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Experiencing Pendulum Transitions Between Extremes?

Outdoor Guides navigating difficult transitions to minimize anxiety, depression and irritability.


I’ve felt it, I’ve seen it.


The division between the two selves: the one who lives in the front country, and the one who lives in the backcountry.


The pendulum swinging back and forth creates a chasm that many of us who’ve worked in the outdoors struggle to bridge.


Depression can strike when we are off-shift from wilderness expedition work.


This phenomenon has been referred to as “Post Trail Depression” or recently by Anne Baker (2019)“Post Trail Grief”, this idea of feeling disconnected from your most authentic self.


According to Baker’s research, working or living in the outdoors for extended periods of time creates a strong attachment to five main principles that quickly and easily become ingrained as part of your intrinsic being: Simplicity, Purpose, Adventure, Community, and Extreme Exercise, or the acronym — SPACE (Baker, 2019). Once we depart from the outdoor environment, we have less connection to the SPACE principles in our daily living and we feel the loss as grief.


This translates to feeling like we have no purpose, suddenly finding ourselves feeling empty. Sometimes we feel alienated from those around us and struggle to reconnect with important relationships. We feel like the focus and stressors of people living in civilization is meaningless


Symptoms of depression start to emerge, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, motivation drops, irritability and anxiety increase.


I’ve struggled with this in my past and until I learned how to cope in helpful ways, I used avoidance, dissociation and often numbed the experience with substances.

It is much more complicated than grief. There are additional layers that make these transitions very difficult for our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.

I want to introduce the idea of how our internal narrative, our sense of identity and our body’s stress response cycle are also parts to this puzzle.

Our internal narrative, the stories we constantly tell ourselves, impacts how we experience our environment. When we survive and thrive in outdoor spaces we develop a narrative that reinforces our self worth based on continuous use of incredible strengths and skills- like being physically strong and capable, having a keen sense of environment and risk management, having an ability to function when fatigued, etc. When we re-enter the front country, we struggle to find self worth in daily activities that don’t demand that we “rise to the challenge for the safety and wellbeing of ourselves or those we are responsible for”, and our inner voice becomes critical, self loathing and deprecating.


Additionally, and often as a result of our narrative, the role of outdoor guiding becomes entrenched into our identity. We develop a sense of self that is inflexibly tethered to the principles of SPACE (simplicity, purpose, adventure, community, and extreme exercise). Our identity morphs into a unidimensional image that is dependent on certain environmental aspects being present- all of which are extreme and external.


When this happens, it becomes very difficult to see ourselves as anything other than what our outdoor environment creates for us.

We also have powerful, biological, stress-response systems that engage in these experiences. Transitioning to the front country can force us to cope with a massive decrease of the stress hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine and cortisol. Similar to the experience of coming down from other addictions, this can create a stress-seeking response in our bodies which can lead to increased conflict in our relationships, risk-taking behaviors, increased substance use and an overall feeling of being “wired” or “primed” for some kind of flight/fight response.


A constant hypervigilance that can impact sleep, relaxation and physical recovery.


For some of us our relationships with our bodies and self image are also greatly impacted. When we are living outdoors, we cherish the strength and capabilities we have, we consume rationed calories, we expel calories with every movement- getting water, heating water, setting up camp. When we transition back to front country “easy” living, we emotionally struggle to accommodate our bodies need for rest, or our bodies natural compensation to eat more due to its recent restriction.



We struggle to feel good about ourselves even if we engage in high intensity exercise in the off-shift.


In a sense, our identity becomes trapped by the spectacular outdoor spaces and we feel out of control, unfulfilled and empty without it.


Being an outdoor guide is amazing work. There is nothing quite like it- it’s been my most incredible job, my most rewarding job, and also, my most exhausting job, on my body and on my emotional and mental wellbeing.


And it’s not because of the enormous energy living in the backcountry requires, but because of the transitions between worlds.

If these experiences are similar to you, you are not alone.



