Episode 26 - Does Nature Heal?
Back in 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis set the record for fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail for both men and women. Afterward, she backpacked over 14,000 miles on 6 different continents, wrote 8 books, and started Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, NC. Needless to say, she knows the trail well and is a leader in the outdoor industry.
After all this hiking, she’s come to know herself in a unique way. Those days and nights spent outside taught her that it’s not about distance covered, but about self-awareness, mindfulness, connection, healing, positive body image and persevering joy.
We also speak with Sommerville Johnston, a licensed therapist and wilderness guide, to figure out what role nature has in mental health and recovery from life's busy-ness.
Ellie Pike: [00:00:00] Go back to the first thing you did this morning as you got out of bed. Your feet hit the floor, then, what? Maybe you stretched, thought about your day, made your bed if you were feeling ambitions, but chances are you found yourself in front of a mirror pretty quickly. Am I right? Now, think back to your lifetime of mornings. How many days did you not immediately see your reflection staring back at you? [00:00:30] How many mornings did you not scrutinize each little detail? Well, today's episode introduces us to Jennifer Pharr Davis, someone who can probably beat your record for no mirror mornings.
Jennifer Pharr Davis: In the forest and I when I started, this dates me a little but it was before the age of the selfie, I really was not seeing my reflection.
Ellie: Jennifer is an expert in her field. Back in 2011, she set the record for fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail for both men and women. It took 46 days, by the way. [00:01:00] She's backpacked to over 14,000 miles on six different continents, written eight books, speaks around the country, and has run Blue Ridge Hiking Company for the last 11 years in Asheville, North Carolina. On top of all of that, she's the mom of a two and six-year-old. Needless to say, she knows the trail and how to introduce all sorts of people to it.
After all this hiking, all this moving through the woods on only her two feet, she's come to know herself in a unique way. [00:01:30] Those days and nights spent outside and away from mirrors, scales, and other methods of measuring ourselves have taught her that it's not about distance covered, but about making room for mindfulness, connectedness, and persevering joy.
Jennifer: I just hope that I'm that 80-year-old individual sitting on a stump looking out at the mountains, and that counts. It might be 5 feet from the trailhead, but that's hiking, and it counts. It's there for you no matter where you are in life, no matter how fit you are, [00:02:00] no matter where you live. New York City, I know it's crazy, but the Appalachian Trail is less than 30 miles away from it. You can always go take a hike outdoors.
Ellie: You're listening to Mental Note Podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.
Jennifer: Well, I'm Appalachian. That's what I tell people. It's really interesting in the United States how a lot of us search for identity and search for our roots and do these DNA tests [00:02:30] to know where we come from, and it's funny because what we want is a sense of place. I feel very fortunate to have grown up in the Appalachian Mountains, and then, spent time exploring them as an adult, and said, "This is where I feel rooted." It's interesting because growing up, I definitely didn't appreciate my surroundings and how beautiful it was. I took it for granted. I didn't spend that much [00:03:00] time outdoors. That is what really shifted when I became a hiker.
Ellie: When did that shift happen for you where you discovered the healing powers of nature and just your enjoyment of the outdoors?
Jennifer: I wish that it happened when I was a child. I did have the opportunity to go to summer camp, and that was great, but I really feel like most of my life took place inside of walls. I think about growing up. I was in classrooms, [00:03:30] and gyms, and my bedroom, and it just felt like my days were spent inside boxes, if that makes sense. A part of me recognized that maybe without able to voice it.
When I graduated from college, I thought my life was going to look and be very, very traditional. There was something in my soul that [00:04:00] was basically screaming at me to get outside. It was just like, "You know nothing about the outdoors." I couldn't tell you the difference between an oak leaf and a maple tree. I know so little about nature and something very deep in my being was saying, "Go outside. Spend time outdoors." Then, growing up in this area, I'd heard of the Appalachian Trail, so I thought, "That's it. That's my pathway into the outdoors."
Ellie: The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia all the way [00:04:30] to Maine, is that correct?
Jennifer: Yes, it's super long. It's about 2,200 miles. It travels through 14 states between Georgia and Maine. When most people hike it, they're going to take usually about five or six months. I've been fortunate enough to complete the entire trail three times. The first time was about a five-month journey. Just five months of walking in the woods, and it was so hard, and so humbling, and completely life-changing. [00:05:00] It has made everything different since then, honestly.
Ellie: Was that your first real endeavor in nature, was deciding to hike the whole trail?
Jennifer: Oh, totally, yes. I took my brother's old boy scout gear. I made all these mistakes. I did so many things wrong, but it was an immersion experience. It's going from [00:05:30] very, very little to completely living in the woods.
