Sometimes there’s no better elixir than the woods.
Tough week at work? Traverse a path. Relationship problems? Hike a hill. The winter blues? Trek along a river.
Or even when you don’t feel distressed by anything at all, a walk in the woods can only uplift your mood.
I’ve recently had a lot on my mind, having just made a major life change by moving in midlife to a new place away from friends and family and starting a new job in a new career. My life is in transition. So last week, I went to explore a really big wood in my adopted home state of South Carolina – the 260,000-acre Frances Marion National Forest.
At the outset of my hike, I did what I am wont to do: ruminated over things that are constantly on my mind, despite my desire to tame the gremlins while in the presence of natural beauty. I know I’m not alone in engaging in over-active self-talk – we all have ongoing conversations in our own heads at some volume – but I would like to tell my voice to just chill out sometimes.
The wood worked its magic. About 30 minutes and two wrong turns into my hike along a 7-mile trail, my self-conversation quieted, I stopped looking at my watch and I began observing – tall stands of forest pines and expansive views of marshlands along the Intracoastal Waterway. I realized I wasn’t in a rush; I could walk as long as I wanted. Time became irrelevant; I relinquished the nearly constant need to be on the clock. I completed the last two hours of my walk with relatively few conscious thoughts other than what I was experiencing in the moment. It was rejuvenating to be free from intrusive thoughts. By the time I finished, I felt great – relaxed, gratified, naturally euphoric, tired in a good way.
In my counseling, I have often counseled clients who are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety to take a walk in the woods, whether it’s a 30-mile-wide national forest or a trail along an urban stream. The acts of using one’s senses in nature, spending time in daylight and sunlight and being physically active and energized can have healing effects mentally and emotionally. Make those acts a habit, and symptoms can be reduced.
Before I moved, a friend and I, along with his dog, had made a regular practice of riding bikes on a trail along the Patapsco River in Maryland. My friend would marvel at the beauty of the winding river and the hills rising from it, the rocks embedded in the hills and the impressive construction of the century-plus-old railroad tunnels. The ritual would be fully realized if a train ran by while we were resting by the tracks, so we could be awed by its length and wonder what freight it was carrying.
That trail became a sacred place for me and my friend. As I finished my walk in the woods, I thought about my friend and how he would like trekking this forest, and about the incomparable value of a sacred place where time slows down and your head clears up.