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Clearing the head: how hiking promotes good mental health

3rd March 2020 by Peter Lennon Share

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I am writing this article because I am both concerned and horrified at the level of suicide in Northern Ireland, particularly amongst younger people, who feel that the only solution to their problems is to take their own life. Now, I am neither a medic or a counsellor and whilst I have experienced trauma in my own life, I am fortunate that I have never suffered from acute anxiety, despair or depression, so I can’t fully understand what some of these tortured souls are going through.

I am not saying that I don’t ever feel under pressure or get stressed out. We all need some stress in our lives. It is a primeval legacy from the time when we lived in caves and were hunter gatherers and the stresses in those days, helped us to stay alive.

However, the 21st century has turned stress from a form of protection into an illness, only fuelled by the fact that we are slaves to work, the internet & social media. In fact, I work in an environment which is connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week, a prisoner to the clock, the diary and deadlines and this is not good for my physical and mental health….

So, what can I do about it?

Well, there is a sign in my kitchen which says ‘The Mournes are Calling & I Must go’ …. You see, fortunately for me, I have a remedy to combat the stresses of this ‘brave new world’ and the good news is that is available to you and it won’t cost you anything! It’s called HIKING!

Now please don’t switch off at this point!

In Northern Ireland we are blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, and none more so than the beautiful Mountains of Mourne that sweep down to the sea and this is where I spend some of my ‘ME’ time!

So why hiking?

Well, sometimes it is just good to get away from it all for a while & unplug from the world. A day wandering in the Mournes provides a welcome break from the feeling of always being ‘switched-on’.

I spend a lot of my working week staring at screens and checking my phone, always plugged in to the network of the world, so wandering where there is no WiFi can really help me to relieve the effects of the mental fatigue that technology inevitably brings with it.

I always feel fantastic when I am in the hills, and this feeling lasts long after I am back in the car after 7 or 8 hours & heading home. I didn’t know until recently that it has been scientifically proven that the reason for my ‘high’ is that hill walking increases the release of endorphins, which are chemicals produced naturally by my nervous system to cope with pain or stress. … so, the question actually is ‘why would you not go hiking’?

Some people prefer to walk in groups but for me, I prefer the peace and quiet of being on my own, following one of my favourite hikes from Meelmore Lodge at the foot of the mountains, to Slieve Bearnagh. This hike starts fairly gently and within 20 minutes you are going cross country, following the sheep routes, crossing the Trassey River at a ford and joining the Trassey Track.

From here it’s a right turn at the head of the valley where the gradient starts to increase, heading up past the old granite quarry, where it is time to stop and have a mid-morning cuppa, chocolate fix and soak in the view. However, as is often the case in the Mournes, the clouds have started to build and the weather is changing – rain is on the way – the good news is there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, so the waterproof goes on, before getting the rucksack back on and off I go again.

The path continues to climb higher quite significantly now, rising towards the col between Bearnagh, towering up on my left and Meelmore on my right. The ‘sheep path’ eventually gives way to a long set of granite steps which leads to the Mourne Wall. Another brief stop and then over the stile and the start of the ascent of Bearnagh.

SHOP: The Mourne Mountains – 30 Best Hikes.

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Now, here’s a tip – do not try to climb Bearnagh by following the wall up. It is as its steepest along the wall, so I prefer to follow more of the sheep paths which wend their way around the mountain, but rise up gradually at the same time… The last bit is the toughest, because at some point I have to leave the sheep paths and go almost vertically up the mountain until I reach the tors.

Well…. I have been on Bearnagh a number of times, but the view in all directions at the summit never ceases to amaze me & it is never the same. It could be calm and clear blue skies where you can see for miles, you can be in the clouds, there could be snow, it can be blowing hard…you get the picture.

So now my stomach is telling me its lunchtime. I learned something early on when hiking in the Mournes, there is nothing quite like tucking up beside the Mourne Wall, sheltering from the wind, opening the flask of tea or soup and tucking into a cheese and ham sandwich, soaking in the view and reflecting on todays hike so far.

I have already said that I prefer to hike on my own, but the one time when I usually have the company of fellow hikers is lunchtime and over the years it has been great to meet some super people from all walks of life and from different parts of the globe, some travelling many hundreds of miles to experience what I have on my doorstep!!

The summit has been reached and my goal for the day achieved. The hike continues on down towards the Brandy Pad and up Slievenaglogh before winding its way down again towards the Trassey Track and finally Meelmore Lodge.

Whilst the focus of my blog is about the positive effect that hiking can have on your mental health, research also shows that that people who spend more time in nature, and less time with technology, are up to 50% more creative when it comes to problem-solving tasks.

READ: Trek Report: Doan via the Banns Road.

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In addition, regular hikers can receive the benefits of better memory than those who don’t go out in to nature that often and hiking can even restore cognitive functions, like memory and focus.

So, in summary, I would concur that we all live in a fast-paced world, tied to technology and for some this can cause stresses which ultimately leads to anxiety & depression.   The hike I just described, including the drive there & back, took me 6 hours. Have a look at your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts and estimate how much time you spent this week looking at those!!!

I can’t change the world or solve the mental health crisis, but I can play a part, sometimes by just listening to a friend who needs to talk and remember that one kind word can change someone’s entire day!! Happy hiking!

You can follow Peter on Facebook, Twitter, and by visiting his website.

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