Ellie: This immersion experience equipped Jennifer with far more than just outdoor skills. It also began to transform the way she saw herself. What differences did you notice in yourself as you stepped away from technology, stepped away from the boxes that you lived in? What did you notice about yourself?
Jennifer: I think how capable you are comes out right away because we have all these crutches and we have all these resources. [00:06:00] We're not allowing ourselves to be the problem-solvers that we can be because when you're out in the woods and things go wrong, a lot of times, there's no one around to help, so you have to figure it out on your own. At first, it's scary and intimidating and you don't know what to do, but if you can just take a deep breath and think through the options, it's amazing what you can solve on your own.
On the other side of it, it becomes very [00:06:30] empowering. Small things that went wrong for me within just the first week or two of my hike, obviously, I had blisters and foot problems like a lot of hikers. I remember one night I camped, and then, I heard there was a bear in the area, so I had to pack up in the dark and move. I broke my stove the second week. I lost a fork, so I picked up sticks and started using them as chopsticks.
All these small little things that I was like, "What do I do?" [00:07:00] Getting lost on the trail, that happened pretty soon. I always thought it was a mistake, and then, I realized this is just part of the experience and it's really the response that matters. Tackling those problems and those conflicts and those things that arise with a sense of ability as opposed to just fear of what can go wrong really shifted quickly in me.
Ellie: I imagine that took a lot of flexibility. [00:07:30] I know you've mentioned to me before that you're pretty perfectionistic and that you've learned about yourself in that. What was that like to go and not have it work perfectly?
Jennifer: I don't know perfectionist. I like to be a high achiever. I like to set goals and then accomplish them. I learned very quickly that the trail doesn't care about my goals. The weather doesn't care about my goals. I lost this [00:08:00] false sense of security and control. I let go of that because the trail forces you to. Again, in my boxes or in rooms or in buildings where we can control the temperature and we can control the aesthetics, and we think we can make all those choices to make our environment exactly what we want it to be, and then, the reality is, the natural environment is never going to be exactly what we want it to be, but it brings out what we need to be.
Ellie: [00:08:30] That was your first trip of three. Your next two trips were drastically different, right? Can you tell us a little bit about those and some lessons you learned about yourself?
Jennifer: The trail had showed me that I had underestimated by body and my mind. [00:09:00] I had all these cultural and societal restraints on what I could do. I do feel naturally gifted at walking and being in the woods. Every time I just turn my brain off and let me body do what it wanted to do, it just would not stop. That's what it showed me time and again, and I loved it. When I get out there, I'm always like, "I wonder what's around the next turn?" I can't make that go away. I always just want to know what's around the next turn. [00:09:30] My body is what told me that I could try for a record before my mind was ready to be there.
Eventually, my mind started to believe that maybe I could try for a record on the trail. Then, I heard all the external voices from people who said, "You're crazy. You can't do that. Only guys have set the record. Only elite trail runners who win 100-mile races go and set this record. You're a woman. [00:10:00] You're a hiker. You're not going to be able to do it."
One of the things I love about going outdoors is all those voices go away and you just get to listen to the inner voice inside of you. I constantly ask myself because it was a big deal for me. I trained for it and I dreamed about it. I kept asking myself leading up to that, "Well, what is the worst-case scenario?" The answer I came up with is that I'm going to spend time on a trail that I love doing what I love. [00:10:30] Even if I wasn't going to set the record, what was so bad about that?
Ellie: This is something that really resonates with me about Jennifer's story. So often, we allow all the ways we measure ourselves, be they mirrors, marketing, social media, or comparing our lives with friends to set the tone of our choices. We work out because we don't like the way we look, we binge the potato chips because we want to drown out the bad feelings, or we lash out in anger because we're anxious. Jennifer chose differently. [00:11:00] She chose to do something she loved in a big way, and the crazy thing is the worst that could come out of it would still be a great thing. That route of doing what she loves rippled out and affected her other relationships in positive ways.
Jennifer: My husband is always my favorite person, usually, but even more so trying for the record because his job was to meet me at road crossings, and then, give me what I needed, and what I needed the most was food. [00:11:30] The trail really revolutionized my relationship with eating because instead of seeing food as pleasure or indulgent, I knew I needed it and it was fuel, and it helped me achieve my objectives. I was like, "If I want to hike another 3 or 5 or 10 or 20 miles today, I have to eat for it."
I was constantly eating. I would have never have been able to set the record [00:12:00] without the proper amount of food. It makes you feel so much better. When your body needs it and wants it. It's not what I learned too, oh my gosh. So much of the time it wasn't just physical. Obviously, I need the calories, but it's amazing how much the self-doubt creeps in when you're hungry. When I was at a low point, I was like, "I can't do this, the other people are right, and I shouldn't be out here," and then, I would have an energy bar, and all of a sudden, I was like, [00:12:30] "Maybe I can do this."
