Outdoor Diary: The Value of Taking Your Hard Stuff for a Hike

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Humans Outside episode 287

Got hard stuff? Me, too. Fortunately for all of us, there’s nature to help with that.

One of the best things I’ve ever learned while recording episodes of Humans Outside is to think about nature as a container for all the tough stuff of life. So how do you do that? Listen now to find out.

Some of the good stuff:

[;34] The importance of reframing and why I love it so

[1:15] One of my favorite reframings

[1:40] Think about the outdoors as a “container”

[2:15] Why a container is good for you too

[3:00] How I used the container recently

[4:00] How to make the container work for you

[4:10] The tool of soft focus

[5:12] Mind wandering + walking

[5:46] Working hard outside

[6:00] Don’t forget the container when you need it

Connect with this episode:

Listen to this episode on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

The following is an edited transcript of this episode of Humans Outside.

Sometimes you talk to people who help you reframe how you think about different parts of life. That opportunity to grow and reframe is actually one of my favorite things about hosting this podcast. Because when I get to talk to interesting people about their own outdoor experiences or about their research into how heading outside can impact you, it gives me the chance to change how I see the world. It’s a chance to grow or to lean into different experiences. It’s a way to add tools to my own tool box, so when I have something to deal with – whether that’s an indoor challenge or an outdoor one — I can dip into that box, lean on the advice of someone I’ve spoken with for this podcast, and move forward.

After well over 100 interviews and almost 300 episodes of this podcast I’ve had plenty of chances to find those tools. And one of my favorites is the lesson of letting the outdoors be a container for hard stuff.

That’s something I learned from outdoor based therapist Judith Sadora way back in season 2 of Humans Outside in the fall of 2020. Judith uses backpacking and long outdoor experiences to treat youth, and one of the ways they view nature is by thinking about it as a container. You can bring your hard stuff — your trauma, your challenges, the things that make you angry or mad or sad — outside. And you can work through them while you’re there by talking or moving. And then you let that space, that nature, be a container for those feelings. You walk away feeling a little lighter, because you’ve left some of the burden of those problems behind you on the mountain, or in the trees or by that lake. The problem isnt GONE, but it’s been worked through in a safe space, the container that is the big outside.

I. love. This.

No matter who you are I guarantee you’ve got some kind of stuff, some baggage, that you’re hauling around. And even if all of your life was been easy peasy, you’re garunteed to encounter challenges in the world. That’s just being human. And when you have those, you can take them outside to that container no matter what they are or how big or little they seem. Nature is great for that.

Now Im not going to claim I have more or less challenges than anyone else. Hopefully they’re different from yours because whew-ee some of these are crazy cakes. But when I do encounter them, I am always so, unbelievably grateful that the outdoors is there waiting for me, like the perfect container it is.

This past week was one of those crazy ones. I never did finish a to-do list on any single day, it was just that busy. And then something happened at work at the end of the week that sent me into an absolute tailspin. I don’t think I’ve EVER felt that stressed at work, and journalism is always stressful. But this was and is truly next level.

So what did I do about it? Well I took it for a hike and run, 4000 feet up a mountain with a friend in 25 degrees, snow and bright, bright sun — it was a 4.5 hour adventure that ended with us sitting in camping chairs in the parking lot drinking coffee and hot chocolate and eating snacks. It was challenging, cold, warm, exhausting and absolutely exactly what I needed. Never have I needed a hike or run as much as I needed that.

And why is that true? Because I needed a container. I needed a place to move through what I was dealing with — in my case literally — and a place to place some of it. I’m not saying the problem is gone. It’s not. But some of the burden of dealing with it is out there, spread across Wolverine peak in anchorage. And that’s a good thing.

If you’re dealing with heavy stuff or any stuff that you want to get rid of, taking it outside can help you too. One of the things I’ve learned by letting heading outside be my container is that there are lots of ways it works for me, and they don’t have to include climbing a mountain and having really sore calf muscles the next day. Here are a few ideas.

First, consider leaning into soft focus. Soft focus is when you just kind of stare at something and it lends itself mind wandering. It’s what happens when you find yourself just sort of staring out the window. What are you looking at? Well, nothing really. You’re just looking. And what’s happening in your brain while you’re doing that, experts tell me, is a type of rest that gives you the capacity to think deeply, problem solve, be creative and so much more. It also is giving you a rest that allows you to work through emotionally heavy things and approach THEM creatively too or simply just process them.

So how can you find soft focus and mind wandering outside? Let me count the ways. Try sitting on a deck or patio and just watching the world with no technology distractions. Just look around. Staring into a fire or watching the soft lapping or a lake or the rolling of waves or water in general is absolutely perfect for this. One of our recent podcast guest, Tove Danovich, joked about “chicken tv” where people just watch their chickens in their yard. That is soft focus leading to mind wandering. All of it is also working as a container.

Mind wandering itself is a big key to working through stuff outside, and there is a scientific connection between doing it in a productive way and the simple act of walking. I also find this by going for a run where i dont get my heart rate too high and am not really exerting — so you could think about that as fast walking. An easy run or a walk, I’m told, allows for your brain to get to this state where you can think things through. And I find that it helps me locate that container moment, where, poof, all these problems are spreading themselves out in a way that lets me deal with them.

And finally I think there’s something to be said for hard work outside. I dont have science or experts to back this up, but personally I find that if I can get out there and do something really challenging, nature steps in as my container and I simply feel better about whatever it is that I have going on. Or maybe I’m just too tired to be that worried about it anymore. Regardless of the reason, it works.

I sincerely hope you don’t have any dramatic, hard to deal with things in life right now. But if you do and, frankly WHEN you do because that’s just how life goes, I hope you know that nature is waiting as a tool for dealing with it. Take Judith’s advice and let it be a container.

You can see a photo from my hike run on Humans Outside on Facebook and Instagram. And I want to see your photos too. Tag them with #humansoutside365. Until next time, we’ll see you out there.

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