I sometimes find my love for being outdoors dampened by feelings of anxiety. I’ve always been what people may call a nervous individual, and that nervousness flares when I find myself in unpredictable situations. Despite that, I convinced some friends to hike to Rabbit Lake last weekend despite having doubts about whether or not I’d be up to what AllTrails dubbed a “moderate” trail.
I reliably have trouble sleeping the night before a hike, convinced that my body will be too weak for the associated length and/or elevation gain. Or that I’ll suffer a medical emergency in a remote area without cell service. Or that I’ll fail to properly hydrate and eat well the morning of. And on and on.
My palms were sweaty last Sunday as some friends and I neared the Rabbit Lake trailhead outside of Anchorage. My heart started to race as we set off and about 10 minutes into the trail I stopped, taking inventory of my body. The inventory came up short in a few places, notably endurance and brute strength.
“If I feel this way now, there’s no way I’ll be able to finish another 7.5 miles,” I thought.
This thought was accompanied by a wave of panic. My breath became shallow, my stomach did flip-flops and as I stared at my friends farther up the trail, I wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake.
Whenever this happens on a trail, I try to concentrate on the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, counting the steps to 20 and then starting over again. The panic I’m experiencing is associated with the activation of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that acts as a smoke tower and alerts your body to perceived threats. (My brain perceives a lot of threats.)
Someone once told me that panic attacks start with a rush of adrenaline that takes 20 minutes to leave your system. Since then, I’ve tried to picture a 20-minute timer starting whenever I get that rush of panic. I visualize the clock counting down and the panic leaving my body.
That was my strategy on the trail. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and pictured the clock. Sure enough, the panic subsided and — spoiler alert — we did the whole trail, and it was even more beautiful than I expected.
The hills were red and yellow with autumn shrubbery and we got occasional peeks at the peaks of North and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex. The weather left something to be desired, which is to say I definitely waited too long to put on my rain jacket, convinced that as soon as I did the hail would stop and I’d be overheated.
As we neared the hike terminus, I stopped and was convinced that I’d never been anywhere more beautiful in my entire life. The silhouette of my friends against the peaks, with rolling mossy rocks and the haze of fog shrouding the mountains that surrounded us on all sides was enough to bring tears to my eyes.
It was a stark reminder of what I’d have missed out on if I’d indulged in feelings of panic. My brain had convinced me at the trailhead that this was beyond my abilities. But here I was. Eating a soggy sandwich on the shores of Rabbit Lake.
The reality is that if I submitted to everything that makes me anxious, I’d never leave the house. A lot of my life is balancing risk and reward and, somedays, the perceived risk associated with hiking is less than the reward of a view like that which waits at the end of the Rabbit Lake Trail.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.