How to Deal With Anxiety When Hiking at High Elevation

Got a taste for adventure but worried about what will happen when you climb higher than you’re used to? Anxiety about elevation is common, so we’ve got some great tips to help you get over your fear and conquer new heights!

Before we dive in, you need to know why your body reacts the way it does, and the science behind the sensation.

The Effects of Altitude

Depending on the individual, hiking at high altitudes can sometime play havoc with your body, especially if you’re not used to the elevation or exercising at such a height. The reason for this is a medical condition called hypoxia. Essentially, this is when you don’t have enough oxygen circulating in your body.

At high altitudes, the air has less barometric pressure, making it feel lighter or thinner when you breathe. There is actually less oxygen to breathe in when you’re at higher altitudes. This means that with each breath in, you’re taking in less oxygen than your body is used to. With less oxygen in your body, you’ll find just about any activity harder to do.

When hiking at a high altitude, you have to take this into consideration. For some people, it may just make you feel a little dizzy or lightheaded until you acclimatize properly. However, for some, it can be quite a physical ordeal. You need to look at your planned route and work out if you need to spend time at a base camp to prepare your body before you exert yourself on the hike.

high elevation hiking

Common Symptoms Of High Altitude Environments

It’s good to know what to look out for if you’re going on a high altitude hike, especially if you live and workout at sea level or closer to it. These are the most common symptoms you’re likely to experience:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Breathlessness
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Insomnia
  • Spikes in your heart rate

The more gradual your introduction to high altitudes, the easier it’ll be on your body.

If you’re planning a major hike that will take several days, or even if you’re going to do an intense one-day hike at a high altitude, you need to give your body time to acclimatize. Incorporate this into your hiking training and arrive at the starting point a few days early. This gives your body a chance to get used to the altitude.

Start with a few short exertions every day. After doing this, you should be able to face the hike more confidently.

stay hydrated while hiking

Why You Can Feel Anxiety At High Altitudes

A major issue that many people come up against when dealing with high altitudes is that of anxiety. It can simply be a low level of anxiety that’s with you throughout the hike, or it can cause full-on panic attacks. This isn’t something that you should ignore or try to push through because the anxiety is linked to a lack of oxygen in your body.

Low-level anxiety that’s triggered by a workout is caused by your body working harder to get oxygen pumped through it. This means that your heart rate is higher, even when at rest, when you’re at a high altitude. This persistently higher heart rate causes your brain to feel anxious and on high alert.

This is not too concerning, but the problem is that it can lead to panic or anxiety attacks. You need to be aware of what is causing the anxiety so that you can prevent such attacks, or at least talk yourself down from them.

3 Causes Of Anxiety Attacks When Hiking At High Altitudes

The high heart rate and the lack of oxygen can lead to some severe reactions. While the reactions are emotional and mental, they’re caused by very real symptoms of exercising at high altitudes. Doctors have broken the causes of anxiety attacks into these three segments:

  1. Hyperventilation – The lack of oxygen in the air can cause you to start breathing heavily when exercising. This can quickly spiral into hyperventilation as your brain starts to panic that there isn’t enough oxygen coming into the body.
  2. False Feelings Of Suffocation – In a similar way that the body starts to hyperventilate and panic, it can also make you feel you are actually suffocating. During a panic attack, your airways constrict and you can’t physically breathe in properly anymore.
  3. Cognitive Misinterpretation – With an elevated heart rate and feeling like you’re struggling to breathe, your brain could misinterpret the situation you’re in as dangerous. This triggers your fight or flight mode and floods your body with adrenaline.

How To Deal With The Anxiety While Hiking

●   Know That It’s Completely Normal – The first thing to acknowledge is that experiencing some kind of anxiety on a high-altitude hike is normal and if it happens to you, you are not alone. You are doing something that is unknown to you—your first high-altitude hike—and this will cause anxiety. On top of that, the lower oxygen levels in the air will not help. It’s important to accept that you are normal if you have anxiety while out on the trails.

●   Prepare Yourself For The Possibility – The next step is to prepare for how you will cope with the anxiety if/when it hits, especially if you are prone to anxiety in your everyday life. A panic attack is never fun, and it’s even worse when your body is physically unable to get proper levels of oxygen because of the altitude. Take some time to think about what the signs of a panic attack look and feel like so you can recognize them in yourself. Practice some techniques that will help to calm your mind and ease the attack or even ease the low levels of anxiety so you don’t reach attack levels. Strong meditation and breathing techniques are the perfect addition to your hiking training.

●   Remember That You Can Rely On Your Body – You’ve trained hard for your hike and your body is ready for the physical strain, even if your mind is telling you it’s not. Your cardio or weightlifting program will have improved the anaerobic capacity of your muscles, and strengthened them to better support your weight. When anxiety kicks in, remind yourself of this, and know that your body has the power to carry you through.

●   Speak up – There’s a reason solo hiking isn’t advisable, especially at high altitudes. If you’re feeling unwell or anxious, tell your hiking partners. They’re there to support you too—just like you’d support them. A brief rest with a supportive group of chicks will help you regain your mental balance and calm your fears.

●   Do Your Research On Your Route – Another area that can cause anxiety is the unknown. If you’re feeling low levels of anxiety because of the high altitude, you can find that not knowing what’s coming next on your hike can exacerbate things. Have a route map and a description with you at all times so that you can refer to it when you take a break.

High altitude hiking is amazing—but the anxiety it can bring isn’t. Use these tips to make sure you feel relaxed and confident, and if you’re struggling, ask one of your gal pals to help you calm down and breathe. After all, we Explorer Chicks are loaded with characteristics of a strong woman. We’ve accomplished SO much in our lives already (yes, YOU). Root yourself in this truth and kick ass the next time you’re climbing high peaks!

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