Post-Trail Depression: It’s Not What You Think

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Over the past month, I have had the immense pleasure and privilege of interviewing thru-hikers (and one LASHer) about their experiences transitioning from trail back to “normal life.” I spoke with 20 people (45% female, average age: 29.5, post-hike gap time ranging from 10 days to 2 years) for 1-1.5 hours each, asking a set of questions aimed at capturing how people experience what is referred to as “post-trail depression.” I wanted to examine common ground among peoples’ experiences, as well as any noteworthy differences and/or protective factors that seem to buffer the intensity or unpleasantness of the experience. I also wanted to examine anecdotal evidence for a question I’ve been chewing on for several years: is it really depression?

While each individuals’ experience of the transition from trail life is most certainly unique, five common threads emerged, feeding into what appears to be an overarching theme for everyone–regardless of the extent to which they experienced difficulty with the transition. I’ll describe each domain consistently relevant to the post-trail transition experience, and then discuss how these common threads appear to influence what we have, perhaps mistakenly, come to refer to as post-trail depression.

Simplicity

Huckleberries! A glorious treat.

Almost every single hiker I spoke with mentioned simplicity at some point in our conversation, usually when I asked what people miss most about the trail. One hiker stated, “On trail, our day to day expectations are simple: Make it to town, beat the storm, find a flat place to sleep.” Another said, “I miss the simplicity. Your goals are very simple: walk, get clean water, eat, and find a place to sleep. The trail just dials everything down to the essentials and the basics.” And still another, “I miss rising with the sun, the simplicity. Living day by day, or maybe every three days.”

Mid-afternoon creekside shade in the desert.

This is unsurprising given research suggesting a positive correlation exists between increased wellbeing and a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity. Part of this theme may also emerge from the choice paradox: The more choices we have (or at least perceive we have), the more dissatisfied we are.

Purpose

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Closely related to, but distinct from, simplicity was the concept of purpose. Trying to form new milestones and goals after a long hike appears to be an overwhelming and often confusing task for many hikers. One 2019 AT thru-hiker mentioned that one of the things he goes back to in his mind most often is, “the feeling of how good it felt to have a singular purpose, a destination.” He described the loss of this purpose as an uncertain, anxious feeling, explaining, “I don’t know what I should be doing, but I know I should be doing something.” A 2019 PCT thru-hiker echoed this sentiment, discussing her tendency to compare her post-trail day-to-day accomplishments to miles. “I could’ve had 12 or 15 by now,” she says to herself, “but instead I’ve only walked the dog and done the dishes.” She finished the thought, “I have no drive or purpose. What am I doing? Where am I going? It feels very strange.”

Adventure

An exhilarating place to stand.

This was one of the most interesting common threads to me. Hikers consistently reported that when they daydream about the trail, their mind wanders to memories that almost exclusively belong in the category of Type II Fun (explained here, just in case). When I asked for details, answers included:

  • “Getting rained on 10 out of the last 14 days in Washington. It was great team building—if I had been alone, I might’ve considered getting off.”
  • “One of the most enjoyable times, hard as it was, was going through the Sierra {note: this was a PCT hiker who went straight through in a record snow year}. You really see what you’re capable of… Having to wake up so early every day to get through those really tough stretches. It’s so rewarding.”
  • “I remember feeling the satisfaction of knowing that I’ve been through so much, I’m so uncomfortable and beat up and I’m still finding ways to keep going.”
  • “I think about the last half-mile push to the top of a ridge or a peak, the music is just right, a hiking partner ahead and maybe one or two behind, views are starting to clear, drenched in sweat, and everything makes sense and the effort seems worth it.”

A major dose of Type II fun on this very cold, very rainy day walking through nothing but green tunnel.

The content of this mind-wandering is particularly interesting as it relates to a network of brain regions called the Default Mode Network (DMN). Activity in this network occurs when the mind is not otherwise occupied with a task; importantly, this activity is thought to be reflective of self-referential processing (i.e., who we are and how we fit into the social environment). Research shows that an increase in negative self-focus during mind-wandering leads to depression, which is also associated with abnormal activity in the DMN.

But mind-wandering among hikers is decidedly not characterized by negative self-focus. On the contrary, hikers report drifting to exceedingly positive self-focus. Inferentially, then, if hiker mind-wandering is not geared toward negative self-focus, it is logical to presume DMN activity in a post-trail hiker would not look like it does in a person with depression. While there are other aspects of depression besides self-referential processing, this mismatch of mind-wandering content suggests post-trail hikers are experiencing something other than depression. More on this below.

Community

Hiker trash surviving the heat *together* under I-10.

