Mental Health in the Outdoor Space

Words by: Janelle Smiley

Photos by: Ryan Taylor

I run for freedom, I run for passion, and I run for health. Not just physical health, but also mental health. Something powerful within me shifts when I get outside. It’s a feeling of expansiveness where anything is possible. I am in the present moment, tuned into my bodily state, and conscious of my breath. It doesn’t matter if it’s running, climbing, or skiing. Moving in the mountains is my form of creative expressionmy outlet, where I find flowWhen we find ourselves in creative flow it causes our brains to dampen the chatterour inner monologue 

Today is World Mental Health Day and it makes me think about all of our unseen journeys. I know when several days pass and I am not able to get outside it’s easy to start to slip into a dark space. I find this is a common space many of us share. It’s a place where our focus narrows, the body constricts. Possibilities dwindle and an odd hopelessness comes in like a fog. There is an underlying tone of negative thoughts followed by strong emotions that seems to spit in my face. It’s not permanent, but it lurks… is this “dark” place in our control? Can it be transformed through creative expression? Is it just a matter of choosing which thoughts to think? Is it chemical or hormonal? Yes, it is all of the above and the degree to which it affects us all is different.  

Today is a day to embrace both the light and the dark, knowing that we don’t have to hide or be afraid. It’s ok to own your mental state, bring it into the light transform it, refresh it, heal it. It’s not something to fear. Emotions play a large part in our mental health, having awareness and tools to help move though them is vital.  

One of my mentors said that thoughts create emotions, and we have thousands of thoughts per minute. It’s similar to the numbers that constantly fly across the stock exchange banner. If you don’t like the emotion that a thought brings up, put it back and grab another. Can it be this simple? Sometimes! 

I have found that emotions are similar to temperature, intense and potentially short-lived. If you are outside in a blizzard with a swimsuit on – you will probably think you are going to freeze to death, but as soon as you walk into a warm room and get some clothes on – you will forget that just five minutes ago you thought you were going to freeze. I have found the same is true with emotions, when you’re in a loop of dark thoughts. If you can step out of that “blizzard” into a different emotional environment, your emotions will change. Dr Jill Bolte Taylor sums it up brilliantly with her findings as a Neuroanatomist “When a person has a reaction to something in their environment, there’s a 90 second chemical process that happens in the body; after that, any remaining emotional response is just the person choosing to stay in that emotional loop. That means that for 90 seconds you can watch the process happening, you can feel it happening, and then you can watch it go away. After that, if you continue to feel fear, anger, and so on, you need to look at the thoughts that you’re thinking that are re-stimulating the circuitry that is resulting in you having this physiological response over and over again.”  

With that in mind – back to our temperature story –Once you’re in a warm room, you can enjoy the warmth that the room provides or you can keep remembering how cold it was outside. Your thoughts are so powerful if you think about how cold it was and imagine you are back outside you can actually start shivering. We get to make that choice. 

Seek the help that’s needed 

Share your inner journey 

Get outside 

Follow your creative passions.  

Know you are not alone.