It's Mental Health Awareness Week. So I wanted to take some time out to write about how walking has helped me with my own mental health. And I'd love for you to share your stories about how walking has helped you.
About ten years ago I went to see a therapist. I can't even remember why I went to see her. Obviously I really hadn't been feeling happy to warrant me going. Anyway, during our first session together she asked me if I suffered from depression. I laughed and said of course I didn't. After all I was running my own business and looking after two young kids and was on the go all the time. In my head, depression meant sitting in a semi comatose state, crying a lot and barely leaving the house. That wasn't me.
But she made me take a little test to check for depression and I was astounded that I was indeed suffering from mild to moderate depression. I was just a high functioning depressive. In other words, I kept busy all the time so that I didn't have to feel what was really going on underneath. I was constantly critical of myself. And I packed a lot in as a I worried about 'wasting time'. No matter what I achieved, I never got a sense of true happiness or satisfaction.
So I embarked on some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helped a bit and made me more aware of how I was feeling. I did some other crazy things to try to regain control and a sense of purpose - like sailing across the Atlantic with 18 strangers on a boat. And while that experience certainly gave me some highs, I simply returned to normal life and felt the same (only now I knew that I could achieve incredible things if I wanted to).
The years went on and I would feel better for a bit, but it was always there. It's like I was sleep walking into unhappiness. It took a major personal crisis to get back to a therapist and a coach. Talking helped. Yoga helped.
But it was only when I started walking, that I felt a shift in me. That first proper walk I did entirely on my own, left me feeling alive like nothing else had (except for a few moments on that yacht in the Atlantic). The more I walked, the more I realised that no matter how down or tense or angry I was feeling, a couple of hours walking shifted the mood.
I have been on numerous walks where I have literally stomped out the door in a rage. Like this time. And while the rage is great for getting a lick of pace on, as time passes, my pace slackens, my heart rate slows and my mind settles. I breathe. I notice the little things like bugs, plants and quirky signs. I see the expansive views and the space around me. I feel that sense of happiness that has no purpose, other than just being.
Now there are all sorts of scientific studies that show the benefits that walking has on peoples' mental health. I won't go into those because I'm not a scientist. I simply know that forests and nature and sea air and hills all have a way of restoring my sanity and calming my soul.
Am I fixed? Do I still have depression? Do I still suffer from low self-esteem? Do I still cram my days full of things to avoid feeling or to find something to make me feel alive? Well I don't think I'm entirely fixed. I still cram a lot into my life and I am still my own worst critic. But in general I have more days that I feel happy than not. And on those bad days, I now have a tool that acts as a salve as and when I need it.
I just slip my boots on, put a pack on my back and walk. Whether that's entirely on my own or with company, it's the act of slowing down, breathing, feeling the pull of nature, having that tingle of adventure and simply becoming at one with my surroundings that works.
Walking is the best form of therapy there is. It's free and entirely natural.
I've written this because I want people to realise that mental health issues come in a variety of ways. Even if someone looks 100% fine to the outside world, inside they may not be. But if you have a niggling sense that perhaps all is not well, I suggest you take that person on a walk. And if that person is you, take yourself on a walk. You may just find yourself again.
If you are a woman who likes walking and enjoys the benefits it brings, feel free to join the community here.
I'd love to hear how walking has helped your mental health, so feel free to share it in the comments below.