Just Leave Me Alone! How Hiking Solo Calms Social Anxiety
„Are you hiking all alone?” – An older gentleman asked me as I was making my way up the trail. I looked up and down and saw at least a dozen people in groups of two or more making the same trek as me.
I was hiking a very popular trail, on a long weekend which raised the number of hikers even more, and pretty close to the town.
Why is it, that a woman hiking by herself causes surprise and strange looks? I wonder what this gentleman would say If I told him I loved doing multi-day solo hiking and camping trips in much more remote areas.
I don’t have to wonder if he would ask the same question a solo man. I know he wouldn’t.
The solo state of (an anxious) mind
Hiking solo is such a natural thing to me that I am surprised each time when people are shocked by the idea.
Most of their concerns seem to be out of worry about my safety and are gender biased. I am pretty sure they internalized the society's notion that a woman cannot do as well as a man in the great outdoors.
But some come from people who just can’t imagine being alone. To be honest, I can’t imagine how they can be with someone else all the time. I crave loneliness, peace, and serenity.
As an introvert, with social anxiety and awkwardness in relations with others (resulting from some autistic traits I have), the only time I am truly relaxed and at peace is when I am alone. I found out that being alone at home is a half-measure, though.
It’s pretty common to me to spend the whole weekend (or more if I have the chance) completely by myself, without leaving the apartment.
But it’s not enough.
I am still anxious about work, deadlines and upcoming events. I still ruminate over past conversations and social situations.
The only time where I have longer moments of genuine peace of mind is when I am hiking solo. When I walk, think about what is around me, where to take the next step, when to take a break or how damn beautiful the view is.
The physical tiredness, the non-human related problems to solve, the clear goal I have to achieve: they free my mind of anxiety.
Not completely and not for long, but it’s a relief still. I guess it must be what some people say about meditation.
I tried doing it but felt silly. It's just not for me. It might be that hiking is my form of meditation.
Hiking alone to get rid of baggage
When I am on a longer hiking trip, I’ve noticed that it takes me about three to four days to work through all job-related issues, troubles, all the scenarios in my head of “what I should have said instead of…”, all the worries and anxious afterthoughts … then it’s all gone.
I still think non-stop, it never stops, but the subject is more now-related. I think about how muddy the trail is or that the wind is really harsh.
That I wish I knew the name of the bird I could hear singing. I try to guess how many kilometers I’ve done by then. Or that I need to find a good spot for peeing. I marvel at the astounding landscapes and wonder if it rains this night.
I love the ones about surrounding me nature the most. I don’t force them, I don’t tell myself to think about it – it comes naturally.
Once in a while, I even smile to myself. Mostly with pride after completing a peak or a difficult stream crossing. I feel like a bad ass and I fully enjoy it.
I am pretty sure I would not do that if I was with someone else… I would be too anxious about their reactions and thoughts.
Hiking solo, there is no one to compare myself to. If I feel I did something awesome, it doesn’t matter if it’s an objective assessment of the achievement – I feel it, so it is.
For someone who's been struggling with self-worth for decades, this is nothing short of a miracle.
Hiking solo takes the pressure off - no more performing
Traveling to new places is not easy for me. I like routine and doing what I already know.
But I love seeing new landscapes and taking photos, so I force myself to overcome the travel-related anxiety.
I’ve realized I deal better with this when I don’t have witnesses to my possible mistakes or mishaps. I am not particularly gifted in the realm of navigation (translate: I can get lost easily) and every now and then I make mistakes following wrong trail or such.
I am angry at myself when I realize it and have to go back, but I am not having a panic attack as it would have been if I was with others. When I am by myself, I give myself time to think, analyze the situation and slowly come up with a solution.
When there are witnesses, I feel I have to make the decision fast and I can’t think clearly.
When I am with others, there are so many things I do because I believe I should do them, because that's what is expected of me. When I am alone, I only do what I want, what I need. When there are people, even strangers, there is no chance to relax and "just be me".
So, when I see people sharing advice on “how to deal with loneliness when traveling solo” I can’t get it. I never get lonely, even after weeks on the trail.
I have also noticed that I am more willing to talk to people and have social interactions when I had the chance to be by myself for 10+h/day or more.
When socially anxious Aspie hits the trail
I know that I’m a bit of an extreme in my need for loneliness. I’m a deep introvert and probably an Aspie (according to my psychiatrist and me, but not diagnosed yet) with serious social anxiety.
But I am sure there are other women out there who feel similar and it feels unfair that somehow the lone-wolf type of wandering is fine for men, but lone-she-wolf not.
There are so many tropes in movies and books about the “lone, silent type” of a man, but women are all about caring for, or bitching about, others.
A man is a complete being, a woman is always in relation to someone else. She's always someone's. If she's alone, she's usually miserable and lonely.
When I am up there, by myself, I feel free, happy and calm. I am not miserable or lonely and I am a complete human being.
I feel strong and powerful, no matter aching knees or shortness of breath. I admire myself, because, step-by-step, I’m becoming the type of woman I want to be.
Some may say I’m a late bloomer, realizing what kind of human I want to be at 40, but I know there are scores of people who never do, just going through the motions.
The Lone She-Wolves Tribe on the Path to Self-Healing
So, here it is to all the solo ladies – on trails, dusty roads and comfy couches at home.
I hope the world will let us be alone and happy without questioning the right and sanity of doing things apart no matter what and where they are.
If you have partners – I hope they understand and respect your need for solo time. If you are, like me, single – that the world won’t see us as weird or lacking for not pairing up with someone.
If you are a social anxiety sufferer like me, know you are not alone.
The time alone from people, out there in beautiful nature, has a healing power and no one should be allowed to bar us from it.
I already dream about the moment on a trail, by myself. I hate what it requires to get there, but when I am finally there – it’s heaven. I won’t let anyone, even my own anxiety, take it away from me.
Is that subject close to your heart? Read more on why I love hiking solo and why I believe hiking solo has therapeutic benefits on introverts. If you would like to try hiking & camping solo but the thought terrifies you, I can help ease the anxiety by showing how to recognize and assess real risk of hiking (alone), and how to prepare well to face them.