Therapeutic Hiking isn’t Meant to be Social.
When my neural fatigue level is near its max, hiking is not a social activity. Even if I do the hike with an other person, it is mainly a therapeutic exercise. It takes effort. It requires focus. And I need to be mindful.
Last weekend, the suggestion to go for a hike did not thrill me. The activities of the first part of the weekend had put my neural fatigue at about 90%. While one part of me was hoping for a no answer, the other part of me knew that the repetitive physical activity and being outdoors would be therapeutic.
I should mention that the neural fatigue I experienced that day did not come as a surprise. I had been looking forward to having a couple visitors over night. The second day our house was the location for a Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for eighteen members of our extended family. Early into the second day my body gave me signals that I would have to limit my time being around that many people. I had hoped that two naps earlier in the day would help, but the signals persisted. To avoid the negative consequences of ignoring the signals my body was giving me, I felt compelled to miss the dinner. To participate in a structured activity within a confined space was clearly a recipe for trouble. I did not want a repeat of several previous experiences.
I agreed to the hike as my past experience has shown that repetitive physical activity has a way of relieving neural fatigue. Doing the repetitive physical activity in the outdoors with the brilliant colours of the maples and sumac in contrast to the conifers would be an uplifting experience.
The start of the hike was the hardest. What motivated me was anticipating the benefits at some point. Doing the hike requires neural activity. The neural fatigue meant my coordination was noticeably lacking, my balance was unpredictable despite the fairly even terrain, and my gait was irregular. My left arm was picking up the cadence of my walk fairly early in the hike. My right arm took much longer to get into the swing of it. My lack of coordination meant I had to be mindful of the occasional rough spots in the trail. All of this affected my starting pace which was about 3 km/hr.
When the hike is meant as a therapeutic activity, I’m not great company. If I feel compelled to carry on a conversation that would be adding to my neural fatigue, making the hike counter-productive or possibly even having to abort the hike. Even so, the first part of the hike increased my neural fatigue.
Towards the end of the hike I had been able to increase my pace to 8 km/hr. This was a clear indication that I had reduced my level of fatigue. The increase in my pace was not a straight line increase. Some early attempts to increase my pace took too much effort and so I found my self slowing down. Needless to say, my irregular pace doesn’t make me a very sociable hiking buddy.
I refuse to be apologetic about the apparent antisocial behaviour which I might exhibit while hiking. To be apologetic about that is as counter-productive as apologizing for being short, or apologizing for not being able to run while your leg is in a cast. A commitment to change is what is inherent for an apology to be sincere. So it doesn’t make sense to apologize for things one can’t change.
While some of my behaviour can be considered antisocial when my neural fatigue is high, I will make an effort to acknowledge other hikers as I meet them but I would fare better on trails where there are few hikers.
Exercising on a treadmill doesn’t have nearly the benefits or appeal of a hike. A treadmill provides the repetitive physical exercise but it is a monotonous repetition. Every step is identical and predictable. Also, the scenery doesn’t change when one walks on a treadmill. With a treadmill there is also the disadvantage of being locked indoors.
The one hour hike gave me the energy to be active for a few extra hours. That makes the hike a doubly rewarding activity.
Pondering the source of my anti-social hiking
All actions require brain activity, whether the actions be a reflex action or a carefully calculated action. All brain activity is done by use of neural pathways that communicate with different parts of the brain before sending messages that are translated into actions by way of our nervous system. The actions can be speaking, walking, waving etc. The neural pathways in the brain can be compared to the maze of streets in a major city.
With my acquired brain injury neural pathways in different parts of my brain were damaged (micro tears in different areas of the brain) making it impossible for brain signals to pass through certain areas. Just like a city with roads that are damaged and being repaired. The damaged roads create detours which lead to traffic jams where there previously hadn’t been any.
I am gradually gaining muscle tone. (Brain injury had a dramatic impact on that.) I have increased my physical endurance from biking five kilometers at a time last spring to fifty kilometers at a time recently. While my endurance for a fairly repetitive physical activity is improving, it is much harder to develop endurance for activities that require more demanding brain activity.
Being in a social setting is neurologically much more complicated than biking. In a social setting there are a host of sub-activities happening: listening, decoding sounds, interpreting tone, making eye contact, focusing, reading body language, reading other people’s body language, tracking the conversation, deciding what to respond to, formulating a response, finding an appropriate segway, remembering, etc. All these different sub-activities has the brain communicating with several different parts of the brain along a complex network of neural connectors.
With ABI the complexities of a social setting and the heavy neural activity is like a city with many detours. It makes all the different sub-activities much more demanding brain activity. Think of it as crisscrossing a city while regularly encountering detours without a map to redirect you.
When I’m in a social setting, no one can see my neural activity working double overtime. The congestion in my neural pathways quietly takes it’s toll. Neural fatigue subtly and sometimes not so subtly begins to set in.
If I ignore the fatigue because I want to be part of the action, the fatigue continues to build. Sometimes the fatigue builds unnoticed. Then once I’m away from the momentum of the social setting the fatigue can feel like hitting a wall. The longer I stay in the social setting the greater the level of neural fatigue builds, the longer it take to recuperate.
Over time I hope the neural ‘detours’ start to clear up. According to Norman Doidge, (The Brain’s Way of Healing) the brain had an amazing ability to heal itself. Part of the healing comes through intentional training.
Weight training produces incremental gains. One can’t expect to lift 300 pounds after one week of training. Early on, after experiencing ABI I was unaware of various social miscues that would happen. As I have time to heal, I experience incremental improvements in my ability to participate in social settings. I am able to participate for longer periods of time. I am able to gradually take in more complex social settings. A key factor is the level of neural fatigue I have before stepping into a social setting.