Between COVID, remote work, and an over-reliance on screens, worldwide depression rates have soared. The good news is that mental health research says spending more time outside can help.
In this guide, I’ll outline relevant research, the benefits of hiking and mountaineering for depression, and tips on how to get outside.
Depression is a highly variable and pervasive medical condition that manifests in many different ways. Hiking and mountaineering may not be the ultimate answer, but these activities offer a chance to find some relief. I have suffered from depression for 20+ years, and getting outside was a game-changer for me.
If you suffer from depression, speak with your doctor, therapist, or specialist to better understand how the outdoors can help.
So, how do we know nature can help? Science! There are many theories that make connections between human happiness and nature. One of the most interesting ones is the biophilia hypothesis.
The hypothesis suggests that outdoor time is deeply ingrained in the human psyche because our ancient ancestors evolved in wild settings and relied on the outdoors for survival. Therefore, we have an innate drive to connect with nature.
In a 2020 paper for the American Psychological Association, Kirsten Weir wrote, “spending time in nature can act as a balm for our busy brains. Both correlational and experimental research have shown that interacting with nature has cognitive benefits.”
Based on the research, time spent outside affects our physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being. Let’s see how.
Benefit #1: Blunting Negative Thoughts
When we engage in outdoor activities, at a certain point, things begin to slow down. You focus solely on the task at hand and extraneous thoughts dissipate. Nature has this incredible ability to eliminate the background static of an overactive brain.
To me, this is always clear on group hikes. For the first 10-15 minutes, everyone is chatting, but by the hour mark, there isn’t a sound. It isn’t due to anger or frustration; it’s because everyone’s breath, body, and mind are all dialed into the hike.
When you’re dialed in, you may go hours on end without producing a string of negative thoughts. That’s powerful.
Benefit #2: Providing a Break from Screens
Too much screen time can make us irritable, sad, and less willing to care about our personal wellbeing. When you spend hours sitting and staring, you seldom walk away from that experience feeling good.
Time in nature, especially with specific objectives, can help whittle down the screen-induced filler of a modern life. This, in turn, provides temporary peace of mind and can fuel individual purpose.
Benefit #3: Helping You Find Happiness
Many people with depression feel that they can’t find happiness. Accomplishing something in the outdoors can dramatically lift your mood.
Hiking and mountaineering in fresh air raise oxygen levels in the brain, which helps boost serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that alters moods.
Outdoor activities also help release endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals your body produces that act as pain relievers and happiness boosters.
Natural endorphin and serotonin release like the kind you get from being outside has lasting positive effects on your mood.
Benefit #4: Allowing Full Immersion
I remember climbing Mt. Hood in Oregon with my dad. We were so immersed in the activity that no one talked about the news, politics, war, or burnout.
When we finally took a break, we were immersed in the view before us. We sat on a snow slope above a thick carpet of purple clouds and below the icy, sun-soaked crown of the mountain. It looked like we were climbing into another dimension.
The opportunity to be fully present in a moment is rare. But when all your senses are firing at once, you feel alive. Mountaineering and hiking make present-moment awareness easier to find.
Studies have found that present moment awareness can improve sleep, increase feelings of calm, help us manage our emotions, and help us empathize with others.
Benefit #5: Increasing Human Agency
Human agency is your capacity to determine and exercise control over thoughts, motivations, and actions. It’s all about ability and choice. Depression takes away your agency by robbing you of your thoughts and motivations.
Hiking and mountaineering are fantastic ways to get it back. The growth and success associated with positive outdoor experiences can make you feel strong. Even in failures, you learn key lessons that continue building out your abilities.
Benefit #6: Supporting Cognitive Growth and Development
Depression is strongly linked to cognitive problems because a depressed brain isn't performing as well as it could be. This is true especially for early learners.
Outdoor activities stimulate creativity, adaption, and concentration, all of which are skills that can mitigate the effects of depression. Detail-oriented activities like mountaineering and hiking also force on-the-spot problem-solving. One study found that multi-day exposure to nature increased problem-solving performance by 50%.
Benefit #7: Improving Physical Health
Because depression zaps your motivation, eventually, your physical health will suffer too. Depressed folks are less likely to exercise, which can create a downward mental-physical spiral. The physical strain of mountaineering can reverse that.
Hiking and mountaineering can help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, build strength, and boost your mood. Training for and setting reasonable outdoor goals can reshape your body and self-image.
Benefit #8: Enabling Discovery
Hiking and mountaineering help you see a world you might not have known existed. This type of discovery learning is exponential, unlocking entire geographic areas as blank canvases on which to draw your next adventure.
Of course, discovery isn’t limited to the act of hiking and mountaineering. It also leads to learning about ecology, hydrology, geology, meteorology, and more.
Within each of those fields is an opportunity to nurture your understanding of the outdoors. The more you experience, the more competent and confident you become.
Next Steps: Overcoming Barriers to Entry
One of the biggest obstacles to hiking or mountaineering is getting started. So, if you’re interested in hiking for your mental health but don’t know where to start, try following these steps:
- Start small. Walk around your neighborhood. Work up to a few miles of distance.
- Ask friends to join you.
- Look up information about local trails and explore them.
- Figure out what you need for food supplies and water.
- Find inspiration from a wealth of outdoor documentaries.
- Research best practices for hiking and mountaineering.
- Get the timing right. Popular trails are popular for a reason. Find out when the crowds come and try to avoid them.
- Sign up for guided trips with professionals who will teach you about the mountains.
- Get comfortable reading a map or using mapping software.
- Use mountaineering or hiking to affect other aspects of your life. Eat healthier and drink less so you can hike farther.
- Volunteer to help maintain public spaces and trails.
- Visit local gear shops. They may teach outdoor skills and support guided hikes, which can tap you into the local hiking crowd.
- Stay humble. You never know what stage others are at in their outdoor journey. Let people enjoy the outdoors without giving unwarranted advice.
Depression is all too common today, but research shows that nature can have a significant and positive impact on people suffering from depression. In fact, hiking and mountaineering can blunt negative thoughts, provide a critical break from screens, and offer a full-body reset.
Get moving outdoors today to see how it can benefit your mental well-being.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.