The Mental Health Benefits of the Outdoors
A moderate 7.3 mile loop that takes you up a lush ravine, through soft rolling hills, and down coastal woods.
Parking: I like to start the hike bottom-up, so I park near Stinson Beach. There is a small parking area on the intersection of Highway 1 and the Panoramic Highway just before the fire station.
This is possibly my favorite hike in the Bay Area. I’ve been hiking it a couple times a year since I first hiked it back in 2012. I’ve had some pretty fun memories with friends, from relaxing, to humorously scary, to unexpectedly adventurous. It’s really a great hike, and to be quite cheesy and blunt with the metaphor, life is like this loop hike. You face your life’s troubles, going up and down, but eventually everything should come full circle. You can try to forget your troubles and leave them behind, but at some point you must learn to address and face them.
To start, park your car in the small dirt area at the intersection and cross the street to go up the Dipsea Trail. Follow it up to the Pantoll Campground. Along the way, you’ll have open views of the Pacific Ocean before entering the lush ravine. The hike along the ravine has plenty of steps and exposed roots that can be slippery when wet, so be careful. There’s also a ladder you will need to climb, but it’s easy peasy. Once you reach the campground, you can refill your water and have a small picnic if there’s an open table. There’s usually one available. Afterwards, cross the highway to the Matt Davis portion of the trail. Here you will pass through rolling hills that remind me of the Shire when green. You’ll descend down through coastal woods to Stinson, and you can follow the Dipsea Trail back to your car.
Thoughts About Our Modern Society and The Mental Health Benefits of the Outdoors:
I’ve started noticing that more and more people are developing anxiety. And that more and more people are abusing alcohol and drugs. Maybe I was just too naive to notice in the past, but I see it more apparent now than ever. There seems to be a lot of depression and stress being harbored, but it’s too taboo to talk openly about them. Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants that perfect happy life. And most people don’t want to share their anxieties, because they don’t want to feel like they are bumming anyone out. So, we filter our photos, forming a facade to hide what’s underneath.
There are many causes for modern day stress. In the age of Instagram, Snapchat, social media sharing in general, we often compare our lives to others. We see a photo and we think, why can’t we be that happy? We measure our success by comparing ourselves to others, because we see that those people who have what we want are happy. Whether it’s through media icons, acquaintances, friends, or family, we’re shown and told constantly a skewed vision success.
It seems that we all want perfection, because we are conditioned to categorize ourselves. If we’re not successful, then that must mean we are failures. But there are many ways to success. Maybe it can’t be measured by our monetary worth and possessions, but by how much we affect others and our impact on the world, both minimal and of great magnitude. And what works for one person, may not work for another.
Maybe it’s my generation. And maybe it’s just here in America. But I see it often now. People are unhappy. People who have traveled the world, searching, looking for happiness, return seemingly still empty. There are those pursuing careers that adds to their list of accomplishments and bank accounts, but drains them emotionally. There are the social butterflies, the life of the party, always busy and out and about doing fun and exciting things. On the outside they appear happy, maybe because for those moments, they are happy, but inside they feel alone. So they keep chasing that happiness, filling their schedules to forget about their loneliness. And there are those that numb their pain, through alcohol abuse, cocaine, molly, and whatever else. Everyone seems to be chasing happiness, searching for it anywhere and in anyone they can find it in, trying to fill a void, almost like feeding an addiction, never satisfied and always wanting more.
Spending time in the outdoors seems to help alleviate some of that anxiety and clear the clutter collecting in the mind. It allows for introspection if you are alone, and connection if you’re with other people. Nature helps us to turn off the noise and slow down. It grounds us.
Backpacking is a great way to spend time in the outdoors. You won’t have any cell phone reception, no social media distraction. I find it best to backpack with friends. You can have great conversations that somehow feel more genuine and raw, and you can also spend time alone when you don’t want to talk. If it’s a tough backpacking trip, you’re forced to forget about all your other anxieties, and instead focus on what you’re facing in the moment, like climbing a really really steep mountain via a narrow path with a sheer drop to certain death just a few feet away.
Taking yourself out of the comforts of modern society and dropping yourself into the beautiful, harsh, gritty, welcoming outdoors can toughen your mentality. Sometimes you are placed into situations where you think, how the hell am I going to make it out of this, survive this. It’s primal. You’re forced to become resourceful and be flexible when facing obstacles. At night you may lay down on a soft bed of grass, or lean against cold granite, and stare up at the stars, always seeming to be more than you ever imagined could exist, and think whoa, the universe is so grand, and expansive, and you feel insignificant, in a good way. That in the grand scheme of things, your troubles are trivial. The stars you see are millions upon millions of years old, and probably gone. You won’t ever live as long as you might hope. Simply, spending time in the outdoors helps put your problems into perspective. Should you care about having that big expensive house filled with nice cars, new technology, and the perfect family? Nature forces you to face your problems, instead of running away. So instead of forgetting about the things that make you unhappy, nature helps you deal with them.
In our society, our basic needs of food, water, shelter and security are usually already met. So we next look to fulfill our psychological and self-fulfillment needs. When you’re camping, all your basic needs are stripped down, and you become grateful for the simple comforts. Your tent is your shelter, your sleeping bag is keeping you warm, and that’s enough. At night, the campfire is the center and your home. It’s where you gather to eat and to share stories not normally shared over a dinner inside a restaurant. There’s something about being outdoors that helps people open up more and share more freely.
We never really know what another person is dealing with. Maybe that person experienced a great loss or tragedy and they are struggling to recover. Maybe they were abused. Maybe they never grew up with the love of a family. People hide their scars, because it’s a huge indicator of imperfection. A beacon of being broken. I’ve been to many parties where a person, drunk or drugged out just let’s it all out. They show me just how broken they are inside, but they just want to forget. Spending time with people outdoors, I’ve learned more about people’s emotional scars, and we talk it out instead of just covering it up like it doesn’t exist.
I don’t think there’s an answer to finding lasting happiness. Just a few years ago, I felt lost and alone, despite what I posted on social media. I was desperately chasing happiness, every fleeting moment fueling my desire for more. Sometimes I still feel lost and alone, but whether it’s from getting older or through making a conscious effort to spend more time outdoors, I’m able to handle the unhappy, dull, monotonous moments much better than when I was twenty five.
Sometimes we overthink our problems. Sometimes we need to be more grateful for our lives. With more gratitude, we can be genuinely happy for other people’s happiness instead of feeling envious and we can stop comparing and categorizing ourselves. Instead of searching outwardly for happiness, we have to search within ourselves. And when we search inside ourselves, we won’t necessarily find eternal happiness, but the tools we need to cope and deal with our own troubles and modern lives. And then when we do experience those fleeting moments of happiness, we can appreciate them much better. There’s a reason it’s called The Great Outdoors. Because the beauty of the outdoors not only provides physical exploration, but inward exploration as well. It’s gritty, it’s raw, it’s harsh and it’s imperfections are beautiful.