Anxiety on the Trail

In the murkiest depths of my depression last year, my lifelong anxiety disorder transformed into something new: agoraphobia. 

By definition, agoraphobia is a sort of anxiety disorder that manifests in avoidance behaviors as a means to prevent panic attacks. One of the most commonly recognized ways this particular disorder shows up is the afflicted person becoming something of a hermit, staying in their home or, at the very least, designated safe zone. For some people, a safe zone is limited to their bed, and for others, it may expand all the way to their workplace, the neighborhood grocery store, and other familiar places like favorite bars or parks. 

For me, in the worst of it all, my safe zone became my 417-square-foot apartment. 

I didn’t mean for it to happen. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I just wasn’t going to leave. It crept up on me. It began with recognizing that whenever I left the house–– and I do mean whenever–– I had palpitations. I insisted to several doctors I had an undiagnosed heart problem. They insisted I was wrong. 

“You sound stressed,” they’d tell me.

“I’m not,” I’d fire back, measured frustration oozing through my lips. 

You see, I didn’t feel anxious when these attacks happened. As a chronic over-thinker, I knew my mind wasn’t racing. I wasn’t assessing the risk around me. I didn’t feel stressed. I didn’t feel anxious, so it couldn’t be an emotional issue. 

And then, I looked up what a panic attack felt like, and suddenly the symptoms I’d described to my medical team had a name. The antifreeze that ran through my veins, the shortness of breath, my chest aching as if I’d swallowed a giant brick of dry ice. And sweating, and sweating, and retreating. And retreating. And retreating.

Panic attacks.

I had them whenever I left the house.

“This is the space to do this work,” I thought, holding a welling lump in the base of my collarbone.

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

There’s this joke where someone goes to their doctor and says, “Doc, look, when I do this, it hurts,” and the doctor quips, “so stop doing that.”

I stopped going out. I stopped leaving on my own, anyway, favoring the company and steady, warm hand of my spouse if I needed to go somewhere. Even then, though, my chest tightened every time I ventured outside my apartment building, and sometimes even within it during a short walk down the hall to the mail room or laundry. 

I recognized the trigger to my panic attacks seemed to be walking.

It was in the throes of this sweaty, shaky, uphill battle that I received a scholarship to attend Camp Souldust. I’ve told the story a thousand times, but it always bears repeating: beneath the topical excitement of preparing for camp, I dreaded it. I didn’t want to have panic attacks around a bunch of strangers. I didn’t want to go hang out with a bunch of people I didn’t know and very well might not enjoy at all. I didn’t want to sleep in a bunk. 

Even though part of me wanted to take the leap, another part of me really didn’t want to.

But I’m a self-proclaimed emotional masochist, so I packed my bags, and I signed up for workshops on growing my resilience, chilling me out, and–– though I knew it would be an enormous challenge–– hiking. I consoled myself by focusing on the fact that these hikes were silent and meditative. The whole idea was to have a restorative walk through the woods, which I knew was beneficial to the whole body because of my research into terpenes for an article on cannabis I wrote a year earlier. Additionally, the editor I was working under at the time had just had me look into the science of forest bathing. So, sure, I might have a panic attack, but at least I’d be breathing in some relaxing hydrocarbons.

The morning of our first hike, I kept a close eye on the woman ahead of me–– the crystal bowl player who’d serenaded the camp at the campfire the previous night–– to make sure I was keeping up. My heart hammered away in my chest, my breath raged in my throat, my lungs raw. I focused on the trees and breathing in all those natural compounds I’d read about. I pulled myself together. 

No one around me knew what was going on in my body, in my brain, but I knew. And I saw myself pushing through anyway.

“This is the space to do this work,” I thought, holding a welling lump in the base of my collarbone.

When the hike came to an end, I asked the guide, Michelle Allen, if I could share something personal with her. She obliged. As we two walked through the breakfast line, I told her about how I chose her hikes knowing I’d have panic attacks, and I felt really good about having gone and walked through it all. She listened and told me how excited she was to have me on her hikes, and that she was curious to hear about my experience at the end of the weekend. 

It turned out that simply by having the space held for me by this woman and the forest we walked in, and the unknowing people beside me, I was able to learn something new about myself: when I breathed, the attacks didn’t usually come on. I could focus on relaxing myself and staying present rather than spiraling into my abyss of pain and panic. 

All this to say, really: I could walk. Alone, with a group of strangers, with someone else who knew what I was going through, with those who had no idea–– I could take up the space I needed, and I  could keep myself safe.

I’m delighted to now call Michelle a friend and to say that I’ve attended one of the gentle, lovely hikes she performs for tourists (and those who want to see more of the city’s beautiful parks) in the Seattle area. This year, she’ll be walking with more people through the Camp Souldust woods. Many of those who join her will be going through their own unique challenges on the trails, and many won’t bring it up. We all have our inner worlds, and some things just aren’t what we want to share with strangers.

But we can share space. We can share the forest. Together, we can walk the trail.

And that’s enough to do the work. 

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Callie Little

Callie Little writes professionally for places like Vice, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, and more. She lives in Seattle with her spouse and really, really likes dogs and La Croix sparkling water. Find her complete portfolio at callielittle.contently.com and follow her on social media at @goshcallie.

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