Mental Health Lessons learned from the Grand Canyon

SAM_0343At dinner a couple of weeks ago my friends and I were reminiscing about our fantastic trip to the grand canyon in 2011.  We had such fun recalling the trip that I decided to re-post what I wrote shortly after our return.   Not only did I have a great time while there, but I learned some valuable lessons as well.

I recently returned from an awe-inspiring 3-day backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon. For those of you who have known my struggles with anxiety in the past, you know that it was nothing less than a triumphant experience for me.   The gradual recovery from my fear of flying, heights, and dying (to name a few) over the years has turned this trip into a symbol of hope and gratitude for me.   I’ve always been one to push through my fears, and worked hard at not allowing them to keep me from doing things.  I’ve flown on a regular basis for work, vacations, and to see my daughters, and even gone to Africa on a medical mission trip.  What makes this trip different is that it represents a return to the girl I used to be – the one that didn’t think twice before undertaking an adventure.   It was my dear friend who suggested the trip, and we joked that as soon as she brought it up I said “yes”!   How wonderful it feels to be in a place where I am saying “yes” to things I’ve always wanted to do without the hesitation that anxiety brings.  I’m not saying that I never have moments of anxiety.  Sometimes simple, every day experiences can induce more panic than the big challenges.   That’s why I have learned to fully appreciate and enjoy any moment where fear is no longer an obstacle.

In the first few days after returning from my trip, I realized that this experience illustrated many lessons about how to handle the challenges of a mental health issue, which I would like to share.  Although some of them may seem cliché or obvious, anyone who has struggled with a mental illness knows how important it is to be reminded of them when things get tough.

Lesson #1 – Be Prepared and Seek Help from the Experts:  This one seems obvious but can be difficult when one’s judgment is clouded by a mental illness.  We were going to take the trip by ourselves but my friend made the brilliant suggestion of going with an experienced tour group.  This was an excellent suggestion, as they brought the expertise that we lacked and provided the necessities that we would have overlooked.  Being prepared for our trip also included physical conditioning and nutrition, learning about the terrain, weather, camping, backpacking, and asking any questions that came to mind ahead of time.  This seems to be a weakness of mine, as I tend to go into things blindly.  I am so thankful my friends were on top of this and kept me well-informed.

When it comes to one’s mental health, the first step is finding and relying on a good professional to be your ‘tour guide” and provide you with the answers and tools you need to effectively deal with your issues.

Lesson #2 – Sometimes the Downhill is Harder than the Uphill:  This seems counterintuitive.  Prior to the trip, I had an argument with my husband, who had done the same hiking trip years earlier.  He insisted that the downhill would be harder than going uphill and I insisted that couldn’t be right.  I don’t often like to admit he is right, but was he ever!  After 7-1/2 miles of downhill, my legs and body were weary from using my muscles to balance myself with each step, and pacing became difficult as I felt I was being propelled forward.  Each step downward became harder, as I tried to lessen the impact and maintain my footing.  The uphill seemed much easier, as I could take my time getting my footing, without the strain of trying to keep my balance.

This is often true for those with mental health issues.  Once over a big uphill hurdle, it seems like the return to everyday activities would be all downhill.   That is when it becomes evident that sometimes daily life requires more effort, as we strive to maintain our balance and prevent being propelled back into the stressors that can wear us down.

Lesson #3 – Take Care of Little Problems Before they Become Big:  Our wonderful tour guide’s wisdom came in handy with this one.   At the first indication of a blister, she had us stop hiking and tape the vulnerable areas to prevent further breakdown and discomfort.  This was true for any other aches and pains as well.  Resting, rehydrating, wrapping our muscles were all key to making the trip more pleasant.

This is a tough lesson for those with mental health issues who often believe they should tough it out when symptoms begin to resurface, erroneously thinking it is a sign of weakness to ask for additional help.  Catching problems early and being willing to take medication, seek counseling, and support from others is key to preventing a painful crisis later on.

