It’s expected. It’s written about, talked about, advised about.. lamented to anyone who would understand (ie:other hikers) .. When you do a long trail, word is you’re going to suffer a bit after you return home. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does to enough people that I would classify it as a genuine phenomena. There have been hikers very crippled with depression, exhaustion, and anxiety post-trail, recklessly making as many changes as they can in their lives to remedy their intolerable states of being.There have been some that have taken their own life. It’s real and it’s difficult. And it goes beyond the scope of just needing some friendly support to get through it (though of course that is also critical).
I went through it after doing the 890 mile Arizona Trail. I was busy enough on my return home, being a business owner and keeper of labor-intensive parrots as well as preparing for a move to Scotland, that I could distract myself away from the despair of it. With time (and new excitement), I recovered. In 2012 I went through it very majorly after walking 700 miles of the PCT and then suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhagic stroke. It was my first experience of having a crippling level of alternating depression and anxiety. I was told it was par for the course with strokes and expected it. It didn’t necessarily make it easier, but it at least kept me from attaching a “story” to the sadness and to let it heal as a purely physical problem, like having the flu for a long long time. I recovered.
It happened again after my 2013 thru-hike of the PCT. I immediately feared that I had created some sort of regression in my stroke recovery by exerting an insane amount of stress on my body by hiking for six months, but that didn’t make any sense. I was fine on the trail. If I were regressing, it would’ve happened on trail. But the exhaustion and depression felt extremely similar to my state of being after the stroke and I declared it chemical. I started to research it and developed a theory about it, and a way of dealing with it.
Thru-hiking a long trail is the equivalent of running a full marathon every single day for six months. It’s an enormous amount of exertion and exhilaration maintained for a long enough period of time that the body begins to compensate for it chemically, the general pattern being that the stimulus triggers oversecretion and/or overproduction of a neurotransmitter or hormone. To maintain homeostasis, the nervous system and/or endocrine system reduces the number (or in some cases sensitivity) of receptor sites. Whatever the hormone or neurotransmitter is supposed to do, it does less of. We become tolerant of the endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline, etc. We would need more of the same stimulus to get the same feeling or physiological effect. And when we get off-trail, our receptors are so desensitized that normal levels of activity won’t create even a feeling of okayness, let alone the exhilaration we’ve been used to for six months. Time will re-sensitize those receptors, but there are things to do in the meantime so you don’t suffer in the process. Here is what helped me.
First and most important were the things that take effort, not easy when you don’t want to get out of bed. These were the standard depression advice strategies that worked for me:
- Eat very very well. Salmon, berries, dark greens, kefir, black beans, etc. Stay AWAY from excessive sugar and alcohol.
- Exercise. Like crazy. Outside.
- Sleep. Like crazy. (outside is nice here too)
- Be around people that have that twinkle you’ve come to love in fellow hikers. Better yet, be around fellow hikers.
- Realize that you are not crazy, permanently impaired, dysfunctional, or somehow not able to cope with societal world relationships, careers, and demands. Realize that you are dealing with a mostly physical condition and don’t attach a “story” to it. Keep it as unemotional as you can possibly manage. Long trails in the wilderness are life-changing experiences, and you will not lose that life-change if you relax and wait until you feel more normal before making extreme decisions about who you are and what you’re going to do. You are changed. Let yourself heal before you express that change.
Okay, all that is simply not enough. I’m sure because I tried it. But what made it enough was the addition of some hardcore supplementation. I went from “awful” to “excellent” VERY quickly once I got the right formula down. As time goes on I will begin to omit things from daily use, as I have no desire to create dependency, psychological or actual. But I am helped .. and able to be enthusiastic about all of the amazing experiences I just had and who I am because of it, instead of rolling around in bed hoping I get enough energy to take a shower this day. It’s priceless. I offer my regime in hopes that it will inspire you to do some research and experimentation of your own. My body is wayyyyy different from yours. For example, I’m extremely sensitive to stuff. And I had a brain hemorrhage a couple of years ago so my chemistry is a little different. Doing some forum stalking and reading about “nootropics” and “dopaminergics” will get you started. I’ve spent HOURS. And here’s what works for me:
In the AM before food but with coffee:
- 500 mg ALCAR (L-Carnitine)
Morning with food:
- 2 Omega 3 Oil capsules
- Source of Life Food-Source Vitamins (high B vitamins)
- 500 mg Ashwaganda
- 250 mg rhodiola rosea
- 350 mg N- Acetyl-Tyrosine
- 250 mg Aniracetam (there are MANY racetams, this one works the best for me and this is a very low dose)
- 350 mg Alpha-GPC (this or another choline source should be taken with racetams)
- 200 mg Phosphatidyl serine
Afternoon with food:
- I repeat everything but the Aniracetam and the Alpha-GPC because they stimulate me too much
Night before bed:
- 325 mg Magnesium powder
- 3 mg. melatonin
- 200 mg 5-HTP
- 300 mg sulbutiamine
I have other things to experiment with, but approach it very cautiously. Because something isn’t a prescription only substance doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful or potentially synergistic with other things in dangerous ways. I cross reference everything before giving it a test run. I am positive that it supports being a healthy happy person (even outside of the wilderness) way better than antidepressants would.
Explore and comment please. I’m still in the discovery phase.
PS- Most of these supplements can be purchased very inexpensively from Health Supplement Wholesalers. No, they aren’t paying me to tell you that.