According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 133 million Americans suffer from at least one chronic condition and about 1 in 10 have at least two. A chronic condition is one that lasts a year or more and requires ongoing medical attention or limits activities of daily living or both. Some common chronic conditions include heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and arthritis.
I’m challenged by multiple chronic conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a musculoskeletal issue that causes chronic pain. I’m also a nature lover. So, I’m well aware that awesome outdoor adventures naturally require thorough planning and when we have chronic conditions it exponentially increases the details we’ll need to consider. Simply thinking about those details can be so overwhelming and anxiety producing that we give up. If we do get through the planning, our fear of the worst case scenario can keep us from truly enjoying ourselves in the moment.
As I prepare for an upcoming camping trip I’m not just gathering all my camping gear, I’m making a plan for my chronic pain and restrictive diet. Since being in a car is painful after a few minutes and I experience migraines that often require an emergency room visit, there’s some significant planning to do. Fulfilling our outdoor adventure dreams while dealing with chronic conditions can be down-right frightening, but we can’t miss out on the mental and physical health benefits of being in nature and living our dreams.
With more than two-decades of life with chronic pain behind me, I’ve become an expert at the thinking, planning, and bravery it takes to get outdoors with chronic conditions. Now I’m sharing the top three strategies I’ve used to enjoy outdoor adventures with chronic conditions. It’s work, so get ready, but the reward is the adventure of your dreams.
1. Be Open to Being Surprised
With chronic conditions, it’s easy to think of the things we should avoid in order to feel good. It’s comforting to think, if we just don’t perform a specific activity (like sitting in the car for long periods), we won’t experience pain and discomfort (like muscle spasms). It’s called avoiding and although it can result in some protection, it will almost surely result in a failure to reach our potential.
Using phrases like “ I can’t” or “I don’t” regarding our chronic conditions is extremely limiting and they aren’t always completely true. Yes, we have real limitations, but can we try? Have we done this before and failed? Is there something different we can do this time? When someone proposes something that usually triggers pain or PTSD symptoms for me, I like to say “that would be difficult for me” and make an alternative suggestion. This response leaves the possibility open but sets an understanding of my situation.
When planning my outdoor adventures, I take a similar approach. Instead of assuming I can’t take a long car ride to an adventure, I admit it would be difficult for me. Then I identify the challenges, research the solutions, and make a plan. It took many experiences of truly enjoying myself despite reaching outside of what I thought were the limitations of my chronic conditions to truly learn the true power of this phrase.
Before your trip, take a moment to recognize that positive experiences can change how we physically feel. We’ve learned a great deal in recent years about the mind-body connection. We know our minds influence our bodies. For example, if we think of something stressful we may begin feeling tension in our shoulders and neck. The good news is, when our mind has positive experiences like being outdoors with family and friends it influences our body in a positive way.
After traveling to my sister’s wedding, my mother and I both noticed how good we physically felt while we were away. Despite the discomfort of travel and sleeping in a strange bed, we didn’t have much pain or experience any digestive issues, like usual. We realized it was just that healing to be surrounded by nearly all of our family for four days of celebration.
The same phenomenon occurred on a recent trip to Los Angeles and Palm Springs. There were many challenges to face as we were trying to stuff several visits into a 3-day weekend, but I felt wonderful. Once home, I could only attribute the absence of my usual pain to the joys of surrounding myself with loved ones. I still had a plan for all the challenges that could arise, they just didn’t come up. So, plan for challenges, but expect the best.
2. Imagine the Challenges, Research and Plan for Solutions
If your mind is busy with a million “what if” questions, take some time to answer them. Do your best to imagine the reasonable challenges you’ll face. Then do some research and plan a solution. Once you have a plan, you can let the negative scenarios go. Could things come up that you couldn’t have imagined? Yes, but here’s where you trust in your abilities to respond in that moment. Know that you have everything you need to get yourself through the unexpected.
One issue that challenged my outdoor plans was the fact that each night I sleep with a heating pad in order to avoid muscle spasms. After a quick web search I discovered a heating pad I could charge in my car. It’s worked perfectly for all my outdoor adventures. Now it’s a regular part of my outdoor gear and anxiety over sleeping isn’t holding space in my mind. It doesn’t eliminate the possibility that I could have a bad headache and need to be rushed to the emergency room. That could still happen, but in the meantime I’ll be enjoying my camping trip.
3. Build on Positive Experiences
Each time we avoid a behavior that we find difficult (but is actually safe), we reinforce our belief that our avoidance makes us safe. When we can perform that behavior despite our fears, we reinforce our belief that this behavior is actually safe. Each time we have a positive experience performing the behavior it can make future attempts less difficult for us. This all happens thanks to neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections.
To take full advantage of this, create mindful experiences on your adventure to recall when you’re back home, planning your next adventure. Try to engage all of your senses and ask questions. Crush a leaf between your fingers to see if you can smell it. Look for something you’ve never seen. Touch something that looks interesting; nature makes some amazingly intricate patterns.
Author and naturalist John Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” In this way, experiencing the interconnectedness of nature makes our mind’s curiosity go viral. It’s not having the answers that’s important, but rather the practice of letting your mind lose to wonder.
To make your outdoor adventure dreams come true, be open to amazing things happening. Don’t miss out on the benefits of nature, instead identify your challenges. Then research possible solutions and make a plan. Finally, build on the positive experiences you create. Be present in the moment while on your adventure and use your positive experience to create another. Reconsider what is possible for you.