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“If You Go Down to the Woods”: 4 Ways to Deal with Fears of the Unknown Out in Nature

A leafy pathway through a misty wood – peaceful or daunting?
Getty Images / Image by Chris Winsor

If you ask a search engine for easy ways to improve mental health, many responses will have "spending time in nature" near the top of their lists. But what if spending time in nature is a problem in itself? Many of us have lingering fears of the dark, getting lost, or being caught off-guard. Being out in the wilderness (even if it's walking in the woods close to home) can amplify those fears and cause us stress. Living with anxiety, Claire Eastham explores the panic of being in an unfamiliar environment, even if she rationally knows she is safe. Read her coping strategies for overcoming nature-related anxiety in four self-paced steps.

"I don't like this. I need to get out! A shark could get me, and I'd have no way to escape. It could bite my leg off or drag me down to the depths. What was that? Did something brush against my leg? I'm freaking out; I can't breathe!"

You'd think I was having these thoughts in some part of the Indian Ocean, the coast of Australia, or at least on a beach in Spain. But I was panicking about sharks in none other than the picturesque Lake District, nestled in the mild English countryside. It was during a wild swimming session, and I was next to several other women in luminous swimming caps. I've never heard of great whites getting spotted in Windermere, but that didn't stop me from spiralling to the point of almost having a panic attack.

I've been afraid of open water since the age of nineteen. I fell off a jet ski and had to swim over a dark patch to return to the boat. I switched from having fun to feeling vulnerable and exposed. I knew the dark patch was seaweed and nothing bad would happen, but no amount of rationality would drown out the WHAT IFs going off in my head. After several failed attempts to swim over it, my dad had to jump in and help.

Do I have a nature-related phobia? Or is it something else?

This has been a repeated pattern over the years. I only go into the sea up to my waist (I foolishly reckon I could outrun a shark). I won't go on peddle boats no matter how "fun" they look, and I don't even like being the only person in a swimming pool! Thalassophobia is the official name for an intense fear of large bodies of water. While I don't have the phobia, I definitely feel anxious about the thought of open water.

After two years of being stuck inside during the lockdown, the return to the outdoors has been well-documented on social media featuring groups of people wild swimming in lakes, rambling in woodlands, climbing, and camping. Although spiritual, some people (me included) can feel on edge when it comes to Mother Nature. She can, after all, be unpredictable.

Nature and fear of the unknown

While films such as "Jaws" or "The Shallows" don't help, my discomfort in open water can be traced back to one thing: a fear of the unknown. Like the dark, I don't like open water because of the "hidden" and "mysterious" element. Martin Antony is a Psychology Professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the author of "The Anti-Anxiety Program." He argues that most things that make us uneasy are seen as unpredictable and out of our control. As humans, we don't like being caught off guard.

My friend recently admitted she doesn't like taking her dogs for a walk when staying at her girlfriend's house. She finds the local woods near her place daunting.

She's right - the trees are so dense I can't see what's around me. I feel like a bear or a serial killer could come running out of the woods without warning!

This thought process is evolutionary to a certain extent. Plenty of modern humans' thought patterns are the residue of survival instincts we needed long ago; the brain constantly assesses our environments to help us pre-empt and avoid potential threats.

Nicholas Carleton, a psychology professor at the University of Regina, Canada, confirms this theory. Treating unknowns as potential threats would have been adaptive - as long as the associated anxiety did not compromise essential activities such as seeking food and shelter or selecting mates. In a nutshell, if we can't determine the safety of our environment, this lack of control can cause anxiety.

4 Coping strategies when dealing with "nature anxiety"

Unless you work with nature somehow, "nature anxiety" is less likely to become a daily problem. That said, you can still take steps to feel more comfortable in the great outdoors.

1. Determine the root of your fear of the outdoors

Allow yourself to think about past panic-inducing experiences, even if you feel nervous or embarrassed. Drill down and try to figure out what made you uncomfortable.

I realized my overlying fear of hiking in a forest or wild swimming was of something touching or grabbing my legs. See - fear of the unknown was making me assume the worst of my surroundings!

Once I isolated this, I could work on making myself feel more secure. I've even asked friends to touch me randomly as we walk to help acclimatize me.

2. Communicate your fears and find solutions with loved ones

All mental health concerns are valid. No matter your age, there's no need to be ashamed of what makes you anxious.

Fifty years old and hate the dark? Own it! Let others help you by telling them how you feel. For example, you could sleep with a lamp on at night while your partner uses a sleep mask. Or, if you're camping, make sure your tent has a battery-operated night light.

3. Expose yourself to environments that make you anxious

This involves exposing yourself to anxiety-inducing situations in controlled steps. When we fear something, known or unknown, we may go out of our way to avoid anything that could trigger panic, making the fear even worse. Exposure may help you break these avoidant patterns.

For example, if you're dying to go wild swimming but are terrified of open water, don't force yourself to "suck it up" and hurl yourself into the nearest lake!

Start by swimming in an outdoor pool or paddling in the shallows as you watch your friends swim. Once you feel more comfortable, take things up a gear. Try sitting in the water rather than standing, and so on.

4. Develop strategies to help you feel secure during outdoor activities

Focus on the things you CAN control when out in nature. For example, if, like my friend, you need to walk the dogs in a wooded area, make sure someone else knows where you are (or, better yet, ask them to come with you). Likewise, if the silence is freaking you out and you have a signal, why not call someone and chat as you walk?

If you've been guilted into going for a ramble in the hills, make sure you set a time and know the route in advance. Remember to wear comfortable shoes, explain to any super-fast walkers that you'd rather everyone stay together as a group, and have a reward waiting for you once it's over.
Mother Nature is a powerful force humans can't always control; there's no shame in feeling overwhelmed by her. Just ensure it doesn't stop you from having fun and enjoying life.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen​. 

NPS-ALL-NP-00931 JUNE 2023

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