Ellie: Hunger was at a different level.
Ellie: You speak to something that a lot of us can understand how much our hunger levels affect our psychological health.
Jennifer: Yes, for sure. I found that the boost from food and that fuel was not just physical, it was also emotional and mental.
Ellie: Did you notice any [00:13:00] differences in how you felt about your body and also not having access to mirrors, where you're not showering every day, and shaving your legs? It's certainly not the most "feminine of experiences". Did you notice any differences, for yourself, on how you felt about your body?
Jennifer: Yes, and that actually took place mostly on my first hike. That was the thing I valued the most about that first five-month journey is [00:13:30] that I didn't realize how much magazines and commercials and billboards impacted me until I got away from them all. In the forest and when I started, this dates me a little but it was before the age of the selfie, I really was not seeing my reflection. I knew I was dirty, I know I didn't smell great, but I wasn't seeing myself so I wasn't thinking about it. What I was seeing, I was seeing other people that I passed [00:14:00] on the trail, and I know that if I was funny and if I can make someone else smile, that made me feel pretty. That was like a reflection.
Then, the other thing I was seeing all the time was the beauty of nature and the strength of nature and the power. It's interesting because that growing up in walls and being in boxes, you feel so disconnected and you forget [00:14:30] that you're a part of it. Then, when you hike, you're like, "Wait a minute, I am part of nature. I m part of this. I am part of this beauty, and I'm connected to this forest and that mountain and this wildflower." When you realize that, when you stand on a mountain and you realize that you're a part of it, it makes you feel so beautiful.
Ellie: Now, I realize a few of us are able to drop our current paths in order to [00:15:00] spend five months on a hiking trail, but I also know that nearly all of us would like to experience that same level of connectivity and joy that Jennifer just described. Can the two really coexist, groundedness, connection, and assurance alongside careers, cars, and crowds? To find out, I reached out to Summerville Johnston, a licensed therapist and wilderness guide who offers retreats linking adventure with intention.
Summerville Johnston: What Jennifer [00:15:30] has done is often long-distance travel in the wilderness. At first, that can feel like that's hard to access for folks, but the good news is the benefits are really available to all of us all the time. My approach of working with folks is considering that our bodies are the part of the natural world that's always with us. Working with our bodies, getting in tune with our nervous systems, learning to read the language of our bodies [00:16:00] is a really great place to start.
First and foremost, really starting to listen to what in our bodies is telling us that we feel safe or unsafe, and that's language around the nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system is what activates us, it's what helps us get things done in the world. It's also the same thing [00:16:30] that we see in a rabbit when it's trying to run away from the predator. It's very survival-oriented, but similarly, we also have a parasympathetic nervous system that helps us calm, that helps us rest and digest, it helps the rabbit not run all the time but actually stop and chew grass. These days, in our society, most people would really resonate with this idea of being over-activated and go, go, go all [00:17:00] the time.
Learning to take time, to pause, and feel what's happening in our body, is there a tightness, is there activation, or can we bring in a calming and a settling? One way that I often will work with folks to do that is just focusing on the breath, focusing on bringing the breath into the [00:17:30] low belly, taking time to pause whatever activity you're doing, whether it's working on your computer or having a tough phone conversation with a loved one, just pausing and feeling. That sounds oversimplified, and yet, if we start to do that consistently, we can find that we're really tuning into the nervous system more fully.
Now, how that [00:18:00] can be done outside and in connection with the natural world? We can do a million different things. An invitation that I have for my client is to start taking a walk every day around their neighborhood, some local area that's really accessible to them, and to notice what plant or tree might draw their attention. Then, begin to visit that plant regularly, different times of day, different weather, or different seasons, and as they see [00:18:30] that plant, they tune in and notice what happens in their body as they're in relationship with that plant. Just by dropping into our own bodies, we start to learn about the rhythms of the natural world around us.
Another mindfulness activity that I love to facilitate and client seem to really enjoy, and it's called deer ears, closing your eyes, imagining that [00:19:00] your ears are the size of a deer's ears. When a twig snaps around a deer, its ears pivot and turn and orient to the sound. Imagining that all the sounds that are around you are coming towards you, that you're not having to go out and get them. Sometimes, those sounds are birds outside your window. Sometimes, they're the hum of the heat or air conditioning. They could be human-made sounds, and [00:19:30] yet, there is the perspective that actually everything around us is part of nature.
