Beating the Blues – one hunt at a time

Scott Heiman offers up the perfect cure for what ails you

As the past few years have demonstrated, stress is unavoidable. We’ve faced a global pandemic, cost of living leaping to an all-time high and rent hikes increasing homelessness. On top of that you can throw in natural disasters like floods, cyclones and bushfires along with manmade tragedies like the war in Ukraine and the rate of veteran suicides doubling from the ‘norm’ following Australia’s withdrawal from our longest war. Stress is a common and normal physical response to challenging or new situations. While some stress can be beneficial, too much of it can be harmful. So now, more than ever, it’s important to understand stress and how we can manage it.

Government health services and universities across the globe generally agree on a variety of ways to cope with the adverse impacts of stress ranging from fatigue and worry, through to more severe issues such as burnout, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among these strategies are:

  • Recognise and counter signs of stress
  • Join a support group
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs, including caffeine
  • Adjust your diet and eat well
  • Practice relaxation techniques
  • Pursue outdoor activities and exercise
  • Confide in a person you trust
  • Spend time with positive people
  • Enjoy the peace of nature.

While it may be tempting to dismiss good advice because it gets in the way of our normal routine, as hunters we’re in a great position to tackle stress head on. That’s because we practice a good number of these coping mechanisms when we get outdoors and do what we enjoy best. Hunting combines social benefits, physical activity, nutritional advantages and mental stimulation. All of this contributes to our mental wellbeing and resilience.

Positive terminal

While humans are a social beast, we need time away from the masses. Ninety percent of the Australian population lives within 100km of the east coast, between Melbourne and Rockhampton. Of these, 70 per cent live within 50km of a city centre. That’s a lot of people clustered within a relatively small geographic area. And for a lover of the great outdoors, living in such an environment can be an anxiety-inducing experience.

Stressful conditions elevate our blood pressure and heart rate, create muscle tension and suppress our immune systems. By contrast, studies show that time spent in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety, improve our mood, and boost feelings of happiness and wellbeing. For example, Harvard University has shown that a simple 20 minutes spent immersed in nature can reduce stress hormone levels. These same studies show that exposure to nature not only makes us feel better emotionally, but it also reduces blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension.

Now reflect on how we feel when we head out hunting… Many of us arrive at our favourite hunting property and don’t even hunt on the first day. Instead, we set up camp, chat with our hunting buddies and settle into our surroundings.

There are a number of reasons that we begin to feel better even before we’ve put on our cams. For one, the closer we are to nature, the further we are from those who inevitably impinge on our day-to-day lives. Also, there’s a really positive power in sharing views, passions and problems with trusted individuals. They understand us more than we think, and the mental relief we get from opening up to them is almost always therapeutic.

Once we get on the hunt, the stress busting continues. We feel better for the time spent, regardless of whether we’ve filled a freezer, taken a PB trophy or simply walked the boundary fence looking for sign. And never underestimate the socio and psychological benefits to both you and your kids of a morning’s stalk. Just think about how great it feels to hold a youngling’s hand, pointing out the subtle differences between a goat, pig or deer tracks. Immersion into nature is something we need as a human species. It’s that simple.

Heavy weight

Now, let’s look at that devilish word ‘exercise’. The Department of Health recommends that, over a week, adults should get 2.5-5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity and 1.25-2.5 hours of vigorous intensity physical activity. This level of movement assists in mitigating stress, helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and improves blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. It also helps with weight loss and muscle strengthening.

These outcomes, and more, can be achieved in the pursuit of a target species. That’s because hunting is an all-round training activity that engages every bone, nerve and muscle in your body. Consider the energy you use over many hours of carrying your bow, rifle and backpack while on the hunt. Even loading the car in preparation for a trip away gets you off your butt and on your feet.

Importantly, hunting helps clear the brain. This is because a mix of moderate (walking and stalking) and intensive (skinning, butchering and carrying it out) exercise helps reduce stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are your body’s feelgood painkillers and mood elevators. These chemical benefits are just part of the reason why you feel good about a hunt, even if you come home empty-handed.

