What do you do when the activity you use for stress relief becomes the source of your stress?

If you’re new to the blog let me give you a quick background.  Until recently I had a love/hate relationship with hiking.  I hated hiking but I loved the places that hiking took me.

The Esplanade at the Grand Canyon
Havasu Falls

Last year two things happened that upgraded me from a reluctant hiker to a hiker.  One, I learned that after years of joking about it I really am allergic to exercise, in the form of exercise-induced asthma.  I was given an inhaler and though I still get winded easily I rarely have full-blown asthma attacks while hiking now.

Two, I joined the 52 Hike and 1oo Miles in 100 Days Challenges.  Because of my work schedule in order for me to complete these challenges I started hiking by myself.  Solo hiking was the ultimate game changer for me.  I could hike where I wanted, at whatever pace I wanted without feeling I like was holding someone back or like I needed to rush to keep up.  I soon realized that with regular hiking my stress levels drastically decreased.  Hiking became my therapy.

Hiking on my own terms

I’ve mentioned a few times but have never fully explained my absolute and debilitating phobia of snakes.  Much like my flying phobia I’m pretty aware of the origins of my snake phobia.  I never liked snakes, I don’t think too many little girls do, but I was never terrified of them until I was a teenager.  One day after school a girlfriend and I were hanging out with some guy friends and the guys house that we were at had a pet snake.  After hearing I didn’t like snakes the guys thought it would be funny to throw the snake on me, THREE times before I was able to get out of the house.  From there it went from bad to worse.  I dated a guy that had snakes, one in particular got out of its cage and went missing.  He moved in with me and six months after it had gone missing the snake jumped out of a speaker at me.  Unfortunately those are not the only stories I could tell, there are many, but those get the point across.  My phobia is so severe that I cannot even look at snakes on tv, in pictures, in cartoon, stuffed, or toy form without having a panic attack.  I almost passed out once in a first aid class when the other students started talking about their snake stories.  It’s that bad!

The problem here is that I live in the desert.  Snakes are a way of life in the desert.  I’ve known this since I started hiking, but had been very luck up to now and in five years of hiking had never see one.  When I hiked with the husband I was somewhat secure in the knowledge that because he hiked in front of me he would be the buffer between us.  When I started hiking solo I no longer had a buffer, so for the first time I started using a hiking pole, my snake stick as I call it.  My thought process is that if I came across a snake I could shoo it off the trail with the snake stick if I needed to or use is as a buffer between me and the snake if it tried to bite.

My snake stick

Fortunately, I started doing most of my solo hiking during the winter.  Snakes don’t come out in the winter, so it was all just practical thinking on my part.  Well, winter is over and snake sightings started a couple of months ago.  My anxiety and awareness levels increased a bit when someone I know posted about their snake sighting, but I was able to keep it in check until a couple of weeks ago.

I took the dog hiking in the Spur Cross Conservation Area and as soon as I checked in I was told there had been several snake sighting that day and to keep the dog close.  Before I even reached the trailhead I had two other groups of people also warn me about sightings.  I almost turned around and went home right then, but the dog loves hiking so much that I sucked it up and we continued.  I was on such high alert for my dogs safety for most of the hike that I wasn’t able to enjoy myself.  My shoulders were so tense that I gave myself a headache.  Three-quarters of the way through we sat and rested in the creek for a while and I was finally able to relax.

But from then on anytime I’ve hit the trail I’ve been on high alert and never able to relax and enjoy myself.  Instead of letting go of stress I was creating more.

Yesterday it finally happened.  I was on the trail and had just come to a three-way intersection and while I was looking at my trail map deciding which way to go I saw a snake crossing the trail.  I screamed and hauled ass backward several feet.  I can’t really tell you if I turned around and moved or if I moved backward.  I know you aren’t supposed to run from a snake, but this one wasn’t paying any attention to me, if it knew I was there to begin with, so there was no danger of it striking, and I wasn’t within striking distance to begin with.  And then I stood there, in the middle of the trail, frozen.  I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak, but I did somehow manage to text the husband.  I stood there frozen, with tears in my eyes, for at least five minutes.  During that time three other sets of hikers came by, I was so frozen I didn’t even warn them about the snake, but again is was moving off the trail in a different direction so they were in no danger.  I don’t know what kind of snake it was and in the grand scheme of things it was small, but that didn’t matter to me.  All that mattered was that is was.

As I stood there I contemplated turning around and not finishing my hike.  But I remembered being so angry that I let that snake in Belize stop me from jumping off the waterfall that I didn’t want to feel that way again.  So when I was finally able to move again, and it took several tries, I continued my hike.

In retrospect I shouldn’t have, I should have turned around and gone home.  Why do I say this?  Because from that moment on I was afraid.  Every noise that I heard was another snake.  Every lizard that ran out in front of me, and there were many, were snakes.  Every narrowing of the trail, and again there were many, were snake traps.  At one point I became so paralyzed with fear that I almost sat down in the middle of the trail and cried, but I was too scared another snake would come by.  I thought for a moment about calling my husband and asking him to come get me.  He would have.  But then I would have felt guilty about calling him out of work for something so silly.  I realize that my fear is irrational but that unfortunately does not make the fear go away.

So here I sit contemplating.  Is it possible to not hike through the summer months, most of the year in Arizona, and still reach my hiking goals.  I seem to be slightly less fearful when I hike with other people so maybe I should stop hiking solo, but I love hiking solo.  Maybe I should move to New Zealand, I hear there are no snakes there.

So what do you do when the activity you use for stress relief becomes the source of your stress?  I would love to hear your stories and how you worked through a solution.

 

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8 thoughts on “What do you do when the activity you use for stress relief becomes the source of your stress?

  1. I hike in AZ and have never seen a snake. I too have a snake phobia, but I do not let that paralyze me. I know to watch for them and to keep my distance. I hike with a dog and use trekking poles. I’m sure the noise we make helps turn a snake away. If I get up early (day break) and get on the trail before the sun rises, I can hike in the summer. I’m usually off trail by 8 or 9 am.

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  2. I do not have a phobia of bears – but I fear them in the forest when I’m hiking solo. I haven’t hiked a real trail since coming across two bear cubs a few summers ago 😦 on the other hand, we have few snakes and they’re not dangerous at all, so there’s that. I too keep thinking moving to New Zealand would be worth it for the hiking without bears thing. Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. I write quite a bit about fear and being outside of your comfort zone. I am a rock climber who is TERRIFIED of heights. The best way to deal with it is continued exposure. I feel you grow tremendously by forcing yourself to be outside of your comfort zone. One step at a time it’ll get easier and easier I promise :).

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    1. That is my method for most of my anxieties, but this snake one is especially difficult. I have found that group hikes lessen the anxiety a lot so I’ll have to stick with those until I get comfortable hiking alone again. Thanks for your input!

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  4. Thats a tough one mama! 1. Come see me in Flagstaff! We have fewer snakes at higher altitude. and 2. See if you can find a snake awareness clinic near you. I saw a presentation about rattlesnakes at our Arizona Trail annual meeting this year and it helped a TON to learn about snake behavior patterns. I feel much more confident about how to predict snake behavior. One of the biggest things I learned is that extremely popular trails are less likely to have snake sightings. The snakes are still there, but they know to expect people and generally avoid the trail during hours when people are common. So save your more remote hiking for the winter. Good luck mama!

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    1. Learning the behavior is a good idea. I do keep aware of the trails that have lots of sightings and I usually avoid those trails. I didn’t know that there are fewer snakes at higher elevation though, thanks for that tip!

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