Every adventure holds the potential for stressful situations to take place. Our ability to respond favorably to these stressful situations lies in our capacity to acknowledge, accept and problem solve each experience with creativity, mindfulness and tact.
If we choose to process these moments of stress and struggle — be it the logistics of planning, packing and rationing food, accessing a trailhead or navigating the unforeseen circumstances of the adventure itself — we have a winning chance at gleaning wisdom from said experiences. The wisdom in these lessons can shape the version of ourselves that goes wandering in the woods just as fervently as they can affect the us that walks down the sidewalk in our everyday lives.
One of the biggest life lessons that has come from finding myself in the forest is the acknowledgement and understanding that I have the ability to become aware of and exercise agency around all of my actions and reactions to any given situation at any given time.
In theory this means that if I somehow forgot my tent poles, arrived at a campsite that was already full, had an aggressive encounter with wildlife, or miscalculated the amount of water I needed to bring on my overnight hike, I could choose in any and all of those moments, to surrender to the situation, accept what was and figure out how to move forward with grace.
As simple as this concept may sound, I began to realize that my execution of it was lacking. When stressful situations reared their heads, I became anxious, upset and self-deprecating. My inner judge would jump at the chance to berate my forgetfulness; my imagination would run wild with worst case scenarios; and I’d lose my ability to stay focused enough to find a solid solution.
I decided I needed some help.
Minding My Mind
I began dipping my toes into different mindfulness practices in hopes of generating more self awareness and figuring out how to build a brain with a better approach. Curiosity and consistency toward these practices helped me develop an increased ability to remain positive, calm and flexible, let go of expectations, quickly reframe perspectives and ultimately, accept what is.
While I lay no claim to having reached enlightened equanimity, I figured that having progressed toward becoming more of the me I want to be warranted sharing some of these approaches with the you who might want to build the better you.
Leaning into any or all of these practices will have you reframing any adventure ‘setback’ as an opportunity to practice your newfound monk-like mindset, coming out the other end wiser for the wear. Just remember that it’s okay to be a beginner. No expectations, no judgement, no rules.
Breathwork is a great place to start because it can be so simple. It’s the act of becoming aware of your breathing and consciously doing it better. Breathing is the foundation of life and the three other practices I’ll talk about below. I don’t have to tell you how important it is to breathe. It’s so important that our bodies do it automagically.
Deep, mindful breathing can easily become the great equalizer in keeping our proverbial molehills from becoming mega-mountains. It can help bring us back to the present moment, relax our nervous system and reset our minds.
Unless you’ve patterned the practice of deep, intentional breathing, then you are likely using a small, shallow part of your lungs to inhale and exhale. Except now that you’ve read this, you are probably breathing deeper. Keep doing that.
The problem with shallow breathing is that it can mimic our fight-or-flight survival response, leaving us in a sustained state of low-level anxiety. If we constantly walk around on edge, any small circumstance can jolt our system into a heightened stress response, releasing an internal chemical cocktail that wreaks havoc on our system, blows everything out of proportion and can take hours or days to reset from.
The two breathwork practices that I found to be the most approachable and convenient, and that has the best reward-to-effort ratio, are box breathing and ten deep breaths.
Box-breathing is the act of inhaling for four seconds, holding that breath for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds and then holding the exhale (don’t breathe in or out anymore) for four seconds. And repeat.
I find this technique to be great for grounding, relaxing and re-centering myself. It’s easy to do anywhere, especially alone in my tent when things go bump in the night.
Ten Deep Breaths is just as it sounds. Take ten long, slow, deep breaths. As few as ten deep breaths can change our physiology, slow our heart rate, lower our blood pressure and reduce sympathetic activity — that fight or flight system I mentioned earlier.
I like to incorporate equal breathing with my ten deep breaths, meaning that my slow inhale is the same length of time as my slow exhale. You may find it soothing to exhale longer than you inhale or vice versa. It’s really a practice of tuning into what works for you.
It’s easy to stay distracted in our current culture and we don’t often give ourselves permission to be alone with our thoughts. But how we think has a massive impact on how we feel and how we respond to all of life's situations.
When we allocate time to becoming aware of our thoughts, we can start to notice patterns, themes and moods. This awareness allows us to question how our thoughts might be affecting how we respond to situations in life, for the better and for the worst.
