What hiking taught me about dealing with social isolation
Aside from confronting a previously untapped level of back pain, the most challenging aspect of my first multi-day solo hike involved battling the hidden depths of social isolation. Initially, walking for days between towns without any face-to-face interaction was unnerving, then jarring, then draining. Knowing I faced social solitude for up to a week at a time left me feeling unsuspectedly deflated — this mental sluggishness was not a test I had expected to encounter. However, as the weeks went by, and the detachment became routine, I gradually discovered the many advantages of spending uninterrupted periods in my own head.
Bans on non-essential intrastate, interstate and international travel are already in effect here in Australia and throughout much of the world. With our typical social liberties and freedoms temporarily suspended, many face losing their identity and motivation.
‘Social isolation’ can feel like a dirty phrase; however, if approached in the right frame of mind, this period can present a bevy of benefits. The positives I’ve absorbed from solo hiking, then subsequently repurposed throughout my life, will help me navigate the imminent COVID-19 shut-in. Here are a hatful of values I developed from time spent in social isolation.
Redefinition and growth.
Embracing sustained periods of peaceful solitude — by taking the time to stop, think and reflect — allows for unforeseeable self-development. As the proverb goes, silence is golden. Without the continuous torrent of outside voices shaping our decision-making, an often over-influenced inner voice can reinvent its message.
Following weeks of wafting around the South Australian wilderness on my first multi-day solo hike, I finally felt ‘me’ again. Status-hungry society no longer impacted my thinking; my profession, income, education, degrees and material possessions did not define me; my character stripped clean. I could finally reassess who I was, what I wanted to be, and where I was going.
We often let social standing and what others think of us rule our actions and self-esteem. But it doesn’t have to stay this way. You can learn to develop your own value, to be valuable to yourself.
After re-emerging from isolation, I felt surprisingly motivated and productive; and I wasn’t the only one. Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity while practising safe social distancing as the plague impacted Europe in the mid-1600s. Take your time; be patient; be kind to yourself. You may not reinvent the laws of motion, but you may just reinvent yourself.
Learn the value of independence.
The love, warmth and support from your nearest and dearest is an extraordinarily beautiful thing, but so, I would say, is the nourishment you give yourself. Developing genuine independence, in the face of isolated adversity, has galvanised my resilience.
By no means should ‘independence’ be taken as merely ‘looking out for number one’; hoarding essential supplies and other machiavellian traits only generate panic and unnecessary stress. Instead, independence relates to having your own self-worth, confidence and ability to govern yourself.
Despite all the challenges we face in the near and distant future, including people’s urge to clean out the toilet paper aisle, I know, with patience and compassion, we will rebuild; hopefully, with an enhanced sense of open-mindedness.
Take the positives out of every situation.
It could be argued, that, as a society, we’re programmed to absorb doom and gloom. We are regularly exposed to abrupt headlines from newspapers, scandalous lead stories from 6 o’clock bulletins, shock jocks spewing confrontational bile and ‘Karen from Facebook’ sharing her views. I can understand; outrage sells. However, after inadvertently distancing myself from these toxic mediums on the trail, I discovered that I became more open to seeing the positives.
The outbreak of COVID-19 holds daunting health and economic implications around the globe, but there are still positives we can collect from the rubble. After decades of suffocation, the planet is finally breathing again; communities are working together, and we have already begun building our resilience. We must rely on our positivity, humour, generosity and togetherness to see us through this pandemic and propel us into the recovery phase. Breaking the constant stream of negative messaging goes a long way to feeding that optimism.
Living without life’s routine refinements on the trail took some adjusting; especially when only the barest of essentials squeezed into my supply box. However, before long, rationing became standard, ‘normality’ turned to indulgence, and luxury seemed almost unjustifiable. Daily showers were a distant memory, cooked meals were eternally savoured, bedsheets were a curious novelty and hot water flowing directly from a tap felt like alchemist-conjured sorcery.
Self-isolation on a hike requires forfeiting everyday creature comforts; fortunately, social distancing at home doesn’t demand such primal simplicity, though, some modern privileges may still have to wait. Embracing minimalism isn’t always easy, but it does get easier; and, when our rituals finally return, an increased sense of gratitude, appreciation and empathy will inevitably follow.
What we can all do.
Stay safe, stay local, stay positive, and for goodness sake, stay healthy. Exercise! If possible, visit a nearby park or cut a couple of laps of the block. When you go for a walk, it’s not just your body that benefits, the way you think and feel changes too! The world can appear less complicated after a mind-cleansing stroll.
We’re all bracing for what is to come, and it won’t be easy, but, if you have the means, set yourself up to be a better, rounded individual at the end of your isolation.
And finally, when this coronavirus madness has run its course, get out into the wilderness and appreciate all the things you’ve taken for granted. I know I will.
If you find your mental health is struggling with self-isolation and quarantine, seek help. Chat to friends, family and health professionals. If it’s urgent, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.