How to Stop Negative Thoughts While Hiking

O'Fallon Trail, fall 2011

We’ve all experienced this, haven’t we? We look forward to getting outside all week, because work has been stressful or because we need some peace and quiet, or because we long to smell the freshness of the forest. But when we’re there on the trail, we are miserable because we can’t shut off negative thoughts. We worry about things back home. We berate ourselves for not being more in shape. We are anxious because we imagine a bear or a cougar is just around the corner, or we’re anxious about being alone in the wild. (For tips on dealing with those fears, read my article here).

How can you stop the negative thoughts while hiking, so you can actually enjoy being out in nature more?

I have a few tips that will help you get into the present moment and allow you to relax into what you’re doing. It may take lots of practice and using these tips over and over to begin to be more at ease and in tune with your surroundings, but like with all things that are worth doing, patience and perseverance is key.

Tip #1: Return to your favorite sense

One of the reasons I love going on hikes is for the silence and the sounds of nature. I love listening to the birds, the rustle of the wind through the trees, and the absence of traffic noise, machine noise (except for the occasional airplane), and media noise.

I tend to notice the sounds and the silence the most when I’m hiking – even more than how it smells, how it feels or what it looks like.

What’s your favorite sense on the trail? What do you find yourself noticing more when you’re hiking? Do you remark on the view? Inhale with pleasure the muskiness of the forest floor or the freshness of the wind? Appreciate the peacefulness?

Whenever you catch yourself lost in negative thoughts, return to your favorite sense. Listen to what’s happening around you. See something you haven’t noticed. Really sniff the air. Touch the bark of a tree. This is an easy way to return to the present moment.

Tip #2: Ask yourself, “Am I OK now?

A lot of the anxiety or negativity we feel has to do with something that occurred in the past or something we think will occur in the future.

The problem is, the present moment is all there is. The past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet. We could spend our entire lives worrying about something that hasn’t yet happened, and in the end realize that our lives were generally quite pleasant or at the least, comfortable. We could pray, hope, dream about a time in the future when we’ll be the person we really want to be, but unless we are making strides today, we will never get there. All we have is the now. If we aren’t living our life the way we want now, we will not be living it the way we want in the future, which is a concept and not reality. All we have is the now.

Whatever it is that’s plaguing your thoughts, ask yourself, “Am I OK now?”

You’re breathing, you’re well enough to hike, you feel the wind in your hair and the sun on your face. Whatever you’re worried about hasn’t changed this fact about this moment. Chances are, outside of some thought about the past or future, you’ll realize you are perfectly OK now, and if you aren’t, you can make the choice to handle whatever physical discomfort is bogging you down.

Even that discomfort can be made worse (or better) by the story you tell yourself about it.

Tip #3: If you’re with someone, agree to stop talking

When we’re hiking with a friend, it’s often difficult to be fully present to what is. I often hike with friends and family, and these are not always silent hikes. We discuss our goals, gossip, talk about problems, politics, or just rehash the past. At the end of such a hike I realize that I can’t even recall parts of the trail, what it looked like, or how it felt to be there. All I remember was my opinion about the topic about which we were conversing.

These conversations can leave me feeling more pent up and stressed than I was BEFORE the hike, which isn’t good.

If you go hiking with someone, agree to stop talking at least halfway into it. That way, you can practice tip #1 and 2 without the distraction of conversation. It’ll be much easier to do this if you agree ahead of time, before you even start the hike. If you bring it up suddenly during the hike, it might feel insulting to your partner.

When I take groups on hikes through my MeetUp, the agreement that we are not going to talk or socialize is already in place. It allows everyone time and space to be with their own thoughts and experiences. But often people still tell me that they couldn’t stop the negative thoughts. Coming back to the present moment is a practice, not a remedy. You’ll have to keep doing it over and over again, just as in meditation when you return to the breath. In time, it’ll get easier, and you will be able to mostly stay present with what’s around you on the trail. At the very least, you’ll be able to make a choice about it.

After all, you don’t want to long for the woods when you’re at work or at home, and spend all your time thinking about work and home when you’re finally among the trees.

5 thoughts on “How to Stop Negative Thoughts While Hiking”

  1. I think if I talk/chatter on hikes I’ll not think the negative thoughts; then after the hike I realize I missed the view, the silence, the peace, the scents and want to have a comfortable non-talking hike the next time. I will strive for that and take in the other senses.

  2. Agree with Marcia, sometimes we have to remind ourselves to become silent. My fav hiking buddy and I talk while heading out to our hiking destination. We do this because his pace is quicker than mine, and as a result, we create a large gap between us. So it is already instilled in us that talking isn’t an option on the trail. Sometimes my own head interferes as per your article. Hiking is a special time and should be treated as so. It is a gift. Accept it with joy and enjoy! Thanks for the reminder! -M.

  3. I absolutely agree and love your suggestions. It really is an ongoing practice of catching yourself, not making yourself wrong or judging, just noticing. Once you notice your thoughts then you are in the present moment (yes, Eckhart Tolle says that!). Any thoughts, negative or not, just notice.

    Another practice I have taken up when I am caught up in negative thoughts is asking myself ‘Is that true?”. It really helps in catching myself from swirling around what doesn’t serve and going unconscious. At the point you do this, you can return to noticing what is really going on around you now, be present to your senses and feelings in the moment.

  4. Yes, asking “Is that true” is what Byron Katie teaches as a form of complete surrender to what is instead of being caught up in the assumptions. I agree, it’s also a good practice when you find yourself spiraling into a negative, distressed state of mind.

  5. Just got onto your blog and enjoy what I read thus far.

    It is a on-going effort to be in nature on walks from jobs or people concerns and keep in the moment of consciousness about the trail and natural environment that surrounds one. As a teacher, I used to walk along the Yukon River, or hills above and come back to my home, refreshed after solving some concern troubling me. Then the walk in solitude was refreshing in a number of ways.

    A professor I had so many years ago likened it to the mind’s newsreel that was always projecting in our minds – the task for me is to leave the singular projection room in my mind and be open for the multi-facetted setting that I am a part of, not apart from, as I walk.

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