For years I’ve been reading articles about how running can be help boost your mental health. For years I’ve been running and felt no change. I would run, think, come home and still be depressed. The few exceptions to this would be if it was raining out and I was the only person running along the promenade. That made me feel good. That was rare and most days I was running to stay physically fit.
Over the past few years I’ve been noticing something interesting in my outdoor activities. There are times when I’ve been somewhere and felt elated. I’ve done enough of them now to notice a pattern emerging. I don’t think it is enough to simply go for a run. That might be something I do to maintain physical fitness but to affect actual change in my mental health I need more. To quote Boromir in Lord of the Rings “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” I need to earn it.
In September 2018 as part of my 40th birthday my wife and I spent a week on a beach in Croatia. Swim. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Once I was over my sharing the sea with sea monsters anxiety I loved it. After that week we went to Florence and I was instantly on edge. There were people everywhere. EVERYWHERE! I was fascinated at how stressed I became trying to live in a city. It was so chaotic I couldn’t focus on getting good photos. For the most part I had a good time but I felt more anxious than I did a few days ago at the beach. It made me realise I could indeed be free from anxiety and happy. I wasn’t broken. I was not listening to what my brain needed. I started to listen.
1 month later and my wife and I are in North Wales about to go on a 6 mile walk. I didn’t know if it was 6 miles in total or 6 to the pub lunch and 6 back. I didn’t know if I had the right camera, socks, hoodie, etc. I was anxious because I didn’t have enough information to plan but at least I had outdoor waterproof clothes. 10 minutes into the walk and my feet were soaked. My waterproof shoes had not informed me of holes they had developed. Blergh. 20 minutes in and I realised my cotton hoodie was moist because it wasn’t designed to wick away sweat. Also the rain was absurdly heavy and got in anyway. Blergh. 30 minutes in and I was kicking myself for not bringing a waterproof camera with a long lens to photograph good views. Blergh. 40 minutes in and I was soaking wet and loving it. I was Levison Wood on a big adventure armed only with a trusty Leica camera. I gave up caring about my issues because I couldn’t do anything about them. I loved the rain and the light was wonderful to photograph in. Once I arrived at the pub for lunch there were people to deal with and choices to make. Mentally I crashed and became depressed. I wasn’t listening to what my brain needed.
8 months later it’s the summer equinox. My wife, friends and I are climbing Mount Snowdon at 1am. For whatever inexplicable reason I fear the dark. I was very anxious about this trek because it was climbing a mountain in the dark. I’d never climbed up a mountain before let alone the dark. How do I know what I need? Oh there’s guides but how do I know what I need? Where’s the edge? What if…? Turns out it was a highlight of the year despite the top being overcast and no view. I still loved it. As we descended the sun came up (as in the Earth moved around the star at the centre of our solar system) and the day trippers flooded in. Blergh! I was glad to be leaving. There’s no way I wanted to queue up a mountain.
The other day I went on a bike ride up the Great Orme in North Wales. I didn’t plan a route or anything. I wanted the adventure. I cycled up inclines and off road on my Brompton. A bike designed for city commutes not outdoor adventures. I had a blast cycling around, taking photos and enjoying the views. It was such a clear day that you could see the Isle of Man! I kept cycling and eventually reached the top where I treated myself to an ice-cream. The queue was long and no-one was adhering to social distancing guidelines. It was nerve racking. After lunch I got back on my bike and cycled down the hill loving every minute of it. I felt free.
This year I’ve been open water swimming in the local lake and occasionally the River Mersey when there’s no jelly fish. I started in January doing 5 minute dips in 5c water. Currently I’m doing 60 minute swims in 14c water. It’s great fun. Cold for sure but fun. I love bobbing around in the water. I’m away from the world. I’m free from anxiety and depression. I get out, warm up and I feel great for the rest of the day. Running never gave me this feeling but swimming in the lake does.
I’ve been thinking about the pattern here. It is not enough to get out into nature. I feel like I need to earn the view. I could drive to the lake and stand there looking at the water. I could drive to the top of the Great Orme and take in the view. That might be nice but I think I key part of feeling happy, of reducing anxiety and depression is to get my heart going. When I reach the top of a big hill, barely catching my breath, and I’m rewarded with an incredible view I feel amazing. I think I need my body to be in that physical state not just a mental one. It’s not enough to be in nature I have to work for it. Could I…could I be an adrenaline junkie? Is that what’s going on?
Or maybe it’s not even that. Maybe it is the process of overcoming anxiety that is enough? At the beach I overcome my anxiety of swimming with sea monsters to enjoy the water. At Mount Snowdon I overcome my fear of the dark to reach the top of a mountain. Every morning I swim in the cold lake I overcome the “OMG that’s cold” to swim around for an hour. Maybe it is a combination of beating anxiety and being immersed in nature that is what I mentally need?
It is fascinating to think about. I’m starting to notice patterns. I’m noticing when I get out my comfort zone and enjoy something and when I get out my comfort zone and don’t enjoy it. Street photography for example. Do I love it? It never gives me this sort of feeling. It’s a constant battle to get out my comfort zone and I’m not sure I ever do. I’m ok at it. I’ve been published and printed in exhibitions. Am I living though? Maybe all it’s just like running. It doesn’t hit the highs but it keeps me fit.
Looking at these events is making me aware and open to new adventures. Actual adventures. I want to go places on my bike more. I want to climb hills more and swim in lakes more. Listening to my brain these past few years has led me to believe that this is what its trying to tell me it needs.
would you like to know more?
- Mental health benefits of spending time outdoors
- Exercising outside
- How can nature benefit my mental health?
- Nature’s Role in Mental Illness: Prevention or Treatment?
- How being outdoors can improve mental health
- Two hours a week spent outdoors in nature linked with better health
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