Lesson #4 – Don’t Carry Too Much Baggage:  I talked earlier about being prepared, and the three of us had a hard time figuring out the difference between bringing too much and too little.  Our tour guide assisted us with this, as we sat in the parking lot deciding what to put in our packs.  She gently but firmly coaxed us into leaving certain items behind, while affirming that other items would be of good use.  It was difficult for the three of us, who are known to over pack, but we were thankful not to have the extra 5 pounds after three days of hiking with the 30 lb.+ packs.  I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t wish I had some of those items at certain times during the trip, but I got by without them and the lighter load made it worth it.

Sometimes those with mental health issues need assistance in figuring out the things that are complicating their lives and contributing to the unnecessary baggage that weighs them down emotionally and/or physically.  Being able to leave some baggage behind in order to move forward is essential to the recovery process.

Lesson #5 – Stop to Enjoy the View:  When the hike became particularly grueling it was easy to lose sight of the magnitude of the scenes surrounding us.  Inevitably one of us would finally realize this and stop to take a look, prompting the rest of us to do so as well.   I didn’t have a camera with me and it became a joke about how I impatiently chided my friend about slowing things down to take pictures.   Now I am more than grateful to have those memories captured – not only because it made me stop to take in all of the smells, sounds, and views, but to see it through her eyes, when looking at the beautiful pictures.

When one is in recovery from a mental illness, it is easy to have tunnel vision and not want to stop and see the beauty of a blue sky, flower garden, or the friend in front of you.  Sometimes it takes a good friend to remind you to slow down.  Being able to do this enhances one’s recovery and is what makes it worth pursuing.

Lesson #6 – There is Something Bigger Than Me:   Some call it God, a higher power, mother nature, the great spirit, and/or many other terms over the years.  In those three days I came to realize that we are a small part of the vast beauty that exists in our world.  I’m glad to know that I am not the center of the universe, and that its existence is not dependent upon me.   One can allow little problems to seem so overwhelming that we become paralyzed and afraid to move forward.

It is nice to regain perspective and have the freedom to make choices and mistakes, knowing that life’s “imperfections” are what ultimately shape our world and make it more interesting.  Just as the Grand Canyon was carved over millions of years by the Colorado river, one never knows what beauty may later come from what was once perceived as a mistake.

Lesson #7 – Circumstances Can Make Friends of Strangers:  We had the pleasure of meeting a couple who was part of our tour group.  Prior to our trip, we checked them out using the latest social media tools, and assumed that we had nothing in common with them based on their profiles.  This theory was immediately proven wrong within the first few hours of meeting, when were all riding together in the tour guide’s SUV.   The woman and I started having a discussion about hormones and figured out we had both recently been diagnosed with under active thyroid.  Soon we were all laughing and sharing stories.  Her husband, who was quiet in the presence of five women, handled us with a dry sense of humor, piping in with comments along the way.  We came to know and love our young, 24-year old free-spirited tour guide as well.  Since we’ve returned, we have exchanged e-mails and kept in touch, all drawn together by this incredible experience.

I love that about life.   Whether it is on a quiet subway ride to work or during the most grim moment of dealing with a mental illness in the hospital or a support group, with an open mind, one may meet someone who offers friendship and encouragement when it is needed the most.

Lesson #8 – One Person’s Failure is Another Person’s Victory:  There are many options to seeing the Grand Canyon.  Day trips, lookout points, challenging backpacking trips, alone or with tour groups.  It was amazing to see the variety of people who were there – old, young, disabled, different sizes and shapes; all there to challenge and enhance their lives with this incredible experience; all moving at their own paces.  I can’t imagine doing what some spoke of doing, going rim to rim to rim in one day, or being part of the long-distance running groups that skirted by us on the narrow paths, with sweat dripping down them.  Other’s couldn’t imagine doing what we did, preferring to go instead to an overlook to see the views.

For those who have mental health issues, it is easy to allow comparisons to others make us feel like a failure.  “Why can’t I do what they did?”  “Why is this so hard for me?”  The only person I can compare to is myself.  Accepting setbacks as a part of recovery and moving forward from there is the key to recovery.  One day we may be able to do things with ease that another day may seem impossible, and sometimes it is necessary to reset our goals, settling for the day trip in order to see the view, rather than the 3 day trip.  It is easier to move forward when we accept this rather than comparing to those around us, who have their own set of circumstances and challenges that may be completely different.