Community was by far the most universal commonality among everyone’s experiences. Trail families are an essential piece of how a distance hiker gets through some of the most challenging moments/days/sections of a long trail. Most hikers mentioned that often times the trail is kind-of a suffer fest (see above), and one thing that makes that bearable is the fact that you have these people–these strangers–who have the same goal as you, suffering the same way right there by your side. But there’s also more to the community than other hikers. One man captured the broad strokes well: “One thing I miss the most is just how awesome people were. Four and half months, everyone I met was awesome. Whether they were hikers or trail angels or people in the towns, even the people back home mailing me gear and food–that kind of support is really wholesome.”

The loss of this community seems to be an enormous element of what makes post-trail transitions hard. A 2018 PCT hiker said, “A lot of people in normal society have pre-conceived notions of how fast you can get close to someone. That doesn’t exist. People on trail are just f**king real, they don’t tiptoe around. Coming off trail, being around people who haven’t hiked, you notice how much more fake people seem. All these silly rules and societal structures…that stands out so much more after trail. It’s frustrating to be so much more on the surface with people.”

Leaning on your trail family was almost universally advice hikers gave when I asked what they would tell a future hiker about to go through this transition.

Extreme Exercise

Early morning miles are essential. First light / moonset over Donohue Pass. Wake up, hike, eat, hike, eat, hike, eat, sleep.

As a doctoral candidate studying pain and reward processing/opioid addiction, this aspect of the post-trail experience is one I continue to be exceptionally curious about. As many readers are probably aware, exercise releases endorphins–specifically, beta-endorphins. These are essentially your body’s own opioids; they’re responsible for the so-called “runner’s high,” you have perhaps heard about or experienced first-hand, and they’re actually more powerful than morphine. From the lens of neurobiology, the amount of exercise involved in a thru-hike or a LASH almost inevitably puts nearly all hikers at risk for what is called an opponent process. According to opponent process theory, what goes up must come down. At least in theory, post-trail negative emotion could be a sort of “withdrawal” from the emotional pleasure generated by literally months of endorphin release.

Last light, starting Hat Creek Rim. Walking early, walking late, sometimes walking through the night to avoid exposure and heat.

As one hiker reminisced about the trail, he offered, “I really love the feeling of covering distance…I remember on day 3 of the trail, I was at the top of a ridge about to drop down into a valley and I looked across the valley floor and super far away was the next ridge, then snow-capped peaks. How crazy to think I’d be up there eventually. And then by 11am, I was on the other side of the valley. I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’m unstoppable, I can do anything, I can go anywhere.’” This type of euphoric thinking is characteristic of someone who is high. Incidentally, this person also said, “I think back to the trail and want that feeling of a high.” What a coincidence.

Nearly every single hiker I interviewed described feeling this way in some capacity, and most of them indicated the absence of this feeling was troubling during their transition from trail. One woman just 10 days removed from the PCT remarked, “It’s hard to keep up the same level of activity every day…I feel like a pansy. I get why people want to run ultra-marathons after a thru-hike. I want to do one now.” Another hiker described the exercise rebound as “a restless feeling that I can’t quite quench,” and over half the people I interviewed spontaneously stated that it feels like an addiction. “It’s a f**kin’ drug. I want that high again,” one hiker told me. The reason for that? It is actually kind of a drug.

What is Post-Trail Depression Really?

Somewhere mid-Sierra.

Simplicity, purpose, adventure, community and extreme exercise are what I will call the SPACE of the trail (because, what sort of academic would I be if I didn’t create an acronym?). From my perspective as a licensed clinician, so-called post-trail depression is a function of the loss of that SPACE. Accordingly, it appears this phenomenon is not depression; rather, it is grief.

Importantly, however, this does not appear to be grief over the loss of trail SPACE in and of itself. While people consistently reported melancholy emotions about things like the complexity of their post-trail lives and the superficiality of their post-trail interactions, none of these domains seem to be the actual issue. Instead, it seems to be the loss of one’s sense of self in that SPACE.

One hiker explained, “It feels like a heartbreak each time you leave the trail…The first time is the worst. It’s like your first breakup.” And then, without skipping a beat, she switched to talking about her relationship with herself, her perception of herself: “You think, ‘ohhh, but I liked {trail name}; I don’t want to go be {real name}.’ ” This blew me away. In the interviews up to this point, multiple others had likened the trail to an ex-lover, but it wasn’t until this hiker seamlessly shifted from talking about an “ex” to talking about losing who she was with that ex that I started to see this more clearly. It isn’t about the loss of the simplicity or purpose, the loss of adventure or endorphins, and it also isn’t about the loss of the community. It’s about the loss of who you were when you were in a relationship with the trail.

2017 has been dubbed the Year of Fire and Ice on the PCT. Smoke-filled views here, closing in on Oregon. Most hikers temporarily agree that the end of your relationship with California is a welcome change.