Tasty treats

There’s a direct correlation between stress management and eating well. A great policy is ‘moderation in all things’ and ‘eating the rainbow’, which means eating a little bit of everything and maximising the colours within food choices. It’s an approach that works well when tackling stress. That’s because people experiencing chronic stress tend to crave more fatty, salty and sugary foods which can lead to increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. Happily, there are plenty of opportunities to improve our diet both while we’re out hunting and once we get our harvest home.

It’s not hard to keep a cap on the junk food when we head out scrub. Snacks on the go don’t have to be high in fat, salt or sugar and highly processed. Try to make as many of your own hunting snacks as you can. Pack some jerky, dried mango, apple and banana, as well as home-prepared oat bars and trail mix. That’s a decent way of ‘eating the rainbow’ while on the move.

Also, I have fond memories of the breaks taken when hunting with dad as a kid. Out of his daypack he’d pull a tin of mussels, oysters or sardines and a packet of Jatz biscuits. We’d enjoy the fishy protein, iron and Omega 3, along with a little side-treat of salty, crispy biscuity goodness. Meanwhile, the oil from the tin would be poured on a log or tree out in the open. With the oily scent left behind, we knew that next time we walked past we stood a good chance of seeing a fox or cat sniffing around it.

Meanwhile back at home, our freezers are often full of healthy wild harvest. Wild animals have higher levels of activity and a more natural diet than their domesticated counterparts. Wild meats are renowned for their superior levels of lean protein and high mineral count including iron, zinc and B vitamins. Indeed, research has found that the combination of fats found in wild game are more balanced, lower in cholesterol and higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which can lessen the risk of chronic disease. The higher mineral content also benefits our immune system more than store-bought meat, meaning that we’re always on a winner with a venison dinner. Just do yourself a favour and ditch the standard two vegetables for a fuller range of colour within your side dishes.

Disciple of discipline

Nature-based activities like hiking, camping, gardening… and hunting improve our sense of wellbeing by forcing our attention on what’s immediately around us. When we hunt, our eyes scan the local area, distinguishing the movement of a leaf from that of a wild bird, or perhaps a pig’s ear swiping at flies. Attention to detail is key to a successful hunt. As such, hunting promotes mental discipline.

Just think of the diligence a reloader needs. Cleaning and inspecting the brass for cracks and wear, projectile weight combined with the amount of powder to generate the ballistics one is seeking; that is the science behind grains, grams, and distance. Or even the mental calculations one makes when shooting over distance with a crosswind. Not to mention the constant awareness of the wind direction, time of day, bird noises, observation of track ways and the sixth sense we’ve developed over time.

This sort of discipline can even assist sufferers of more severe mental-related problems. A key characteristic common to mental health problems is rumination. That is, anxiety and depression are increased as people repetitively dwell on negative feelings, problems, and their causes and consequences (real or feared).

When we hunt, we are more attuned to the world around us. We are grounded and present in the moment, and not focused on past experiences or catastrophising possible futures. In mental health terms this grounding and directed focus is called ‘mindfulness’, which evidence has shown to be very effective in promoting good mental health. Even just scanning the environment while hunting can reduce emotional distress by helping us get out of our own heads for a while by focusing on an external stimulus.

Whether we call it mindfulness, grounding or hunting, the process helps lower the sufferer’s heart rate, assists in slower breathing and decreases physiological stress responses such as cortisol and adrenaline. All this allows you to move away from an anxious fight, flight or freeze response, thereby alleviating stress.

The benefits of hunting extend beyond those of us dealing with a stubborn black dog. Hunting requires every bit of mental focus we can muster, whoever we are. This focus starts at home. For example, we all need to know the location of the heart of every animal we hunt – and the placement varies across species – so we can target it when required. It’s this kind of attention to detail that distract us from – and ultimately helps alleviate – the stressors that affect us. After all, the capacity to focus our attention on an object, subject or even our breathing are characteristic elements of meditation, just as they are in hunting. When we hunt, our concentration is heightened and sharpened as we strive to combine the tactical, physiological, meteorological and creative factors that coalesce to make us effective hunters.  When we free our mind to focus on hunting, we simultaneously push aside the anxiety that can harm us, our relationships and our quality of life.

So, ask yourself … are you feeling stressed? Perhaps it’s time to call a mate and go hunting.

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