There’s an upside to fear and anxiety if we know how to channel it.

The other day, I received a note from a hiker in Europe planning to walk the Arizona Trail. She had a few logistical questions but then got into the meat of why she contacted me.

I have to admit, even though I try to be brave :-) that those stories about bears and mountain lions are scaring me. I didn't hear you mentioning them. So what is it about? Are you encountering them during an Arizona trail hike? and is it normal to be scared?

I wrote her back to address her immediate fear about mountain lions and bears, which do roam the Arizona, but are rare and usually manageable to share the trail with. On my hike, I saw javelina, coati (a ring-tailed squirrel-like creature related to the raccoon) rattlesnakes and packrats and suggested she take care storing her food.

Still, the real question she was asking was less about specific creatures and more about apprehension in the abstract.

Is it normal to be scared?

In a word, yes.

To be scared or apprehensive, anxious, afraid, or panicky, to be full of doubt, dread and trepidation or feel a sense foreboding and uneasiness, to have cold feet…I don’t know a single thru-hiker, or any human on this planet, who hasn’t felt that way at one time or another.

Even Alex Honnold feels it to some degree. He’s the rock climber who scaled El Capitan without any protection and is said to possess a misfiring amygdala and doesn’t experience fear the way you and I do. But on his first free solo attempt, he stopped climbing because things didn’t feel right. He waited for another day and succeeded.

For us mere mortals, anxiety comes on when we push our skill level by venturing into the unknown.

For example, I’ll fly to Maine in late May to attempt a Southbound start of the Appalachian Trail. Here’s what the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says about this plan:

A southbounder or “SOBO” begins with the hardest part of the Trail first. Unlike starting in other more moderate sections of the Trail, you do not have a chance to get your trail legs under you before hitting the steepest mountains. Katahdin, the mountain you climb on your first day, is arguably the hardest climb on the A.T. It features more than 4,000 feet of elevation gain, the greatest sustained ascent on the entire Appalachian Trail. It is a scramble. Expect to use your hands as you climb over steep boulders and ledges above treeline. As you head south into the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the mountains may seem small because of modest elevations, but they are some of the most rugged in Maine. Expect the footing to be on rocks, roots and mud rather than a smooth footpath.

Oh boy. And there’s more – way more – about swarming black flies, treacherous river crossings, wild and changeable weather and high drop out rates. But you get the idea. It’s anxiety producing information.

Too much anxiety is not good for you

Both mental and physical health suffer if you feel too much anxiety or for too long.

According to the National Institute of Health, “anxiety is a psychological, physiological, and behavioral state induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or potential.” (emphasis mine)

When we feel anxiety, our heart beats faster, our muscles tense up, we pant and sweat and feel tired. These responses are normal and were developed to prepare us for stressful and dangerous situations.

But when we experience these symptoms too often, it can keeps us from thinking clearly to manage those stressful and dangerous situations.

A better coping mechanism might include being more prepared, ensuring you have everything you need – including a fuller picture of your abilities – as well as setting realistic goals.

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That being said, one of the most oft-repeated mantras in the backpacking world is, “Don’t pack your fears!” Being over-prepared might mean carrying 20 extra pounds of gear or avoiding anything outside my comfort zone.

Clearly, managing the unknown and the resulting fear while still moving forward is a balancing act.

So what is a girl to do?

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned while walking on long trails is to accept that fear and anxiety are part of the deal. They don’t ever go away completely.

What we have to do is learn to harness that energy, to use fear and anxiety as a tool.

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki writes about this in her book “Good Anxiety.” A certain degree of anxiety actually improves outcomes because it makes us more alert causing us to pay attention to our gut and what it might be telling us.

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For instance, I was anxious when I was about to press the “buy” button for my plane ticket to Maine. Did I choose the right dates? Was this too much to spend? Is this whole idea just generally a bad one?

Instead of ignoring the anxiety, I used it by doing a bit more research about traveling to Maine. Then I picked up the phone and called a local. I’m glad I did, because she suggested a better choice of airport to fly into.

I used that anxiety to make a better decision. Suzuki writes about this too sharing data from studies with mice under stress. They were more productive to a point, but when the stress was too high, their productive fell off sharply in a bell curve. Stress, at some point which is varies from mouse to mouse, goes from helpful to harmful. That’s when it’s time to practice stress relieving exercises like yoga, deep breathing, or heck, just take a nice long saunter in the neighborhood to manage stress.

I wonder what they had the mice do exactly…

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Let the day unfold

The bottom line, and the answer I gave in my reply to the hiker’s question about the Arizona Trail, is that being scared is totally normal, that we should expect anxiety and fear – maybe even welcome it – as a signal to do our homework and be as prepared as possible (without overpacking) and that once we know it’s part of life, we can begin to manage it and maybe even make use of it.

In the end, we all need to find that balanced space where we emphasize curiosity over certainty, where we let the day unfold rather than seize it and we have faith that life is an adventure and we have what it takes to figure things out.

Kia kaha and happy trails!

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