which helps me focus on remaining present in the moment. It includes attention to stuff I need to get done and things I need to prepare for. It includes goals for fitness, diet, and sleep. I track my mood at four different points in the day. I set daily goals. I set monthly goals. I set quarterly goals. I break goals down into objectives, and I break objectives down into action items.

The gratitude practice helps me remain mindful and attentive to what matters. It also staves off negative thinking patterns that, in the past, have led to depressive symptoms. The mindfulness helps me stay rooted in the here and now, which makes it easier to avoid fixating on future problems or ruminating over past failures. Fitness, diet, and sleep help me to attend to the physical elements of mental hygiene, including helping to process cortisol, putting the right kind of nutrients in my body, and improving my overall physical health. Tracking my mood helps keep me aware of general trends, which gives me greater awareness of where and how I am either slipping or allowing inertia to drag me back into bad habits. Goals help me pursue that which is meaningful to me, and reaching meaningful goals through digestible, attainable action items helps me to accomplish and complete necessary and desired activities that provide meaning and support responsibility, both of which I believe are crucial for attaining happiness.

There’s clearly room for hiking there. After all, it’s an activity that incorporates creativity, beauty, exercise, and, from time to time, socialization. Since I’ve begun practicing mental hygiene -and believe me, I still have a long way to go – I’ve been much more balanced than I was when hiking was my go-to, and that’s at a time where I hike considerably less than I once did.

For the folks out there who use hiking as their primary means of dealing with issues in your life, there is so much more available to you. The things I do are only an example, and they represent just the tip of the iceberg in what we can do to keep our minds and emotions balanced. By all means, keep hiking, but don’t forget that change and happiness are the byproducts of consistent, daily efforts across a wide range of activities designed to promote emotional well-being. Sure, it may be easier and more romantic to think you can hike your cares away, but real change usually comes through hard work and dedication.

What do you think you need in order to create a mental hygiene routine that can help you achieve balance, positive mood, and clarity on a daily basis?

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