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The outdoors offers mental health benefits

Photo submitted by ADAM HARSHBARGER
Getting outdoors and finding enjoyment through hiking, fishing or enjoying state parks can vastly help improve mental health. Harshbarger often takes time to hike with with his wife and his German Shepherd, Ruger. The photo was taken on the Alan Seegar Trail in Huntingdon.

The past two years, since the start of the pandemic, have dealt some nasty hands to many of us.

Whether it was due to the loss of a loved one to COVID, the loss of a business or employment due to government shut-downs, stress, fear or anger related to civil unrest and rioting throughout the streets of our nation, social isolation, or simply being restricted from living and functioning within our normal, active routine, there’s no question that mental health, and unfortunately, suicide rates have risen significantly. Mental health issues have existed since the beginning of time and fortunately, as recognition has grown and stigma has declined, various treatment models have been developed and become increasingly available, to include various types of individual therapy (both inpatient and outpatient) and advances in psychotropic medications for the treatment of psychosis and mood disorders. As treatment options for mental health disorders continue to expand, utilization of the outdoors has proven to remain one of the healthiest and most effective coping strategies for all forms of mental illness or personal struggle.

As a mental health professional, employed in the psychology department within the Department of Corrections, and having worked in a variety of both adult and juvenile community settings prior, I’ve personally seen the use of outdoor activity prove vastly effective for those battling all types of mental health issues- from daily situational stress, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, to more severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I can also speak to my own personal experiences with mood disorders and trauma — as time spent in the outdoors (hunting, fishing, hiking, etc.) — has helped me battle through some of my darkest days.

Time spent in the outdoors has proven to result in improved mental health, in a variety of ways. It’s obvious that an individual battling depression can often become withdrawn and increasingly isolated. Exposure to sunlight and the natural beauty of nature can and likely will increase serotonin levels within the brain- thus improving your mood. An individual battling anxiety, anger, or other mood disorders can find stress relief, physical exertion, and “quiet time” within the outdoors. Use of outdoor activity can serve different purposes, for different individuals — as this example shows. While an individual battling depression can find benefit from getting outdoors amongst others, an individual who finds themselves overwhelmed, possibly battling stress, anxiety, or frustration at work or at home might find relief, release, and calm by getting away by themselves for a while. For some of us — myself included – NOTHING serves more therapeutic than climbing 20 feet in a tree with my bow on a colorful fall day in archery season. This time allows me to put the stress from my career aside, and to enjoy peace and quiet from an otherwise daily routine that consists of the echoing sounds of slamming prison doors, 1500 inmates, and at times- violence.

The use of outdoor activity has proven very effective in treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Studies have shown that for combat veteran’s battling PTSD, time spent in the outdoors has shown a direct correlation to a reduction in PTSD related symptoms, to include reduced anger, depression, and anxiety, a reduction in flashbacks and or nightmares, and improvements within interpersonal relationships and socialization in general. Healthy outdoor activities can be utilized as a coping mechanism for substance abuse as well, which often co-occurs with PTSD. Individuals may find themselves self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol as an escape from their symptoms. Outdoor activities such as physically exerting athletic sports, hiking, running, rock climbing, and white-water rafting have proven to release endorphins- a hormone that our body naturally releases during periods of pleasure, happiness, danger, and/or excitement. This release can create feelings of euphoria or an “adrenaline high” as it interacts with the opioid receptors in the brain, substituting the effects of drugs and/or alcohol. These forms of activity can also improve overall physical health, as well.

What we find pleasure in differs from person to person, as will the outdoor activities that we find most effective. Personally, I get a combination of both excitement and calm from hunting and fishing. I find that the calming aspect occurs while relaxing on the boat at the lake, on a warm, sunny day and the exciting part kicks in when a 6 pound largemouth slams the spinnerbait. The sense of calm from sitting quietly in a tree stand is incomparable and perfect, but can quickly turn to an exciting, adrenaline rush when a “hit-list” buck makes his way to within bow-range. All of the above has proven, for myself and many outdoorsmen like me, to result in overall improvements in mood while allowing me the time, setting, and tranquility to refocus and reset. Others may find themselves on a surfboard, skateboard, or roller-blades. Physical ability may also determine how and what one does in the outdoors. A person in poor health or of older age may be limited to a simple walk on a cool, fall day, but get the same mental health benefit as the 25 year-old rock climber.

There’s no limits or rules to how, when, or what when it comes to enjoying the outdoors…. The idea is simple. The use of outdoor activity is, hand-down, one of the most effective approaches to coping with any form of mental health disorder, situational stress, or personal hardship. Not only can your mental health improve, but your physical body will thank you, as well. Improvements with physical health will likely result in improved self-esteem, increased energy, better sleep patterns, and a potentially longer life.

If this piece reaches just one person, and brings them out of the darkness and into the light through the use of the great outdoors, then it has served its purpose.

If you or somebody you know is battling suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. There’s many of us willing to listen and provide a helping hand. Crisis services are available 24/7 and a variety of mental health programs are available locally.

Trust me when I say, there are more of us who have battled and wear invisible scars, and can relate, than you may realize. You are not alone and the demons do not have to win.

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