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.
2) A Goal Provides Reason to Suck Up the Pain
Building a career sometimes takes fighting through dreary days in an unfulfilling job with a manager determined to impede your progress, at least until you identify and secure an alternative path.
Fighting back from a mental health challenge—or any other struggle in life—can feel the same. You have to face obstacles and take steps even when the benefits of the struggle seem so incremental as to be initially invisible.
But, as I’ve found with hiking, having a goal you’re striving to achieve makes enduring the suck factor on difficult days far more bearable.
Chicago’s western suburbs aren’t ideal training grounds for mountain hikes, yet that’s where I spend most of my time. On good days, outdoor training seems at least connected to nature, though the flat surfaces here constrict my enjoyment. On bad weather days, incline treadmills and stair climbers are my best options.
I’d much rather work out in actual mountains, taking on longer, steeper trails and higher elevations as my abilities expand. Conducting a mountain workout surrounded by thick oaks, tall pines and tiny squirrel feet scampering on matted leaves would turn training into its own goal. I don’t have that option.
When weather cooperates, two outdoor locations draw most of my incline workouts.
At Blackwell Forest Preserve, the wishfully named Mount Hoy is best known as a tubing slope developed on an old landfill. Hiking here provides 100 feet of elevation gain in a short distance, nothing compared to challenges in the Appalachians, Smokies, Rockies or Sierra Nevadas. Before I depart for a steeper challenge, I make sure I can go up and down the hill continuously for a few hours carrying a full pack.
On rare clear days, Chicago’s visible skyline is worth a view, even from 30 miles away. From the top of Mount Hoy, Blackwell’s treetops and surrounding lakes also provide welcome distraction. These are pretty views, but by the time I’m into my 18th trip up the same hill, the setting loses its motivational lure.
The same can be said of Swallow Cliffs, a Cook County toboggan run surrounded by two sets of stairs that provide less elevation change, but steeper climbing than at Blackwell. A couple of hours going up and down the stairs with full pack helps build muscle strength for more vertically challenging hikes.
When I don’t have a tough hike coming up, I have a hard time sustaining interest in the repetitive hiking at Blackwell or Swallow Cliffs, often returning to more leisurely and nature-infused walks at the Morton Arboretum.
Even when I distract myself by marveling at the diversity of people climbing stairs at Swallow Cliffs or the peacefulness of the far less frequently used Mount Hoy, it’s easy to let the pains and soreness that come with incline workouts deter me from continuing.
With a tough goal ahead, like a recent trip scripted to culminate on Pikes Peak’s Barr Trail, I can better muster the energy to fight through tired, pained exhaustion. If I didn’t push while training, it would dramatically reduce the odds I’d achieve my real goal. I couldn’t expect to make the 26-mile, 7,000-foot-plus elevation gain Barr Trail hike if I couldn’t make the third hour at Swallow Cliffs or at Blackwell. So, rather than stop when my legs ached, I stretched out walking flat sections for a few extra minutes before returning to the hill or stairs.
Having a clear goal, something imaginable and at least potentially achievable, enabled me to put in work my body and mind were telling me I was too tired to accomplish.
The concept applies to every aspect of life. I sucked up a significant number of difficult workdays during my corporate career because I was determined to retire early to avoid my Dad’s fate of going straight from desk to casket without ever feeling freedom to pursue passions outside of his family.
Goals have also been essential to my mental health battle. Whenever I complete a goal, I figure out what I want to focus on next. There was a time in my life when that goal needed to be measured in hours and days. But having a longer-term goal, something I can be sure I don’t want to miss, provides the motivation I need now to fight through darker days.
A foreseeable, achievable future helps me take that next step when my mind and body conspire to tell me I’ve had enough.