Sylvia DeMichiel | 04.25.2018

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in six adults will struggle with a mental illness in any given year. There are numerous types of mental illnesses that one can experience, some of which include anxiety disorders, major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and many more. It’s an everyday thought for a good amount of the population in the United States. Some people may have episodes, while for others these disorders can be chronic or end in a long recovery. However mental illness manifests, it can be challenging. Some people may have a dual diagnosis, and one common combination is anxiety and depression.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness states that the most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders and depression. SAMSHA claims that around 6.9% of the population, or around 16 million people, struggle with depression in any given year. For anxiety disorders, around 19.1% of the population struggle with it any given year according to the National Institute for Mental Health.

What is Anxiety?

Most people struggle with a sense of anxiety every day, and this anxiety usually has a logical cause. Starting a new job, trying something new, or going to an important meeting can cause anxiety or stress. Some triggers are mundane: A lot of people get worried for a minute that they left their stove on. But for people who struggle with anxiety can find that it impedes their everyday life. Things that shouldn't cause people anxiety end up causing a great deal of it.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders. These definitions are provided by the National Institute for Mental Health:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder:

“People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms.”

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

“Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common, chronic and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”

Panic Disorder

“People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom.”

Social Anxiety

“People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others.”

Anxiety Triggers

Each person is different. People can be triggered by things that will probably seem odd to others. Some people may be triggered when they go to a social activity, or if they are in an environment with too much noise surrounding them. Maybe someone has anxiety about parking or fires. Each person is different. Recognizing that is important. Anxiety and triggers will manifest in different ways.

What is Depression?

Most people struggle with sadness after a breakup, after a death of a loved one, or after something challenging happens in their life. It happens. But depression is different. Depression is a sense of emptiness and hopelessness that may settle in for no specific reason.

NIMH defines depression as "a common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities such as sleeping, eating, or working.”  A person may feel guilty for no reason. He or she may lose a sense of pleasure in activities that they use to enjoy, experience difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and even have thoughts of death of and suicide. These symptoms have to last more than two weeks to be considered depression.

Just like anxiety, there are different types of depressive disorders including postpartum depression (feeling of major depression right before and after giving birth) and seasonal affective disorder (depression coming on during the winter months with less sunlight).

People struggling with depression will show different symptoms, and it will affect their daily lives in different ways. It can make doing everyday activities difficult.

So, why are we talking about this on an outdoor website?

More and more evidence suggests that spending time in the outdoors and in nature can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression in individuals. In numerous studies researchers have found a correlation between spending time outdoors and improving mental health. An article in National Geographic said that even just the noise or the presence of nature can help people. And then there is exercise, which supposedly helps mental health immensely. It’s something that most of my therapists have told me, and I have found it to be true.

Outdoor recreation helps boost self-esteem, helps one feel in control, more confident, create relationships, release endorphins, and feel more independent. All of these things are amazing, especially if you struggle with anxiety or depression. But starting from scratch can be hard. It can be easy to enjoy nature with a leisurely stroll next to a river or at a good viewpoint on the side of a road, for example, and this can be incredibly beneficial to one's mental state. But adding the physically and mentally taxing task of more adventurous recreation can make participation more difficult. But it is also usually worth it - especially if you feel the pull to do so.

Anxiety and depression, or any other mental illness, can make it difficult to do things you want to do - both in the outdoors and inside. It can make it more challenging to try new activities or push yourself outside of your comfort zone. It can make it difficult to take the first step in participating. Finding the motivation can be hard. Finding the courage can be hard. It can be hard feeling 'good enough' to even make an attempt. It can be hard meeting new people. Finding the motivation just to go outside can be hard, let alone to go for a hike. And once you start, continuing on when you have anxiety attacks while trying something new is just one more deterrent. It can be hard fighting the logical and illogical anxieties that come with outdoor recreation.

But it’s also very common, and you're not alone. I’m sure some of you either know someone who struggles with anxiety and depression or you may struggle with it yourself - and yet here you are exploring the outdoors, and that is amazing! While the obstacles and mental blocks associated with getting outside may be greater for someone living with anxiety or depression, they don't have to hinder people from exploring the outdoors. In the end, the outdoors is one of the greatest things that a person who lives with mental health illness can experience.


For more on the intersections between anxiety, depression, and the outdoors, have a look at Backpacking with Anxiety + Depression and 5 Tips for Dealing with Jealousy when you have Anxiety and Depression.



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