Another hiker articulated this incredibly clearly: “The trail is the only place that I 100% feel like myself. And the people on trail are the only people who know the real me. And I think that’s why post-trail depression affects me more than it does some people…The trail is such a raw experience. There’s no faking, no hiding behind wealth or your make-up or your looks or your background or anything! You’re just you…Everyone is their truest, most raw form, and that’s what I love.”

A Triple Crown completer reflected similarly, “It’s hard to take the largeness of how you feel and water it down into a bite sized chunk…I think of myself as a puzzle piece, and every time I do a trail my puzzle piece changes a little, and then I go back to a familiar environment and the piece doesn’t fit.”

Relationships orient us to ourselves. A hiker’s relationship with the trail is no different: the trail allows us to experience ourselves as strong, patient, loving, resourceful. The trail allows us to experience ourselves as the forms of self we value and respect the most. The perceived loss of that sense of self feels almost unbearable; we don’t want to let go of it, or of the relationship that facilitated such a valuable way of being. This, it seems, is the core substance of what is actually post-trail grief.

Buffers and Things That Apparently Don’t Matter

Pretty.

Hiking as a Couple Helps

One man and woman I spoke with hiked the PCT as a couple. While I would obviously need more couple interviews to assess the broad accuracy of this claim, hiking as a couple seems to make the post-trail transition less unpleasant. These two remarked, “You can go back through pictures and memories and feel like someone understands your experience.” In essence, what other people have to get by reaching out to members of their trail families, these two automatically have with one another.

This couple’s experience also makes a lot of sense in the context of the conclusions drawn above: they described their commitment to one another as a grounding aspect of both individuals’ separate identities. That aspect of their individual identities remains consistent while on and off trail. Consequently, post-trail fluctuations in their senses of self may have been less pronounced.

(A caveat to this: there are some rather polarized opinions about whether hiking with your romantic partner is a good idea. I’ve personally met and heard about at least a dozen couples on long trails whose relationships nearly ended due to the stress of the experience. I’ve also met and heard about at least a dozen couples who either set out to do the trail together, or who met on the trail and ended up hiking together, that are now happily married and building a life together. Clearly, there is some nuance here that has not been captured in the limited scope of this article. Proceed with caution.)

Gender, Age and Mental Health History Don’t Predict Outcomes

Before I started the interviews, I hypothesized that all three of these variables would predict depressive symptoms. I was wrong on all counts. Having a history of depression and/or anxiety apparently doesn’t influence susceptibility to and/or the intensity of ennui following a distance trek. This makes perfect sense if you adopt the position that post-trail depression is actually post-trail grief. If this is the case, of course having a history of depression is not directly related to how deeply you experience something that isn’t actually depression. Surprisingly, neither gender nor age appear to have an effect either. Men and women reported both exceptional difficulty and remarkable ease in the post-trail transition with equal frequency, as did individuals who hiked in their early 20s compared to their early 30s (a brief note on the limitations of this age range, below).

Your Job Kind of Matters and Kind of Doesn’t

My job, sometimes. Do I like sitting at a desk? No. Do I find my work meaningful and purposeful? Yes. The value overrides any discontent.

The nature of one’s job (seasonal vs. career) doesn’t seem to influence how difficult the transition from trail back to work is, but how you feel about the job does. This appears to be directly related to the issue of purpose. However, it’s less straightforward than whether or not one’s job is perceived as purposeful. It’s about values alignment. Individuals who believe their job should be purposeful, who also perceive their job post-trail is purposeful, seem to have an easier time with the transition. As long as the actual and the ought are in alignment, people have less difficulty with the “need to make money” aspect of post-trail life.

By contrast, post-trail negative emotion occasionally seems to come with a tinge of guilt, almost exclusively derived from the issue of work. As one hiker explained, “I feel torn between worlds. Right now it feels like all I want to do is go hike for the rest of my life, but that feels selfish. Thru-hiking makes me happy, but I also want to contribute something to the world.” Again, this really isn’t about the work. It’s about one’s sense of self.

Limitations

Burney Falls has limitations, too. Primarily, frigidity.

There are a number of limitations to this article that are worth mentioning. Hikers were recruited to participate using Instagram, leaving room for what is called selection bias, as well as several other threats to the generalizability of the data I collected from 20 people. In a similar vein, the age range of the individuals I interviewed was incredibly small. It is possible hikers of different ages–perhaps especially those who are hiking during retirement–might not exhibit the same trends. (On this note, it’s possible that hiking during retirement would be a protective factor, given the likely stability and solidity of one’s sense of self at that age.)

Additionally, the vast majority of hikers I interviewed were residents of the United States who completed long trails in the United States. This briefly came up in a conversation with a Canadian hiker and made me wonder if there are location-related variables that affect one’s post-trail experience. Perhaps more on that another time.

