This week, I took advantage of the #entrepreneurlife and went for a hike in the nearby mountains in the middle of the day. This wasn’t my first solo hike, although I’ll admit that I don’t go out too often alone. I’m out of shape and not a traditional outdoorsy type, so I don’t have a lot of contingency plans in place if something were to happen (outside of eating all the snacks I packed within the first half hour of a problem, and re-reading the directions on my bear spray). But Matt watches my live GPS feed of the hike, so that’s something, right?
When I arrived, the only other two cars at the trail head were leaving, so I had a pretty good feeling that I’d have the hike to myself.
Awesome, I can be slow and chill and check out the wildlife, I thought.
I’ve been trying to incorporate more mindfulness into my day for the past few years, and I rarely succeed. Something about mindfulness stresses me out, in part because I’m easily overstimulated so I just mindfully become aware of literally everything happening at once.
But, the research says that mindfulness should help depression and anxiety, and I generally trust science more than myself, so I persevere.
I figured that an empty trail would minimize noise and distractions in my attempt to be in the moment for an hour.
But about three minutes into my hike I noticed that it was very quiet. Like, is this the woods, or are the audio engineers in this horror movie fine-tuning the background noise to creep me out? I caught wind of a single screeching bird in the distance, and the occasional leaf rustle in an unidentifiable location.
Great, I’m going to be murdered, I thought, imagining how my parents would spend my entire funeral crying, yes, but also telling everyone how they told me not to go hiking–anywhere, ever. They’re pro exercise, but fervently anti-bear.
So then I realized that the pain of Matt having to listen to “we told her not to hike!” in perpetuity was probably worse than the pain of Matt actually losing me. So then I felt guilty for awhile.
I noticed some tracks in the mud nearby, and I pretended to be outdoorsy for a minute (while also pretending I wasn’t annoyed to find mud outside where I needed to walk).
Hmmmm…..clearly an animal has been through. These tracks are fresh. Yes, that’s right, I identified fresh dog tracks. With human footprints. And the human footprints were clearly made with shoes and not nearly large enough to be Bigfoot evidence.
Oh noo, what if I actually find a dead body instead? was my next thought. This was partially inspired by living outside D.C. where Chandra Levy was found in the woods by “a man walking his dog and looking for turtles in Rock Creek Park.” Because that was even more adorable than what I was doing, and he still managed to run into a dead body.
The remaining inspiration, of course, was every Law & Order episode that starts out with someone walking/running/hiking by themselves before being murdered or finding a dead body. Those are the only two options for SVU actors, and, I assume, everyone in the world.
What others might have considered a relaxing ambiance was, for some reason (probably my movie and television habits), unnerving to me.
As a card-carrying member of the OCD club, I’ve been trained to be very attuned to when my brain is acting up. I literally have a printed list of cognitive distortions that my therapist reminds me to refer back to, and I have gotten better at teasing out rational vs. irrational thoughts.
But being out in the wilderness, alone, my senses were naturally heightened.
So, about 25 minutes and two babbling brook crossings into the woods, I decided to head back to the car. I later checked my Fitbit and Strava summaries (gotta get that workout data!) and saw, unsurprisingly, that both my pace and heart rate picked up for the return trip. I was physically reacting to my brain’s anxiety.
Now, as a logical person, I’m convinced that I would have been perfectly fine if I continued on the trail for another 10-15 minutes as planned before turning around. But, in the woods, in the moment, I had to ask myself:
Am I letting my anxiety get the best of me, or am I ignoring thousands of years of human evolution by saying “it’s probably nothing?”
After all, the reason any of us exists today is because, at some point in human history, our ancestors said “something doesn’t feel right” and narrowly avoided being ambushed by another predator.
Even as a scientist, in fact I might argue especially as a scientist, it seems foolish to completely write off concerns when you’re alone in the woods.
If I had been with Matt or our regular group of hiking friends, I don’t think I would have noticed anything strange. If I had, I might have pointed it out to the rest of them, but then I would have felt comfortable as part of a group.
I think many women (and some men) have experienced similar feelings while out alone at night. Walking back to your car or apartment. Looking around to see if anyone’s watching you in the parking garage or following you on the sidewalk.
Is it paranoia? Or is it something we’re naturally tuned into–looking for signs that something is “off” in our environment when we’re most vulnerable?
So where is the line between anxiety and intuition? Is it better to err on the side of caution, or to not give in to your irrational mind in situations where there’s no credible threat to identify?
After all, no one wants to be the horror movie character who is acting like they’ve never seen a horror movie before.