15 Mar Overcome Adversity with Adventure
It is important to preface in saying that I am not a licensed psychologist or a trained medical professional. The words below are not medical advice. If you are going through difficult times, please seek professional assistance.
“The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.” (Chinese Proverb)
Nine years ago, I was going through extraordinary challenges in both my personal and professional life. Everything that I had worked so hard for felt like it was coming to a halt. I did not know what the next step in my life path would be. Then one day, at 33 years old, I went on the first hike of my life.
Everything changed for me that day. At first it was the dirt. I rubbed it in my hands. The light cascading in and around the trees only to land on my face. I noticed the sun next. I closed my eyes and breathed. Climbing up a half-buried boulder, I felt the strength of the mountain below me. When I passed the tree-line and summited, the world was mine. I felt whole again.
The feeling of being in nature calmed me, the feeling of conquering that mountain invigorated me, and the camaraderie within our group supported me. I got home that night, lied in bed and knew one thing. I wanted more of this feeling in my life.
This single hike set off a chain of events that has completely transformed my life. Adventure started as a way for me to overcome the adversity I was going through but became my life’s work. It provided me with a way to reconnect to myself and it showed me parts of myself that I did not know even existed. All that with a single hike.
That hike led to the creation of my adventure travel business, The Explorer’s Passage. So much has changed as a result. Today, I feel extremely grateful for my life. The Explorer’s Passage not only promotes adventure, but also allows me to work on the social and environmental issues that I truly care about. And I am very fortunate to be surrounded by the most extraordinary people in the world.
Over the years I have spent an enormous amount of time reflecting on the key reasons why adventure has had such an impact on my life and how we can create adventure travel experiences targeted at helping people experiencing adversity, in order to help them through change in their lives. In my experience, I have seen three key elements in an adventure that are critical for transformation:
- Immersion into Nature
Let’s explore each of these a little further.
1. Immersion into Nature
In today’s world, many of us spend so much of our lives disconnected from nature. When we do have the opportunity to go to the mountains or oceans, we begin to feel rejuvenated.
Writer Annette McGivney, a sufferer of PTSD, has written eloquently on this topic, citing the GO Lab research, who are measuring the effect of immersion in nature on people who are suffering. She states that after engaging in rafting trips in California, “[Participants] reported a 30 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms and a 10 percent increase in wellbeing measures, such as happiness and social connection.” For Annette herself, she says, “Just like the veterans in the GO Lab study, my sense of wellbeing was restored in the wild… national forests and parks around my home became my hospital.”
For those who are going through adversity, being in nature provides a safe environment from which to heal. When we are stressed, our nervous system tends to become overactive and we have a difficult time calming it down. Nature has the remarkable ability to assist in calming the nervous system and provide relief. The power of nature to heal has long been appreciated in Japanese culture, where the concept of ‘forest bathing’ (shinrin yoku) acknowledges the belief that there is a spiritual significance in all forms of nature. Japan invested in research to validate this long-held belief in the importance of contact with nature, testing hundreds of participants. Ephrat Livni reports they found, “Natural killer cells promote immune system health, attacking infected cells and cancerous tumors. The study’s subjects showed significant increases in natural killer cell activity after a weekend in the woods, and the positive effects lasted a month.”
For me, I start to feel very weak energetically if I spend too much time away from nature. Mountains and oceans give me power. I’ve found that I have a lot of trouble running long distances on concrete. Once I reach the two-mile mark I am exhausted. However, I have run 50k trail runs in the mountains and afterwards still felt I had more energy to go further. Nature energizes me!
If we do not have regular access to or live near vast open areas of the natural environment, there is an alternative. If you live near a park or have a lawn, lie on the grass each day for 15 minutes on your back and 15 minutes on your chest. This is a practice that I undertook daily when I lived in New York City. By doing this regularly, you will be able to access some of nature’s benefits.
However, this amount of connection to nature may not be enough — you may need a greater deal of immersion. When on an adventure we are often plunged into a remote natural environment offering us the space and time to heal and transform more fully.