And finally, I did not collect any demographic information on race/ethnicity, gender identity, education level or a number of other potentially important variables. There’s only so much information a single person can acquire in a short amount of time. All these things are worth taking into consideration, and I encourage anyone reading this to take my interpretation of this qualitative data with a grain of salt. There is certainly more to be learned about the post-trail experience.

How Can I Avoid Post-Trail Grief?

Ansel Adams Wilderness. So gross. Hated it.

Out of the 20 people I spoke with, not a single person reported a total absence of difficulty with the transition. From a clinical perspective, three people seem to have had an easier time: the couple I already mentioned, and a highly introspective 2018 AT thru-hiker with an uncommon world view and a very complex and well-developed sense of himself and his place in the world. And even these three still endorsed restlessness, irritability, and feeling overwhelmed. So your odds of completely avoiding any post-trail emotional upset are not very good. Sorry.

My question is: why would you want to? Just as relationships orient us to ourselves, sadness orients us to our values. Emotions are existential feedback mechanisms—they let us know how things are going and how closely we are living in alignment with our core values. Sadness about the loss of trail SPACE and the person you are within that space would suggest you’re someone who values connection: to the world, the people in it, and your own self. Why would you want to change that?

Maybe you’re reading this thinking ,”Gosh, I’m not sure I want to voluntarily put myself through this! What sane person would be open to this? Maybe I should re-think the whole distance thing.” This came up very explicitly with one hiker. He said, “It’s worth it. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. I’d go through it again, because it means I did it.”

Don’t listen to that skeptical voice. Trust my shadow.

Most of us have a tendency to want to avoid negative emotions–we distract ourselves to push them away, drown them out with alcohol and drugs, and attempt to over-ride them by artificially inflating just how awesome everything is. But there is a tremendous amount of research that suggests this is counter-productive. It’s kind-of like a Chinese finger trap: the more you try to pull away, the more stuck you get. What should you do instead?

Feel it. Feel it without judging it as good or bad, right or wrong. What does it feel like? Where can you feel it in your body? Acknowledge, accept, and nurture the feelings like you would a crying baby. And then use the emotion to guide you. (If you’ve never seen Inside Out, I highly recommend it.)

Creating SPACE in Your Post-Trail World: Holding On and Letting Go

An amazing sunset somewhere in Northern California. But the sun doesn’t have to set on your identity!

Broadly speaking, it appears post-trail grief is essentially 1) reluctance to let go of the trail SPACE that facilitated a valued way of being oneself, and 2) reluctance to stop being that version of oneself. Hikers deeply value who they are when they live in the present moment with purpose, community, effort, and openness to uncertainty. People who continue to perceive themselves as living this way after completing a long hike don’t seem to struggle much with the post-trail transition.

When people described their departure from this way of being, I almost always asked, “What do you think would happen if you were your trail self in the real world?” 100% of the time, the answer was a curious silence, followed by, “I don’t know.”

Why is this so hard for us to imagine? Or, perhaps more importantly, why is it so hard to do? There is absolutely nothing that stops me from being Scrappy instead of (or in addition to?) Anne when I am doing therapy or teaching Master’s students neurobiology—nothing besides my own thoughts about how that would go. Do I have to put on my hiker outfit to strip away all the armor I wear to protect myself from the potential judgments, rejections, and injustices of the world?

Last big view before Canada on the PCT. I sat here with the strangest feeling of ambivalence: Must get to Canada vs. please don’t let it be over.

Be the change. I don’t mean that so much from the Ghandi lens (no disrespect, Ghandi, you’re a cool dude), but rather from the framework of the Cognitive Model. How would you behave differently if you were your trail self in the real world? How would you behave if you believed it were possible to engage in a conversation with your neighbor or your local butcher the same way you do with complete strangers who happen to be hikers? My guess is that you yourself would be more open. Much of the way we navigate the world really does turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we behave in ways that are consistent with what we wish to accomplish (e.g., waking up early every day in order to make it to Canada; or, answering honestly when someone asks “how’s it going?” in order to have a real conversation), what we find is that the desired outcome produces itself. The best part about this? You don’t necessarily have to change how you feel. If you change how you behave, the emotions will follow alongside a different way of thinking. It’s science.

The trail, by its very nature, begins with a foundation of vulnerability. The real world often does not. But we don’t actually need to be in an immediate relationship with the trail to continue being the person we were in that relationship. Our real challenge, then, is to figure out how to let go of the idea that the trail is the only location you can get that feeling of SPACE, step out of your own way, and hold on to your most valued self. It will be uncomfortable. Thank goodness most of us seem to thrive on Type II fun.

DISCLAIMER: If you are struggling with prolonged, intense negative emotions and/or having suicidal thoughts, please seek help from a mental health professional.

 

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