By tuning into the present moment, we're accessing that relationship, we're grounding ourselves into our bodies, our current moments, trying to not label or judge them, but really growing more familiar with the natural world how it shows up in our everyday. [00:20:00] When we step away from the stressors of our daily life but especially when we come into the calming environments of the natural world, we're going to see overall health benefit. In the moment, what I noticed with my clients and with myself is more clarity, less anxious thoughts.
Anxious thoughts can be considered our body's attempt to find the threat. Just [00:20:30] like a deer might be looking for where its next predator is coming from, our anxious thoughts are our attempt to say, "Where's the next threat? How do I stay safe?" When we step out of the pressures of our daily life and we come our container, as what I might call it, that truly accepting where there aren't tigers that are hunting us, there are no deadlines, there are no social pressures, we can be [00:21:00] ourselves, then, literally our whole body can soften.
Our breath can go really into our low bellies more deeply, we can experience less tension in our bodies, and as a result, when our bodies feel safe, our thoughts slow down. Those anxious thoughts will start to diminish, which is beautiful to see over many days. When I lead people out in the wilderness, I would say, day [00:21:30] three or four, we're just in a totally different place mentally, but if you make this a practice in your life, then, you can access it with far less time in the wilderness. You can go to your local park. You can sit on your back porch. Your body can learn to drop into that space pretty effectively.
Ellie: The trail has continued to be there for Jennifer even when she's not able to leave for months at a time. For her, its simplicity [00:22:00] is its beauty.
Jennifer: Merriam-Webster, the dictionary, by definition says that hiking is a walk in a natural setting, but if you can just get out and put one foot in front of the other, you can do this. The mental and emotional benefits are just huge. Science is showing more and more that, when they study people's brains and brain chemistry, it's altered in such [00:22:30] a positive way when they spend time outdoors.
Because I'm not a record-setter anymore, I haven't done anything that extreme in a long time, I've got my babies, I've got my business, I've got limited time, the trail is still there. There's [00:23:00] actually a common hiker saying that goes, "The trail gives you what you need." I just saw so many people needing so many different things, and the trail provided. The trail provided that. I was like, "Man, well, the more disconnected our society becomes with the outdoors, maybe if I can just connect people with the forest and with the wilderness and with the trails, it'll be the best service that I could provide."
The fact that [00:23:30] it meets you at every phase of life, I just hope that I'm that 80-year-old individual sitting on a stump looking out at the mountains, and that counts. It might be 5 feet from the trailhead, but that's hiking and it counts. It's there for you no matter where you are in life, no matter how fit you are, no matter where you live. New York City, I know it's crazy but the Appalachian Trail is less than 30 miles away from it. You can always go take a hike outdoors.
Ellie: [00:24:00] That's exactly how she spends her days now. Jennifer started Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, North Carolina over 10 years ago. She helps people from all walks of life to connect with their natural world. If all the benefits of this human nature bond sound intriguing but when it comes to hiking, you say, "No, thank you," well, Jennifer says, "Don't worry about it."
Jennifer: I am a hiker and I love the woods, and I think nature can benefit everyone. [00:24:30] I fully believe that, but it's not going to be everyone's big thing. It's cool having kids because they're not you. They're their own little people. What I see in my daughter is she can go outside with us and play, and it's cool. Some day, she doesn't want to do it and it doesn't light her up, but when she does art, it is crazy because her little six-year-old active body and mind and need to [00:25:00] change activities very quickly and be talking, all of a sudden, that goes away. She just becomes so immersed in what she's creating.
I totally believe that there's different vehicles for different individuals to find this gift of fullness and better self-image and being present. People are just-- We're all so different. [00:25:30] Nature and art and music and creativity and food and cooking, all of those things, if you need roots and you need to feel synced with something that is bigger than yourself, go to those things that have provided beauty since the beginning of time and try the woods if you haven't already.
Ellie: Thanks for listening to Mental Note Podcast. [00:26:00] I hope you take a step outside today and notice a little bit of nature that you'd normally just pass by. If you liked this show, let us know. Rating us in your podcast app or on iTunes helps other people discover our work. To keep up with Jennifer and maybe even join her on the trail, you can find her on Instagram, @jenpharrdavis. That's Jen with one N, Pharr, P-H-A-R-R, [00:26:30] Davis, or better yet, pick up her book The Pursuit of Endurance. You won't regret it.
As always, our show is sponsored by the dedicated people at Eating Recovery Center and Insight Behavioral Health Centers. They are trained, passionate, and able to help you find recovery. For a free consultation, please reach out at 877-411-9578. You can find out more about them and the people we interview on our [00:27:00] website mentalnotepodcast.com.
[00:27:54] [END OF AUDIO]