GUEST POST: The Healing Power of Hiking by Kieran James Cunningham

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.

Rachel Carson
I made a promise to myself: to give life one year to prove it could be something other than the s**tshow that had led me to my current whereabouts.
“I made a promise to myself: to give life one year to prove it could be something other than the s**tshow that had led me to my current whereabouts.”

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer and writer for My Open Country based in the Italian Alps. He’s climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always. As someone living with bipolar disorder, he is passionate about the mental health benefits of time spent in nature.


September 2006

I was home visiting my parents in Scotland and due to return to work the next day after a month of sick leave.

I’d gotten out of my second self-induced coma in as many years a few days previously. All signs seemed to point towards the fact that my suitability for existence on this earth had run its course.

That night I made my way to the shed at the bottom of my parents’ garden, my grandfather’s Smith and Wesson revolver in hand, resolved to finish off the job I hadn’t quite been able to accomplish with a cocktail of pharmaceuticals.  

The world, however, looks a whole lot different with a gun in your mouth.

Different enough that you might find yourself tempted to take the gun out and give things another go. Convince yourself, maybe, that there might just be another way to negotiate the remnant years of one’s life expectancy without the relentless neurochemical maelstrom that’s part and parcel of life with Bipolar 1.

But which way?

Logic told me that any life worth living would look very different to that I’d lived those past years. Since graduating high school I’d lived in large cities—Edinburgh, Phoenix, Lisbon—and been working towards a career in academia while funding the venture with a government job. 

It’d been a sedentary life, a cerebral one, and one far removed from my childhood in the Scottish Highlands, during which I’d spent every weekend hiking and climbing with my father.

I took the gun from my mouth, placed it on my desk, and made a promise to myself: to give life one year to prove it could be something other than the s**tshow that had led me to my current whereabouts. 365 days from then, should my search for a life worth living prove unsuccessful, I’d come back, safe in the knowledge that I’d done everything I could, and do the job properly.

I experienced things to which I’d been estranged since childhood – joy, lightness and peace of mind.
“I experienced things to which I’d been estranged since childhood – joy, lightness and peace of mind.”

Finding The Trail Back

A week later I found myself standing roadside outside Charleston, South Carolina, thumbing a hitch, the first of the 173 rides I’d catch over the next year.

I hitchhiked directly to New Mexico and spent the winter in my tent, backpacking gradually northwest through Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and eventually California. 

I clocked up over 2,000 miles on foot, camped in over a dozen national and state parks, and experienced things to which I’d been estranged since childhood: 

Joy…
Lightness…
Peace of mind… 

Days and weeks on end without so much as a hint of the episodes that had made life more of a traumatic event to be endured than something to be relished since their first occurrence in my mid-teens. 

I had discovered, it seemed, a life worth living.

Though daunted by the real-life that awaited me thereafter, when I returned to my parents shed on day one of my 365-day countdown. I did so with enough evidence to convince me the battle with bipolar was one I could win by simply changing the arena in which it was fought.

The necessity of focusing all energies on the next move means there’s little scope for my thoughts to wander to the common sources of their distress.
“The necessity of focusing all energies on the next move means there’s little scope for my thoughts to wander to the common sources of their distress.”

By then, the literature on the mental health benefits of time in nature was beginning to accumulate, but I’d already come to know experientially that the mental clust***s that had so blighted my youth and early adulthood found their kryptonite in the form of altitude, fresh air, empty landscapes, and putting one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, and as often as possible. 

A far simpler formula, you might say, than trial-and-erroring through various life-sapping pills and medicines that scored only pyrrhic victories over the illness they were supposed to relieve.

In the intervening years, I’ve climbed and hiked extensively in the Himalaya, Karakorum, Rockies, Alps, Dolomites, and my native Scotland, and more recently have managed to find a workable balance between time in nature and time spent fulfilling professional obligations at lower elevations. In that time, the empirical lived evidence I’ve accrued for nature’s healing powers has grown exponentially.

On each trip in the outdoors, I’m sure to be blessed at some point by a shift in perspective.
“On each trip in the outdoors, I’m sure to be blessed at some point by a shift in perspective.”

Mindfulness Through the Outdoors

Each time I leave on a new hiking and camping adventure, my apartment door becomes a rabbit hole beyond which I discover wonderlands whose topography and features almost instantly trigger a degree of equanimity and self-awareness that I’m unable to attain elsewhere. 

On each trip, I also know I’m sure to be blessed at some point by a shift in perspective that lets me look upon all the struggles and stressors that may have previously sparked an episode and be able to chuckle at their utter insignificance.

When hiking, climbing and mountaineering, the necessity of focusing all energies on the next move means there’s little scope for my thoughts to wander to the common sources of their distress

Thousand-foot cliffs…
Yawning crevasses…
Tenuously poised seracs…
Cruxy moves above a 50/50 pieces of gear…

All are remarkably effective in focusing attention on the here and now alone. 

This focus, I’ve also found, segues quite naturally into an enhanced awareness of the shiftings of my mood and the ability to manage those moods more effectively.

More than anything else, what this time has taught me is just how indispensable nature, hiking, and mountain-going are to my wellbeing. 

While once viewed as an optional, if-there’s-time luxury to be squeezed in on weekends and vacations, they are now an immovable fixture at the top of my weekly list of non-negotiables and have become as imperative to my continuing existence, I’m sure, as any medication, therapy, or coping strategy I’ve ever known.

In my time on the trails, I’ve met countless others with similar sentiments. The common consensus among them? Get your hike on – your head, heart, and every other part of you will thank you for it.

Hiking has become as imperative to my continuing existence, I’m sure, as any medication, therapy, or coping strategy I’ve ever known.
“Hiking has become as imperative to my continuing existence, I’m sure, as any medication, therapy, or coping strategy I’ve ever known.”

Published by alison young

Alison Young is the Blissful Hiker, a voice artist and sometime saunterer. 📣🐥👣🎒

Reader Comments

  1. Alison….well now…I have been outed as a Bipolar sufferer by your transformative Blog post. I was struck down…or…UP…mania…
    in my late 20’s….it has been with me even now as I approach 70…
    Only leveling since 2011. I am lucky to be alive and to have come to know
    you on your treks. I have learned to wrangle life….Zola

  2. Thanks for sharing this healing message,which should inspire many to try a new path through their suffering, whatever it may be. He is, indeed, a role model, as are you.

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