Mindfulness, Stress and Surviving

As a backpacker and hiker, this year has been an interesting one for me. I love experiencing new locations, feeling new trail under my feet and experiencing new aspects of the wonderful natural world in which we live. That doesn’t come without it’s challenges and risks however. Earlier this year I was listening to a podcast interview on “Art Of Manliness” with Laurence Gonzalez, the author of “Deep Survival”. In his book and the interview he talks about why some people survive in extreme situations and why some do not. Because of my love for outdoor adventure, this book had been on my reading list for a while so I was excited to listen to this interview. I’ve had the opportunity to experience some of my own survival situations this year and these were some of the lessons I learned from them.

The first is that stress has a way of making us poor decision makers. To counter that fact, we have to be mindful of the physical and emotional states we are in. When we are under stress, it is our bodies natural baseline to try and escape it. However, our natural instincts don’t necessarily prepare us to do that effectively. We have three natural instincts in reaction to stress, flight, fight, or freeze. That’s it, just those three, and they can be very powerful! It is natural to want to try and bull through, rush and hurry, or just allow our bodies and mind to stop in order to escape, to feel safe. It is easy to let our emotions take the wheel. It times of great stress, that is exactly what we have to avoid.

Early this spring I left on a backpacking trip that should have been an easy 9 mile walk on low trail to my camp spot for the night, which was a bit atypical for me. However about a mile into the trail I met a wonderful couple and they informed me of this side trail up to a beautiful waterfall. I thought… well, that has to happen now doesn’t it? The husband told me that there was a lower falls and then another farther up. My dog and I reached the first falls fairly quickly and I debated on turning around at that point as I had already started late, around noon. I pulled out my map and looked it over. That was when I got ambitious. I saw that I could follow the trail I was on and make it to a couple upper lakes, and then loop part of the way back, hike a ridge trail for a while and bushwhack down to the main trail via a creek after that. I didn’t really see any snow at that point so I figured it would be totally fine and doable just, harder and longer. It turned out more challenging that I planned with significantly worse snow conditions than I had earlier seen. I was doing a fairly good job at managing my stress at this point even though I was literally following the path of a Grizzly along the ridge line. Everything got colder when night fell, the trail had long since disappeared under the snow, and it was a challenge to find the right lines so I wasn’t postholing (sinking into the snow a significant way) the whole time. It was exhausting, and my waterproof socks failed me so my feet had been numb for an hour or so already. My stress level started to skyrocket when true night feel and I realized how many miles of bushwhacking I still had left until I connected with the main trail again. I began pushing a little harder, looking for easier paths, clambering up the side of the draw, then coming back down, trying to target elevation lines, basically rushing and grasping a straws. It was just after traversing the creek on a sketchy snow bridge, then having to traverse back over the creek not two minutes later that I recognized what I was happening. I had allowed myself to be emotionally hijacked. I realized it was time to stop, take a seat, get my mental and physical bearings, and try to calm down. I took stock of how I felt and what I was feeling. I took the time to really assess my situation instead of just react to it. It wasn’t easy. It was hours after nightfall, my entire right forefoot was wooden and numb, I was beyond exhausted from the day, and I felt horrible for dragging my dog through all this (though he didn’t seem to mind as much as I did). I imagine that we have all had times like this in our lives. Times where we lose sight and focus. Where we find ourselves scrambling for a semblance of control. That pause however, was a turning point. Though it was maybe only 10 minutes of rest and resetting, it made an enormous difference in remaining hours it took to get down and to safety.

One of the most detrimental things we can do to ourselves under stress is to allow emotional hijacking. It is pretty much like what it sounds like, it happens when our emotions overwhelm our sense of perspective and reasoning capabilities. This is where mindfulness becomes so crucial. Mindfulness is about gaining awareness of what our mind is doing and where it is leading us. The reason it comes up so often in today’s world is because it easy to feel overwhelmed and like life is getting away from us. Practices of mindfulness aid us in gaining the knowledge and insight that comes from being able to read our mind and our bodies more effectively. Is what allows us to regain control and steer ourselves onto better paths of thought and behavior. We experience many stressors, unexpected challenges, and massive amounts of information within out daily lives. Mindfulness can be a very effective tool to not only regain direction and clarity for surviving in our world, it can also provide us with new paths we were not even aware were there to be taken.

I ask you to take a minute or five right now to feel your body and listen to your mind. What feedback is it giving you, what thoughts are leading your day in this moment, how is your body reacting to those thoughts? Do your thoughts benefit you and the tasks or state of mind you are currently pursuing? If not, take a few more minutes to restructure your mind and deescalate your bodies response. Put yourself back on a track of your choosing. Breath, move forward and succeed.

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