A decade ago, I had a counselor refer to CPTSD as a “psychiatric injury” as opposed to a “mental illness”.   Something about that delineation really helped me understand the reality of what was going on.  It wasn’t “me” that was the problem, the problem was “what happened to me”.   CPTSD is rooted in shame, a feeling of being damaged beyond repair, social withdrawal, negative self-concept/perception, dysregulation of the nervous system, as well as affect dysregulation (Sherin& Nemeroff, 2011).  

As such reduction of shame and introduction of skill-building that focuses on competency is beneficial for the client.  Due to the dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system, it is also beneficial to find ways to bring balance to the nervous system.  

In August of 2019, I decided to go on a hike.  Little did I know that hike would change just about everything in my life.  I enjoyed being in the woods solo, a stark contrast to the woman who couldn’t be alone at home without fear consuming her mind.  I decided to do it again, and off I went solo on another mountain local to my home. On this hike, I recognized I was fighting with this hypercritical voice in my head the entire hike, shaming me incessantly.  “You can’t do this!  Why do you think you’re capable of something this hard?” it would insist.  From another space of my being, I resolved “I don’t care if it takes me all damn day, I’m going to climb this mountain!”, and climb I did. 

Before long winter weather was approaching.  Having fallen in love with the way the woods had soothed me (and not having any idea why), I began researching winter hiking.  On January 2, 2020, I took my first solo winter hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Everything about winter in the wilderness was just stunning, the trees coated with blankets of fluffy white snow, the way the snow sounded crunching beneath the microspikes on my feet, the way you could hear every snowflake drop from the sky in the most peaceful and lovely way, all of it called me into the present moment. 

I had been through 18 years of talk therapy at this point, and while I can say it was beneficial in some regards, I can say it wasn’t helping my anxiety, my shame, or my self-worth.  On a trail one day, I thought to look behind me, see where I came from, when I turned forward, I had lost the trail, it all was a confusing landscape of white snow and trees that all looked identical to one another.  I thought, “oh man!  This is what flashbacks do to us!”  

That year I hiked 420 miles and just about 100K vertical feet, all but 2 hikes were solo.  I began climbing the NH 48- 4,000 footers and fell in love with the Wilderness.  I stepped off the trail a completely different person who went onto it, with a sense of calm, regulation, joy, and PRIDE.  Being the opposite of shame, pride was a very new emotion for me.  The pride came from crushing the self-limiting beliefs others had installed in me over the years.  It came from the moment I stepped on the trail abruptly after entertaining “the judge” for miles and screaming “shut the f*** up! “and continuing on with my hike without any more verbal abuse.  It came from learning a whole new set of skills, compass, and map reading, the 10 essentials, gathering appropriate gear, and taking on new challenges with each passing week. 

 After each hike, I’d bring the experience to a therapy session, and discuss things I stumbled upon.  Lessons like what I call the “3-foot rule”, where the only thing that matters on the trail is the 3 feet in front of you.  Behind you only shows you what you’ve already covered, and you cannot change any part of that from this space.  More than 3 feet in front of you can be anxiety-provoking and can reengage “the judge” and restart that stream of verbal abuse.  One of my favorites is, “The Magical 3rd Mile”.  For the first mile, I wrestle with my physical self. My hips hurt. My muscles burn. My mind says “why are you doing this? Turn around.”  Then, the second mile is more of an emotional engagement “the judge” often makes an appearance, and the processing of emotional situations or difficulties seems to happen during this mile.  The third mile though is pure bliss.  Muscles are warm and know their job, the brain begins to quiet as cortisol and adrenaline are finally metabolizing, and it is quiet inside and out.   There is a sense of stillness, awe, wonder, accomplishment, and overall relaxation that happens from this mile forward. Even when things get dicey (as they sometimes do on the trail), the regulation persists, the decisions come quickly and carefully, and rumination stops, making space for more supportive thoughts and ideas and meaningful connections with ourselves. 

I often joke that I had 420 miles to figure out how to “deal with myself”, and in some respects, I think there’s some truth to that.  What was puzzling me was “how did this happen? Am I just making this all up? Is it a placebo effect of sorts?”  

As it turns out, journalist and author Florence Williams wrote a book called The Nature Effect, where she discusses in detail the positive effect nature has on our nervous systems.  Williams also has a podcast called “The 3- Day Effect” where she follows those with significant trauma into the wilderness on 3-day treks, recording their cortisol, blood pressure, and heart rate variability at the beginning of the trip and finally at the conclusion of the trip.  There were positive changes in each of those areas after the exposure to the backcountry and nature.  As I became more curious, I learned of other authors with similar stories to share, author Sydney Williams, of Hiking my Feelings (book of the same title) a non-profit dedicated to the way nature impacts health and personal growth, and author Matt Landry who has written several books, including Forward, Upward, Onward on how hiking and nature contributed to his mental health and wellness.  

Validating as all their combined work is to my experience, the truth of the matter is this:   I found a piece of myself on every trail, every summit, every ridge, brought them home, and rebuilt myself into an authentic version of myself I have ever known, without “the judge”, with greater self-awareness and profound sense of resilience. This experience was so profoundly transformative that I applied for, was accepted to, and have been working on my master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling so that I can bring this underutilized deeply healing resource into clinical practice as part of the holistic healing process that is necessary for healing. 

Sherin, J. E., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2011). Post-traumatic stress disorder: The neurobiological impact of psychological trauma. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3182008/ 

Williams, F. (2018). The nature fix: Why nature makes us happier, healthier, and more creative. W.W. Norton & Company. 

Williams, F. (2018, September 27). The 3-day effect. Audible.com. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.audible.com/pd/The-3-Day-Effect-Podcast/B08DDCWV5K

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