There are so many people who feel “alone” in this world. Loneliness can have devastating effects on one’s mental state, makes life more difficult, and can lead to depression. Humans are not meant to be alone. We are meant to feel loved and supported. When going through something difficult, we tend to isolate ourselves so we can’t get hurt anymore. We feel that being alone might be ‘safe’. While this may have some initial benefits, long term isolation can be catastrophic to one’s mental and physical wellbeing. To quote Lissa Rankin, M.D., “Loneliness is a greater risk to your health than smoking or lack of exercise, and finding your tribe is better than any vitamin, diet, or exercise regimen.” She particularly promotes the importance of discovering an authentic community that really aligns with our values — she calls this a ‘tribe’. We need to find the community that provides us with the love and support we deserve.
I had the privilege of meeting the author Sebastian Junger earlier this year, as he spoke about his book ‘Tribe’ (which I highly recommend!). Junger compares the treatment of U.S. War Veterans to those of the Native Americans coming back from battle. The Native Americans who came back from war were provided with an incredible amount of love, compassion, and support from their communities. Their loved ones welcomed them with open arms and held rituals around the fire at night, which helped them to re-integrate back into the tribal society more smoothly.
U.S. War Veterans, on the other hand, have often found themselves alone and with little support upon returning from war. He believes that this is one of the reasons for widespread PTSD in veterans. He asks the question: what if we changed the way we welcomed our veterans home? What we if provided more compassion, support, and assistance? Would things be different? As quoted in this Guardian review, he writes, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.” And while Junger focused on war veterans, the example he makes could well apply to anyone who has struggled through adversity or trauma.
Adventures in nature are often undertaken by groups of people, and the group is challenged together, which makes for a ripe scenario to foster connections. Many cite the communitive feel of an adventure as a big reason for embarking on the journey in the first place, and in our groups across the world we see lifelong bonds formed between guests after just a few days together. If you are going through difficulties in your life, having a strong community of people around you for support can transform your life.
Many people who are going through difficult times feel that they are lacking purpose or meaning in their lives. You might not know the next move to take — the future might feel uncertain. You might not be convinced of your ability to even control your own future. Taking an adventure can provide a way for us to have goals again. It can provide purpose and help us rebuild the confidence that we have lost. Particularly when the adventure involves a clear task at hand — like climbing a set route through a mountain. Scaling a mountain might seem like a very literal goal, but it is also a powerfully poetic one.
Combining exercise with being outdoors is an effective way to create confidence and other positive effects on the body — as Katie Lambert writes, “Exercise — climbing included — boosts mood-related chemicals in our brain like dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, helping to lift our spirits.” She cites a 2015 study conducted in Erlangen, Germany, where climbing in particular was found to have a positive therapeutic effect on those with depression. She adds: “Climbing also promotes feelings of self-efficacy, another therapeutic benefit. Deciphering beta and learning new moves, skills, and techniques provide incentive to keep trying… each time we try and succeed in any small or large way, we create positive pathways in our brain’s reward system.”
The physical and mental challenges that you face on adventures can have an extraordinarily positive effect on your life. On your first adventure, you might begin with a small mountain and work your way to the top. Then you set out to climb larger and more challenging mountains. Your confidence can grow with each new adventure, as you break down larger and larger challenges into steps with your team, achieving greater heights and rebuilding yourself along the way.
Transformation through Adventures in Nature
I have personally witnessed hundreds of transformations of friends, clients, and co-workers on adventures in nature. I have experienced the extraordinary effect adventure has had on my life. I have created strong bonds with newfound friends across the globe. The confidence that adventure has provided me continues to increase with the challenges I undertake. I have reconnected strongly to nature and to myself. I actually discovered that in nature is where I feel most at home. Nature gives me a sense of extraordinary power that makes me feel like I can do anything in life.
This combination of being in nature, being a part of a community in a shared experience and challenging yourself in an activity that helps rebuild your confidence, all creates an extraordinary opportunity for transformation for anyone going through tough times. The growth you experience can have both mental and physical benefits. Whether you are going through challenging times or know a friend who is, this can be a powerful way to help on your journey through to a more positive sense of self, and ultimately, to a sense of healing.
Founder & CEO
The Explorer’s Passage