Read Part 1 here: ‘Limbic Lies – why my brain tells me I can’t navigate’
In this post I share about a recent fear inducing experience of loosing my tent on a dark night. As a counsellor I have a basic understanding of how my brain works. This helped me to act rationally despite being gripped by fear.
“Crap. It should be here. Where is it?
How long have I got before the cold kicks in?
Why isn’t it here?”
This is the story that my ego and pride don’t want to tell you. But in the telling, I hope to convey some useful information and tools to help soothe a stressed mind.
It’s the story of how, on a dark, wet winter’s night, I lost my tent in a remote, wild Highland glen.
Story one. Are you sitting comfortably?
I’m in the Fannichs, a mountainous area west of Inverness, on the Ullapool road. It’s a windy Saturday evening, unseasonably mild for February. It’s 6pm and darkness has descended. I’ve found shelter for my tent behind a grassy knoll, near the Loch, looking out onto the ‘witches hat’ like peak of Sgurr Mor.
A small small hill near me looks enticing. I decide to practice some night navigation before bunkering down for the night. At 600 meters elevation there’s a fierce south westerly.
I’m here to test out my new super light weight tent – a single Nemo Hornet – that I’ve bought for my Pacific Crest Trail adventure. But I’m also here because I’ve felt the familiar pull to wild camp alone again. The winter’s felt long and I’ve missed camping out.
I take my pack, map and compass and walk on a bearing to an attack point north of me. I reach that point and take a bearing to the summit. It’s not an obvious summit so I use my phone GPS to confirm I’m there.
I’m exactly there – all good.
I find a contour feature on the map, about 500 meters away in a south easterly direction. I’m practicing my pacing as I walk on a bearing to get there. Again, all good – I find it.
Ha, maybe I’m getting the hang of this navigation lark?
It starts to rain lightly so I head back down towards my tent. I clamber down the rough terrain and expect to see my tent in front of me.
It’s not there.
I didn’t take a bearing of my tent location before I left because I felt it was in such an obvious location – behind the knoll, beside the river which feeds into the loch.
I must just be a few meters away.
The rain’s getting heavier and I don’t want to waste time stopping to put my water proofs on. I’m confident I’ll find my tent in a minute.
Time passes and I’m wandering back and forth, feeling confused as to why it isn’t where it should be.
My phone isn’t good in the rain, so I need to use it wisely.
I open up my GPS app and plot where I think I’ve camped and then locate where I am. It makes no sense, I’m practically there.
I can hear the river beside me and I know it leads into the loch.
And so, I keep looking, shining my head torch into the darkness.
My heart leaps as I think I see it and then realise it’s a rock.
My hearts beating faster now. I’m soaked.
I wonder how much time I’ve got left before I get cold.
I’ve an emergency survival bag in my backpack and I wonder if I’ll need to wrap it around me and hunker down for the night. I also remember passing a small animal shelter about 3km down the track. That’s another option for shelter. Or I could walk back to the road.
Each of these options would mean a long and miserably cold night for me. I’m fairly confident I’ll survive but the shame I’ll feel when people find me is too much.
And then a story pops into my mind.
Story two. A story within my story.
In August 2013 Geraldine Largay left the main path of Appalachian Trail to go to the toilet.
Afterwards she tried to re-joined the trail but she became disorientated and lost. After wandering around for a few hours, she made camp in the woods and hoped to be rescued.
Tragically her remains were found in her sleeping bag two years later.
Her journal was found with her bones. She had journaled for 26 days before she died of exposure and starvation.
Apparently she had no compass, no GPS and a poor sense of direction. Her mobile phone had no signal.
When I read of Geraldine’s tragic story a few months ago, the journalist made the point that her story doesn’t mean she would have stayed safe at home but rather more of us need to experience trails and hiking at a young age, we need to learn what to do when we get lost.
And here I was. Not lost as such – but with a lost tent – trying to work out what to do.
My thoughts jump back to the present.
“Shona you are such an idiot.
How could you have got yourself into this situation? You got way too cocky.
They were right to doubt me.
And what were you thinking telling people you are going to hike the PCT? “
And then hear myself whispering:
“Shhhhh shhhh, stay calm. It’s going to be alright.
You know where you are right now, and the tent can’t be far.
Stop giving yourself a hard time.
I went on like this a bit longer – alternating between harsh self-talk and self-soothing kindness.
I can’t work out exactly how long I was looking for but I’m guessing about 20 minutes.
After taking deep breaths, walking a bit more, to my JOY my torch beam hit upon my tent.
I was soaking wet but the first thing I did was take a massive pee! I’d been holding it in as it didn’t feel important until now.
I’ve never been so glad to unzip a tent door as I was that night.
I took of my wet clothes in the porch and crawled in. I put on what dry ones I had left and huddled into my sleeping bag. I boiled water on my mini stove to make dinner. Everything was going to be okay.
** Once in my tent I marked my location on my GPS. As you can see from the photo it was less than 10 meters from where I thought it was. But 10 meters in the dark is a long way.
I also noted that my new tent had no reflective markings.
Three big learnings for me from this incident were
1) Always take an exact location of my tent if I’m leaving it in the night.
2) Have a light in, or light reflectors, on my tent.
3) When it starts raining put on water proofs, no matter how near to base I think I am.
What was going on in my wee brain during this little epic?
As I shared in Part 1 of this blog, ‘Limbic Lies – why my brain tells me I can’t navigate’, our brains can be broken up into three main parts:
- Our brain’s oldest part is the brain stem – it controls our basic bodily functions.
- The limbic region is the older part of the brain. It’s reactive, it’s the source of our emotions. It acts quickly and can also act on autopilot to ensure our survival. The limbic part of the brain is where the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus are housed.
- The neo cortex is the thinking, aware part of the brain. It’s flexible in its ability to respond. It enables us to self‐reflect and to rationally assess what’s going on in a particular moment.
When I realised I couldn’t find my tent my limbic brain would have been firing pretty rapidly. My amygdala would have been triggered, and it would have released the stress hormones, including cortisol, making it hard for me to think clearly. (Evidence that this happened was that I found it very hard to unwind and sleep that night).
I was rightly worried about my safety. My mind even recalled the Geraldine Largay story, maybe as a warning.
The judgemental left side of my neo cortex was likely firing as I was thinking in quite a harsh and judgemental way. But amidst this self-judgement and limbic firing, I was able to remember the importance of staying as conscious and mindful as possible.
When I noticed panicky feelings, I spoke kindly and soothingly to myself. The wise part of my brain, within my neo cortex, helped me to slow my racing thoughts down.
By engaging this part of my mind, I was able to create a pause between stimulus (I’m lost) and response (panic), and into that space I could see more clearly and respond more effectively.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” (Victor Frankl).
Had this happened a few years ago I might have been in more danger as I didn’t yet have these self-soothing skills. I may have gone into full panic mode. I wasn’t as mindful, I wasn’t as aware of my thinking.
Having a basic understanding of how my brain works helped me to act reasonably rationally despite being gripped by fear. Do you find it hard to regulate your emotions and to think rationally when under stress? I hope you can learn from my story.
Would you like some help with learning how to manage your thoughts and feelings? Or to do more things that are important to you, even when they scare you? Find out more about counselling or life coaching with me here.