There are mental health lessons to be learned from nearly every activity. For NoStigmas volunteer and contributor Mike Bushman, the most indelible of those lessons were embedded on hiking trails. During the next few months, we will share the best of those lessons, and how they apply to everyday life for so many.

1) It’s irritating to descend when the goal is a mountain summit

During prolonged day hikes that challenge my ability to keep going when every muscle in my body twitches for an end, parallels between hiking and life twist into sharp focus.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m ascending to a pristine mountain lake surrounded by white-capped, sheer cliffs or plodding through a wildflower field salvaged to add a small dose of serenity to suburbia’s concrete chasms and rigid rules.

Hiking, for me, is an escape from the struggles of daily life, one that somehow reenergizes me mentally and physically even while demanding so much during the act itself. It’s my preferred coping mechanism.

The parallels between winning my mental health battle and succeeding on a trail are countless. One that strikes me frequently is the frustration that comes with enduring descents while I’m trying to scale a mountain.

It’s among my most recurring trail thoughts. Nearly every mountain hike has downhill sections along the path to the top. At first, these sections are irritating. I don’t need descents adding to the agony of a day hike that takes me up 3,000 or 4,000 feet in elevation. It’s irritating to know I’m trying to head up, but have to traverse a downhill section to get there.

I’ve learned that descents have value. They use different muscles than I use hiking inclines. My quads, hamstrings, glutes and abs benefit from a little rest. The muscle stretching on a trail decline can be valuable, along with the ability to reduce oxygen demand on the body for a time.

While on one downhill section in the Grand Tetons, thinking about how I really needed the change of pace and path to keep going, I realized that this lesson applied to my life. It was frustrating when my career seemed to plateau at various points, particularly when I didn’t recognize how beautiful the view was from where I stood.

In hindsight, I realized that those plateaus and descents gave me the chance to strengthen my skills and refresh my energy for the next climb. Many of the most successful people I know stumbled along the way, went the wrong direction for a while, even descended against their will. Rather than turn around completely, they gathered strength by reengaging and learning new skills before tackling their next objective.

Now, when I encounter drops on a steep hike, I think of all my “failures” in life, how I learned from them, how I fought through them, and how I ultimately made my way to destinations I could enjoy. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them.


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