Interview: Daniel Gaines, Hiking Therapist

You’ve probably noticed, but two things that had a huge surge in popularity over the past few years of shutdowns and pandemics were 1). people going outdoors and 2). people paying more attention to their mental health. So it’s not entirely surprising to find out that some mental health professionals have left behind the offices and couches for the great outdoors.

Meet Daniel Gaines LCSW, an L.A. local who you might see walking the trails of Griffith Park helping others to clear out some good ol’ fashioned mental baggage. We met up with Daniel for a quick Q&A on his practice, and how talk therapy on the trail can be a welcome break from non-stop screentime.

First, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started doing therapy.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, and have always had a passion for being in nature, drawing, music, and animation. I found my way into this career through both my experience of being there for friends and family who were struggling as well as my own long and sometimes debilitating struggle with anxiety, depression, OCD and chronic pain. A little over a decade ago I was bedridden for months with back pain, and when I finally learned that it was caused by my anxiety and began to treat it from that perspective, it gradually gave me my life back. The support and guidance I received from therapists during that challenging time—both for my mind-body symptoms and OCD—was crucial, and it motivated me to go to graduate school for social work so that I could offer that same gift to others. I began working in schools with young adults, moved into homeless services, and then transitioned to the group practice where I work today. Although I appreciate many aspects of therapy, I particularly enjoy helping people persevere through what feels like insurmountable challenges in their lives.

What is Hike Therapy?

Hike Therapy is pretty much just like it sounds! As a licensed psychotherapist, I help people with their mental health concerns just like any therapist would, except that we do the session during a hike as opposed to sitting in a room together or talking via videoconference.

What led you into Hike Therapy?

As someone who grew up hiking and camping all around California, I feel most in my element when I’m out on the trail. So, some years ago when I spoke with another therapist who also does hiking therapy in Los Angeles, I knew that was something I really wanted to try. After some months of feeling restless and stiff from exclusively seeing clients virtually, I figured it was time to give it a shot, and once I did I just wanted to do more! I still see many clients virtually, but I know for me I really need to balance that work with these hiking sessions. Additionally, I feel the positive impact that hiking has on my state of mind helps me to be a better therapist.

Daniel Gaines, LCSW in Griffith Park’s Fern Dell

Is it tougher to focus when you’re not inside an office or on videoconference?

In many ways, I actually find it can be easier to focus when doing therapy outdoors. Both walking and the feeling of being outside in nature are energizing and therefore help stimulate conversation naturally. This is doubly true when it comes to videoconference, as many of the clients I walk with have complained about videochat fatigue during the pandemic. For adults and adolescents alike who have a hard time sitting still, hiking while talking can provide an outlet for that restlessness, which in turn actually makes concentration on the session easier.

What are some of the benefits of having a therapist hiking with you?

One benefit that multiple clients have identified is that doing hiking therapy forces them to get outside and move their bodies. This is something we know is so good for issues like depression and even chronic pain, both of which can make simple things like going for a walk extremely difficult, even though it’s likely just the medicine you need. Walking has always been my favorite tool for reducing anxiety, and I feel strongly that the calming, yet empowered feeling that goes along with it can help people actually feel the inner strength they need to commit to the changes they want to make in their lives.

Another benefit is all of the material nature provides for both regulating and challenging ourselves; heart beating fast? Let’s feel the breeze on our skin or watch the birds fly overhead while we allow our nervous systems to down-regulate. Want to do exposure work for OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)? We can practice running our hands through the dirt! Need a metaphor for resilience? Look at how this tree stands strong even as it’s had to grow in contorted ways, steadying itself against the wind as it still manages to reach the sunlight above.

Oh and let’s not forget this all-important benefit—you can bring your dog!

What kinds of hikes do you generally do with clients?

Currently, I mainly hike the Fern Dell Nature Trail in Griffith Park. The length tends to lend itself well for an hour session, and the shade and relative flatness of the trail makes for a fairly comfortable walk—even on a hot summer day. However, if a client requests to do a longer, more strenuous hike I’m definitely game!

What’s the most surprising thing you or your clients have experienced on a hike?

The Fern Dell Nature Trail has a stream running through it, something pretty unusual for LA! People are pleasantly surprised to see some unique animals living in that stream, including crayfish, koi fish, and even some turtles. Stumbling upon scenes like this helps everyone get out of their heads, another reason why I love Fern Dell so much. I’m hoping to see a frog there someday too!

What conditions/diagnoses do you typically treat? What approaches do you use?

I have the most experience and training with the issues I’ve dealt with personally, including mind-body symptoms (which can include anything from back pain to hives and IBS), anxiety, OCD, perfectionism, and general life stress. However, I’ve started to work more with trauma, relationship issues and some compulsive/addictive behaviors as well. The modalities and skills I use to treat these conditions include Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), Self-Compassion, and Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy (EAET).

Where can people learn more about you / Hike Therapy?

People can find my profile on the Mind Body Therapy Center website, www.mindbodytherapycenter.org. That’s the wonderful group practice I’ve been part of for over a year now, and you’ll also find a ton of information on there about how we treat chronic pain and other chronic conditions. Anyone can use the “contact” form on the website to request hiking sessions with me, or they can reach out to me directly at [email protected].

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