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What Is Campfire Therapy? 8 Tips For Mental Wellness In The Mountains

I have spent more than a decade working at the intersection of mental health, wellness, and outdoor recreation. In my desire to support other people, I often denied myself the kind of help I encouraged them to receive. It took me years to believe my problems were big enough and worthy enough to ask for help. Eventually, I realized I was using my service to others, and time outside, to distract myself from getting the help I needed. That help has sometimes meant the support of a professionally licensed therapist or social worker. Other times it has meant a long bike ride, or sitting around a campfire with friends, meditation, and learning to forgive myself, and others for actions taken.

Discerning what is needed and when to support our own mental health, as well as our family and communities is tough, but necessary. As we grow and live our life our needs change and our goals change. How we seek out and receive help, may also change. Be aware that what worked last year, may not this year.

There are however, some broad reminders and guidelines I would suggest can help you find the way that works for you, especially outside. If you are, however, every feeling like you may be a threat to yourself, or that you may be getting to a point where you do not think you can continue with life, please call or text 988 immediately to speak with the National Hotline for Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Prevention.

I would love your feedback as well on how these guidelines for getting and staying healthy outdoors land for you. Please tell me what you think of these guidelines. What has worked for you and what has not? 

Stacy Bare enjoys a powder day at Grand Targhee. | TGR photo.

1. Your health and happiness matter. You cannot give to others if you have nothing to give.

2. Outdoor recreation is good for your health. The data is clear. Being outside can boost your mood, lowers inflammation, lowers symptoms of general and post-traumatic stress, can improve your sleep, makes you more curious, and open to new information.

3. Setting and working towards goals can support your mental health. But if you only ever get outside to accomplish those goals, or tie your sense of self too closely to the achievement of those goals, you could be setting yourself up for pain. Give yourself rest days, fun days, and plenty of opportunity to stop and look around. If you are charging so hard in the outdoors you forget to see the beauty or miss a chance to experience awe, you may miss out on what makes time outside good for you!

4. Campfire therapy is a real thing. After a great day outside, time around the fire in a beautiful setting with our friends and family, gives us a sense of safety, openness and vulnerability. We may share big emotions, sadness, joy, love, and gratitude. Anecdotally, many people have epiphanies or make important life decisions around, or on reflection of their time around the campfire.

5. Campfire therapy has limits. We can get so caught up in the joy and warmth of the campfire, we may push too far in our desire to help. Things may come up for you that you need help processing in a way your friends are not trained to do—and the same for them. That is ok. Listen, be honest about your limitations, and seek professional help if you believe it is warranted. Avoid telling people what to do. Offer up instead, if consent is given, what you might do or have done in a similar situation.

6. Formal therapy has a lot of value for most people. Finding the right approach and the right therapist however, can be a challenge. It is ok if your first few attempts at therapy, or in finding a therapist do not work. There are multiple resources out there to help you find a therapist and therapeutic approach that works for you. You do not have to have the same therapist forever. Therapists, and types of therapy come and go for the different phases and challenges in your life.

7. Bad days happen. Sometimes, what is going on in your life may not be part of a larger, traumatic pattern. Sometimes it might be. Learning to discern what is happening and the appropriate approach is part of the work I often get wrong. This is where having a trusted group of friends is so important to seek out multiple points of view on finding the approach that works best for you.

8. In any relationship, for adventure, therapy, romance, sponsorship, or beyond, with a person, group, team, or even a sport, make sure you check in to ask yourself, is this working for me, what do I want, is there room for my thoughts and experience to matter, can I safely dissent? If any of the answers turn up no, it is time to make a change or walk away!

Stacy Bare is currently the Executive Director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks where he puts to practice the lessons of a healthier world outdoors by working with the community and city to plant, grow, and maintain parks, trees, and trails to ensure residents have access to the world’s best parks and recreation system! A resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan where he skis, paddles, camps, and bikes, he is also a husband, father, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, military veteran, and has notable backcountry ski descents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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