Anxiety and Fear: Our Ability to Heal
During this time, it’s not abnormal or surprising to see articles, blogs, or social media posts about managing anxiety and fear of the unknown during the global pandemic we know as COVID-19. Tips and tools on how to deal with the issues surrounding the virus and social distancing are being discussed and shared with the public by a number of mental health professionals, spiritual leaders, mentors, and more. These resources have been providing great support to families across the world who are battling anxiety and fear for the health and safety of their loved ones.
Within the last weeks, I have experienced emotions related to the pandemic that have caused me to reflect deeply on the students and families I work with in wilderness therapy. Understandably, I have found myself on the phone with a few of my parents who currently have children in our wilderness program. The support they need in this time is the reassurance that their child is safe and the space to share their deepest concerns about their child not being at home in a time like this. I can only imagine the level of fear and worry this can create for some of our wilderness parents.
As I think about these conversations, I’ve come to a higher level of understanding, compassion, and empathy for the families I work with and families in general. It seems to me that the anxiety and fear people are experiencing across the world now is similar to the worries and fears the families I work with have been feeling on a regular basis long before COVID-19. These parents have all gone through major crises with their children that have brought them to the difficult decision of sending their kids away for mental health treatment. This act alone is a huge exercise in embracing the unknown. In fact, the only certainties are that they are ready to try something different and that the outcome is out of their control and not guaranteed. It can be a terrifying step that requires families to step into a space of vulnerability and also the resolve to ask for help and support.
This past week while working with my students in the backcountry, I became hyperaware that what the world is facing emotionally in the front country, was something my students have experienced most of their life, which is why they are in wilderness working with me. Students in treatment often express their experiences of anxiety, depression, and fear of the unknown in their everyday lives. Of course, these struggles have led them to maladaptive behaviors, but under the surface these struggles are connected to much deeper wounds that the eye can’t see. Out in the wilderness they are leaning into the unknown, feeling raw emotions for the first time that they have learned to mask with addictions of all sorts, learning self-regulating skills through mindfulness and meditation, and processing parent-child dynamics related to co-dependency or explosive conflicts. Learning these tools in a wilderness setting, where nature is uncontrolled and cannot be manipulated, helps families and students learn how to process and deal a little bit better with what is often uncontrollable in their regular lives.
People often ask me why I chose to be a wilderness therapist over an outpatient or traditional therapist. This is simply because I have seen what nature does for anxiety, depression, and fear. When we engage with our past experiences and crises in a natural setting, it better prepares us to lean into the discomfort and unknown of the outside world. In a time like this when life can feel bleak or scary, it is encouraging and empowering for families to know that perhaps, just maybe they already possess or have access to the tools and skills they need to manage the anxiety and fear they are experiencing because of the virus. Although I work in wilderness therapy, the components and healing spaces of nature are evident and available to families from across the world and the resilience I see in families has become something to admire more and more each day, especially in a time like this.
Our resilience and ability to heal is here and will always be here.