Lesson #9 – Remember the Joy, Forget the Agony:  By the end of our trip, we were exhausted and sore.  The last mile was bittersweet, as we took more frequent breaks to ease our muscle pain and take in our last breaths of the Canyon air and the panoramic view.  My recovery period seemed to be longer than my younger counterparts, and it took me a week to shake off the fatigue and muscle aches that now seemed like the only reminder of my trip.  In those first few days I couldn’t imagine how I had done it or that I would ever want to do it again.  Yet one week later we found ourselves missing it terribly and wanting to go back for another trip.  I’m sure I will one day, based solely on the joy I experienced, pushing the aches, pains, and fatigue far to the back of my mind.

Remembering the happy times is vital to one’s recovery.  Focusing on the joys experienced in life may seem bittersweet when one doesn’t feel like getting out of bed, pushed down by the pain of a mental illness.  Remembering these moments of joy when faced with doubt about the possibility of ever experiencing peace of mind again can be enough to motivate us to do what is necessary to get back on the path to recovery.

Lesson #10 – Hold on When the Wind Blows too Hard:  The most terrifying, yet exhilarating part of my trip was when we hiked out to Plateau Point to see the sunset.  This was to be the highlight of our trip, with promises of a pink and golden sky as the sun set over the huge rocks around us.  As we hiked the mile and a half to get there, it became apparent by the cloudy, overcast sky, that we were not even going to be able to see the sun.  The disappointment was palpable, yet we continued on, with the slightest hope that the clouds would dissipate into a miraculous shimmering, crimson sunset.  Instead, just as we got to the big lookout rock, there was a huge gust of wind, making it almost impossible to walk across it without bracing oneself.  Still, I was compelled to make it to the overlook railing.  I grabbed onto the railing just in time for another gust of wind that didn’t seem to let up.  I found myself grasping onto the railing, standing next to another young woman, and we instantly bonded over laughs of sheer joy and terror, as it became apparent we would not be able to let go until the wind subsided.

This experience became the defining moment of my trip.  Nature was in charge, not me, and all I could do was hold on and enjoy the moment.  My friends were not able to make it to the rail, and sat instead on the rock until they felt safe enough to move.  Their moment of terror was my moment of freedom.

It is good to be reminded that we are not always in control of the agenda.  Life has its own, and when it sweeps one up in a gust of wind, all one can do is hold on and enjoy the moment.

Lesson #11 – The Transition Back is Hard:  This is my least favorite lesson.  I wanted to believe my life had been transformed by this exhilerating experience, and that I would be able to conquer anything now that I had tapped into my previously unknown reserves of courage.  Going back to work and facing personal stressors would be a breeze now – right?  Wrong!  This week seemed even harder, like jumping into an ice-cold swimming pool.  Going back to all of the stress and mundane tasks of life was no fun compared to such an incredible experience.  Rather than being renewed, I felt unmotivated.  It has been a week since we completed our hike, and I am just now getting my equilibrium.

Transitioning from various situations can be particularly challenging to those with mental health issues.  Incorporating some basic coping skills into one’s life as well as patience and understanding can help to make these transitions go a bit more smoothly.

The final Lesson

This sentiment is never more true than when one commits to maintaining his/her mental health.  There are times when one may forget or decide to stop doing what is necessary to maintain mental and emotional stability, ultimately finding themselves hitting bottom once again.   Surviving these setbacks is dependent upon one’s willingness to take the necessary steps to climb back out of the hole.  Going back to the basics such as seeking professional help, attending doctor’s appointments, utilizing medication if necessary, and taking care of one’s self are mandatory elements of this process and will lead to a more successful recovery.

I look forward to my next adventure.  Until then, I will make an effort to apply the lessons learned in the Grand Canyon to my every day life.


5 thoughts on “Mental Health Lessons learned from the Grand Canyon

  1. What a fabulous post, Amy. Your adventure, your insights, your lessons learned… it is all wonderful. I especially liked the thing about baggage. Always an issue for me. ☺ Congrats to you. We should all have an adventure like yours, and be able to document it so beautifully. Bravo.❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: There are Days | Shirley's Heaven

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