We can start to get a sense of whether or not we are operating from an optimal mindset. Thanks to our incredible capacity for neuroplasticity — the brain's ability to change — we can begin working to rewire our mental patterns, creating a superior mindscape to operate from.
How-to Tips: Start by removing external distractions from your environment (your phone, tv, pets or partner). Sit however and wherever is comfortable for you — cross-legged on the carpet, flat-footed on the couch, or sprawled out on a patch of grass. (As someone who is easily distracted, I had to literally remove myself from the house and leave my phone behind.)
Set a timer for five or ten minutes. Close your eyes and breathe. Allow your thoughts to flow freely. Begin to pay attention to the theme, mood and overall vibe of your thoughts. Are they worrisome or fear based? Are they optimistic or excited? Do your best to refrain from judging what you notice, just become aware.
As you continue to show up for this reflective time, you’ll likely notice a pattern appearing. Maybe it’s the thoughts themselves that are repetitive, or just the overall mood. Congratulations, you are building self awareness! When we take stock of where we are at, we can use it as a starting point to grow from.
Ask yourself how your thoughts might be affecting the way you respond to stressful scenarios and what different thoughts might lead to more favorable reactions and actions. Our brains are so complex and amazing that when you ask it questions, it will naturally search for answers. This is a process called instinctive elaboration. The quality of your questions will inform the quality of the results. Try applying some of the answers it gives you and see if you can optimize your outcomes to build a better response network.
Combining this self-awareness practice alongside wellbeing rituals like healthy nourishment and nutrition, heaps of sunshine, daily movement and good sleep hygiene will help you develop powerful new thought patterns and keep them around.
Visualization is an opportunity to let your imagination stretch its wings. Behind closed eyes, you get to imagine all the step-by-step scenarios of how different situations could play out in the real world and how you might respond to them if and when they do.
It’s an amazing way to apply some of your newfound responses to stressful situations (learned in your self-reflective meditation) to see how those new actions make you feel.
Visualization can also help train your brain to experience a situation as though it has already happened, so that if it ever comes to be, you’ll be well equipped to respond favorably instead of freezing in fear.
Because I believe that preparing for the worst and hoping for the best helps me feel confident, I choose to visualize both the best case scenarios and the worst (like encounters with wildlife).
How-to Tips: Find a distraction-free zone where you can relax and be comfortable. Close your eyes and breathe. Imagine a scenario that you have experienced recently in which you wish you responded differently. Without passing judgement about what happened, ask yourself these questions.
How could you have reacted from a place of more calmness, acceptance or love? How could you have solved the situation with more creativity and tact? With less drama, judgement or hurt? What thoughts about yourself, others or life might have led you to respond that way and which new thoughts would help you respond differently? How does it feel to imagine moving from a more favorable place?
Alternatively, visualize an outcome you desire to have. Perhaps it's arriving at a backcountry campsite and having the place all to yourself. How would it feel to be in that space feeling a profound sense of peace, serenity and gratitude. Smell the fresh air, sense the tranquility, feel the sunshine on your skin. Allow this visualization to bring you to a place of relaxation, appreciation and love. How would you show up for yourself and others in the world if you moved from this place more of the time?
Last but certainly not least is the practice of gratitude. The simple act of writing down or saying out loud three things you are grateful for every single day can bring about profound appreciation for the smallest and seemingly mundane occurrences of everyday life.
Focusing on that which we do have instead of that which we don’t helps train our brain to begin searching for positivity and the feeling of being fortunate in more moments of our day. That way, when we forget our tent poles or miscalculate our water supply, we can focus on what is going our way and be grateful for that, while still searching for a solution to our situation.
Alternatively, if you happen upon that epic camp spot or serene swimming hole and get the place all to yourself, you can know for sure that you won’t pass up the opportunity to be genuinely thankful for that too.
When we consciously put aside the time to become the better people our hearts know is possible — resting assured in our ability to breathe deeper and appreciate the gift of life fuller — we can continue to uncover our capacity to optimally, and sometimes even effortlessly, handle every single circumstance that life throws our way.
Do you have any other tips and techniques for becoming a happier, healthier, more level-headed adventurer? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!
Ali Becker is a freelance adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can follow her rambling adventures on social at @thisisalibecker or at her blog thisisalibecker.com.