Everyone older than ten has likely experienced the exquisite agony and transformation of a broken heart. Which means that just about everyone has probably developed their own recipe for healing as well. Some people go on “retail therapy” sprees to sweeten the pain, others crawl up in a tiny ball on their bed and stay there for days, while others still look to nature for help.
This is what Jeff did, a Couchsurfer who met me in the Sierra Nevada mountains of southern Spain for a weekend of wet walking. I thought he was coming to my rescue because I was planning to hike alone, but when we started to talk, it emerged that Jeff’s heart was recently crushed and he needed a friendly distraction. Here are five ways that 18 miles of mountain hiking put him back on the path of happiness, and me too!
1. Get out of your head and into the clouds
Most of us think way too much when we lose love. We constantly run the same questions through our minds: “What could I have done differently?” “Am I too ugly?” “Is there someone else?” And, maybe the hardest of them all, “Will I be alone forever?” Staying in a small dark room probing unanswerable what-ifs not only leads to near madness, but it’s also a complete waste of energy. Hiking is a great cure for this because it forces us to pull our heads out of the metaphorical clouds and focus on the trail instead. Whilst those questions don’t disappear right away, their intensity does subside, and it gets easier to view the situation with an objective lens.
2. Nature broadens perspective
When the woebegone stay cooped up in a room with four walls, it’s very easy to forget that there’s an entire universe, maybe multiple universes, outside the front door. Getting outside helps to widen that perspective again. I look at the trees and think about the trajectory of a seed’s lifespan, marveling at the miracle of it all, and Jeff tells me that the Sierra mountains groaned out of the earth when Africa and Europe crashed into each other. Amidst all of this, our problems seem a little less significant. They’re not insignificant, but they are just one small part of a much, much bigger picture; this awareness somehow makes loss easier to face.
3. Open new channels in the mind
If you hike alone, then this might not apply to you, (though solitude in nature has its benefits too) but when you undertake any kind of journey with another person, communication takes on a new hue. There’s something about being in nature or on the open road that opens up new channels in the mind, making it easier to discuss concepts that are often overlooked in the grip of our busy, domestic lives. It’s easier to take a hard, honest look at ourselves when out on the trail, which is usually what is necessary to overcome emotional suffering. Usually, if we have lost someone we love, there’s a reason for it. Maybe there was infidelity in the relationship. Or maybe it was just time to move on. Whatever the case may be, communicating honestly with another person away from the comforts of home can create a clarity of vision that makes the road towards lighter days seem far less arduous.
4. Exercise and happy chemicals
If it’s been a while since you laced up your hiking boots, hitting that first 500 meter ascent might seem impossible. But pretty soon you do hit your groove and before you know it, the dark matter in your mind starts to clear up a bit, and you start to feel, can it be, happy. That’s because a flood of endorphins have started to swim around in your brain. I’m not a doctor, so take it from WebMD: “Endorphins act as analgesics, which means they diminish the perception of pain. They also act as sedatives. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord, and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters.” In other words, exercise produces chemicals that literally make you feel happier. Doing it regularly can help ward off even the deepest depression.
5. A sense of accomplishment
When the love of your life walks away, it’s easy to feel like a dust ball, a nobody, a used up-vacuum of nothingness. You start to think you’ll never be able to love again or face another day without that special person in your life. But this is more the stuff of trashy love novels than reality, because the truth is, we usually do recover. And when we do, we are armed with a brand new set of tools that will help us in future relationships. Before we can get to that point, however, we have to build up our self-confidence again, and there’s nothing like a whole lot of hiking in one weekend to do just that. If you can hike 18 miles, you can get through many of life’s hardest challenges.
Jeff was really low on the first day of our epic hiking weekend. The climb to our first destination (Tello) was hard and steep, it rained all day and it was cold. But by the time he left today after a perfect day of walking through a verdant oak forest with views of the Mediterranean Sea and Moorish mountain villages, he was already starting to sound like a new man. So the next time you have a broken heart, give it a try. Put on your boots. Pack some snacks and plenty of water. Hit the trail and feel happy again.
All photos taken by Tafline Laylin on (someone else’s) iPhone, except the one of her. And Jeff is not Jeff’s real name.