This lived phenomenon is more common than we realize in the outdoor guiding industry. Historically, outdoor guides tend to suffer alone, and in some tragic cases take their own lives because the experience can be so overwhelming and their symptoms go untreated.


We can be part of a movement that normalizes these struggles and brings them into the light. We can create a community dialogue about how real it is.


Sometimes, simply understanding the process can bring relief, engaging in coping skills can bring relief, and talking to someone about the experience can bring relief.

Here is what you can do to feel better:

  • Create a grounding routine for yourself when you are off shift. This helps your nervous system reset to a more balanced, less hyper-vigilant status. Routine can be very soothing for our systems especially when it’s paired with calming or self nurturing acts. Daily mindfulness exercises, daily coffee/hot beverage ceremony, daily journaling practice, etc.


  • Create a day or two transition between outdoor shifts and any front-country obligations you have so your mind has some rest between transitions- rest will decrease our brain's need to jump to unhelpful coping mechanisms. Rest helps us pause before making a choice and reduces our systems impulsivity.


  • Take time to set up your home space (car, trailer, bedroom, bathroom, maybe even living room) in a way that is peaceful for you to come home to. This helps you have a feeling of control in your environment and can help ease feelings of anxiety.


  • Continuing to access outdoor spaces while home is also key, take a walk, go on a hike, go climbing with friends, jog on a trail. If you work in this industry, you already know how outdoor spaces helps us regulate our nervous system and recharge. It doesn't have to be an expedition to have positive impact.


  • Spend some time in between shifts cultivating other important pass-times, pass-times that feed your soul so you can experience joy doing things off shift. Maybe even engage in some activities that you've never done before! This helps your brain continue to utilize those feel good neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. When I'm off shift, I love to cook dinners and listen to music alone. Or I put in ear buds and go on a walk through town and listen to a positive, stimulating pod cast and enjoy a bit of urban scenery. These are both pass-times that I really enjoy and are very different from what I do when I’m on shift.


  • Speaking of serotonin, a majority of our serotonin is actually created in our gut, which means our nutrition is very important to our mental wellness. When you are off shift, make sure to eat lots of fresh food and reduce your intake of highly processed foods. If you have allergies, do your best to avoid them when off shift and try to minimize consuming toxins in excess (remembering that moderation in all things is key).


  • And most importantly, listen to that critical internal dialogue that starts to show up, and offer it a kind conversation. When these painful feelings emerge, treat yourself and your transitional experience with kindness and understanding of the pendulum action you’re in.


Finally, reach out to a friend or professional for support! You are not alone, even though it can feel like it.


Redside Foundation is a place where you can reach out for help, they provide confidential cost-free mental health support to outdoor guides.
Call or text the Guide Helpline: (208) 740-1192
https://www.redsidefoundation.org/

I’m also here to help! I understand this experience, and I’ve lived it personally. I provide mental health support for folks who’ve worked in outdoor guiding and I get it. Call/text/email me for a free consultation:
Kari Mowbray, LCPC
kari@wildrootscollective.com
406-212-2456


 


“Wilderness Therapy”

a poem by Agate Gamble

its movin or its dry

neck crack, coffee sip

four tongues meet to contour reality, we compare maps

the sun makes ceremony, glinting an island of sky bright eye every time the conversating head swivels

there is a common ancestry in this

light and retina

a love story so brief yet forever,

it's what we became, forever, briefly

We take shape in the elk beds waiting for the warm to meet us so we can untuck our fingers and reach for eachother again

We lose time to the reminiscent

nobody minds

in 8th grade you mouse trapped your finger and so decided you would let them all live

it was the same year we learned that the world is just water,

movin or dry

Someone asked what we will make of happenstance rock, and a forever ever will of downstream.

Color develops before fully brewed, is what my coffee bag discloses.

Eluthro drags the river, baiting for rest but foot gripping the bank

becoming crone in this hot morning wind

we are the tide

and just a tide

marveling something of fish guts hucked to tall grass

and the pearl heart of being trusted

twirly whirling

swirling

so thoughtful, for the smooth edges who promised to break jagged again


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