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.

13) The heavier the pack on your back, the harder the hiking


Some people are fortunate to go through life like a trail runner, carrying a light load that easily suffices for them, but would leave unskilled, untrained others at severe risk. Some of us carry overloaded backpacks, often with appendages held on by duct tape and flimsy bungee cords, hoping nothing crucial falls out along the journey.


Our minds can bring to life what backpacks supply to extended hikes, but only if we supply them properly and repair them when they begin to shred.


·      A trail map or knowledge of the area helps us find our direction, just as having plans and goals gives us a general sense of where to go next in life.

·      A compass or trail app can be lifesaving when lost deep in the woods, the desert or the mountains, just as having a personal moral compass and awareness of our physical limitations helps alert us to dangers ahead and guides us back when we stray.

·      When we tire on a trail, we turn to our backpack for nutrients, hoping we remembered to load enough for what we’re enduring that day. Pulling the right support from our brain requires preparing it properly, by strengthening the right synapses and filling it with the fuels the brain needs to create feel-good chemistries.


When brain chemistry is off, it costs us the energy we need to battle through difficult circumstances. Some brain circuits route circumstances through the equivalent of rose-colored glasses, while others hide any positives behind room-darkening shades. I think of depression as similar to wearing sunglass-to-clear transition lenses that don’t respond to light, or anything else visible or controllable. Some days, weeks, months and years seem darker for reasons not entirely evident.


Those struggling with a mental health challenge face added burdens every day. Consider life as similar to setting out for a long hike. Do you take a light pack with only the items you’re certain to need that day? Or do you carry along everything you might need to survive if anything goes wrong?


People struggling with mental health challenges are like hikers burdened by the wrong or missing equipment. Maybe they haven’t yet learned that hiking poles can help absorb the shocks of descents. When a hiker takes off with 20 or 30 pounds of extra gear, the body exhausts more rapidly. It’s the type of added burden that we might feel in life sustaining a toxic relationship or focusing on others with no attention to self-care.


I think of treating many mental health challenges as similar to identifying the right equipment, packing it with the right nutrients and safety equipment, finding the right path and building the skills to survive if everything goes wrong for a time. It’s not something we all inherently know. We need to learn from others, taking advantage of the expertise of those who’ve gone before us. Even then, finding the best solution for us is still a trial-and-error process.


There is no magic list that works best for everyone. But there are must-have elements essentials to surviving a long excursion. Water. Fire. Shelter. Food.


The right solutions also require understanding the terrain. Are you hiking through bear and wolf country? How about rattlesnakes? Winter storms? Torrential rains? Oppressive heat?


It’s a lot more comfortable to hike on a hot day in self-wicking clothing, rather than sweating into cotton or blue jeans and coating our bodies in moisture and added weight. On some hikes, ankle support is essential. How much emergency equipment do we need? Do we even know that salt replacement is as essential as loading calories to give our body the energy to make it through a tough day?


Depression feels like living life with a heavy backpack. You see other people moving with ease. But you can take steps to help yourself:


·      Lighten your pack by not carrying toxic people around

·      Fuel your body properly with food, water and rest.

·      Don’t carry more financial and personal obligations than you can afford.

·      Check a map to make sure you know where you’re going. Learning from others with lived experiences can help ease the burden.

·      Set goals, but ones you’re capable of achieving.

·      Build your strengths.

·      When exhaustion hits—rest, recover and go again.


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