I suffer from anxiety. It didn’t affect me until I was in my late 30s, but then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Panic attacks are no fun. Fortunately, I could control my anxiety without medication through some therapy, figuring out some health issues, and strengthening my faith. Part of that therapy was hunting.
First, I want to confront the elephant in the room - mental health. Modern humans, men especially, have a severe stigma attached to those two words. If you say “heart health,” “gut health,” “healthy diet,” or any other type of health connected with our physical bodies, no one bats an eye. Start talking about mental health, though; people fear they’ll become some pariah for attending to an essential part of our human makeup. This is why I advocate for normalizing conversations about mental health and always speak freely about my journey.
I greatly advocate hunting as therapy for anxiety and other mental health issues. Some aspects of hunting closely mimic other therapeutic forms that are well known for their ability to help relieve anxiety and symptoms of PTSD. Hunting almost always involves (or should!) some form of exercise, the benefits of which are widely known to help with every aspect of health. Hunting also includes many of the same features as meditation. Being in the woods, waiting for the sun to come up or game to walk by, offers the opportunity to quiet your mind and reflect. It offers an excellent opportunity for some prayer time.
Shooting, also, has some meditative qualities - counterintuitive as that may seem. Many shooting coaches have mentioned that shooting is a “mind game” or something like it. What I take that to mean is that while my ability to shoot well is undoubtedly connected to my physical ability, it is just as much of a mental exercise. Anyone who has ever had to overcome a flinch or target panic and suffered from “buck fever” knows this well. Having experienced target panic, a problem that severely affects shooting, I have had to practice the mental aspect of shooting far more than the physical.
Hunting also provides some opportunities for confronting anxiety and learning to deal with it in a healthy way. This manifests itself in different ways. First, there’s the anxiety of whether your hunt will be successful. This is low-level stress. Then you get to the stress and excitement caused when you see an animal. Will it present a shot? Is it the animal you’re after? If a shot is presented, will you make a good one? By confronting these stressors and successfully overcoming them, you are developing general skills for all of your life.
Success in the field breeds confidence, but what about failure?
If you hunt, you will have unsuccessful hunts. You will go without seeing the animal you are seeking, or even any animal at all. You will make bad shots, have to track animals, and second-guess your decisions in the field. You will lose a wounded animal at least once. This can cause anxiety for sure! The good thing, in my experience, is that this anxiety is specific. By being able to trace a specific cause for your anxiety, you may find it easier to deal with. I do.
Every “failure” I’ve had in the field, from missing shots to losing a wounded animal, has resulted in my ultimate improvement. By being able to analyze myself and what went wrong, I have gained valuable insight into the way my anxiety manifests itself. This has led to me developing skills to maintain confidence and persevere even when stressed. I am not perfect at this, but I am improving.
Whether you deal with anxiety or not, attending to your mental health is important. Think of it as going to the gym for your mind. When you’re in the field, be sure to take advantage of the opportunities you’ll have for mindfulness, and developing healthy mental habits.
Everything I have written here is based on my own personal experiences. I am NOT a mental health professional. None of what I say here is intended to diagnose or treat anything. Hunting may not be right for everyone, and you should consult your mental health professional before proceeding.
Ryan Hoover, Director, Handgun Hunters International, LLC
Ryan Hoover is the director of Handgun Hunters International (HHI), where he passionately works to spread the word about the benefits of hunting with a handgun. HHI is a valuable resource for handgun hunters of all experience levels using giveaways, a well-moderated forum, and upcoming instructional media. Through a series of deeply personal experiences, Ryan has come to believe that hunting with a handgun is a ton of fun and can improve your life by overcoming its challenges. He is always keen to find new hunters who want to try hunting with a handgun and to help them get started. His background includes serving as a US Navy firearms instructor and 15 years as a custom gun builder. He is also involved in issues regarding gun safety for families, nose-to-tail use of game meat, and hunting as a therapy for various mental health issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
The Voice of Leadership Panel is an appointed group of outdoor industry leaders who have volunteered to contribute their voices on crucial hunting and outdoor recreation issues to inform, inspire, and educate participants within our community.
2022-2023 LEADERSHIP PANELISTS
Ryan Brown - Executive Director, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources
Ryan Hoover, Director, Handgun Hunters International, LLC
John Miller - Founder and Director, Association of African American Sportsmen
Courtney Nicolson - Associate Director Marketing & Communications, Sportsmen's Alliance
Amy Ray - President and CEO - The Sisterhood of the Outdoors
Jason Rounsaville - Executive Director, The Pope and Young Club
Luke Thorkildsen - Board Member, The Mule Deer Foundation