November is my birthday month and for as long as I can remember – or at least for as long as it’s been an option – I’ve always taken a day’s leave for my birthday. Now that I’m self-employed, that feels more significant than it did when I was taking a day of paid holiday entitlement, which has caused me to think about WHY I do it.
Birthdays are funny things, aren’t they? We can respond to
them in different ways, and feel differently about them at different times in
our lives. Some people see them as a reminder that they are getting older, and
thereby are inching closer to death – and that awareness of mortality feels
overwhelmingly negative. Sometimes birthdays bring up memories of loved ones
who have died or left, and the poignancy of being reminded of people who are
gone can cause us to feel that we can’t enjoy the day now that they’re not
there to celebrate it with us.
Why celebrate my birthday?
Perhaps it IS a funny thing to celebrate – this accidental day when we just happened to arrive through no doing of our own, and I guess that’s why it’s a celebration – a celebration that I’m here! I’m important! I matter!
I’m the youngest child in my family, and grew up as a baby in a family of adults. Over recent years I’ve become aware of the beliefs that I’ve created for myself from that position, mostly around having to get things right because everybody else knows what they’re doing, working really hard at keeping other people happy (without really having the full knowledge of what it is that will make them happy) and particularly about having to know what to do without asking for help.
Knowing those beliefs are there doesn’t always stop me from being tripped up by them, but does help me tune in, when I’m feeling particularly shitty about a situation, to what baby Lucy is feeling, and acknowledging that – which helps me recover much more quickly.
So it’s been nice to realise the flip side of that family role – that my birthday is a day when it’s OK to do just what I feel like doing – to be a child, to please myself. Because, for sure, I did get a fuss made of me on my birthday when I was little and probably got a bit of leeway into the bargain. I know – from the stories – that my late arrival was celebrated, and perhaps this is the one day when I know that in my body rather than just in my head.
I had parties! With games! (Did you ever play that game that involved putting a hat, scarf and mittens on and then opening a bar of chocolate with a knife and fork?) And trifle! My big siblings came home from uni! I got good attendance at my birthday parties cos we had a big house that was popular for playing hide-and-seek, so some of that anxiety about whether other kids liked me was probably allayed too.
Birthdays are more than just birthdays
Chances are that for you, too, how you feel about your birthday is influenced by your family history – because you’ve been having a birthday for longer than you can consciously remember. Were there people who were missing at your birthday? Family arguments? Drunken fallings-out? Do you feel it’s OK to be made a fuss of? To ask for what you want? To be the centre of attention?
For me, it is, definitely, the day when my urge to keep others happy is at its least powerful. I ask for what I want for my breakfast (this year it was kaiserschmarrn – see picture). I get to choose what I want to do without recourse to anyone else. This year it was to have an outing to somewhere with good autumn colours (see my previous blog on the joys of walking outdoors) – I even relinquished the responsibility of deciding where! But equally it might have been to spend the day lying on the sofa reading (one birthday in my 20s I spent the whole day reading Tales of the City).
Only when I took a pause to think about it, did I realise how rare it is for me to allow myself to choose what I want to do completely without regard to others. And how important taking that day for me has been, over the years, because of what it represents in terms of letting me know I matter.
It’s all about me!
Now, these days, I’m actually not bad at listening to myself. At not planning the hell out of a weekend to maximise my productivity (whether that production be a clean house or a day out lifetime experience), but instead being OK with having a low-key time pottering about doing not very much of anything. So maybe the need to have a day that’s All About Me isn’t so crucial as it was in the past. But now I’ve realised that it has symbolic significance, I’m sure as shit hanging on to the habit!
On my birthday I take a holiday and I let that little child
within me out to play. What does it take for YOU to put yourself first?
A while ago I read an article in a therapy magazine which referred to the reluctance of therapists to undertake personal therapy. Then I saw a question on an online forum along the lines of “Should you be working as a therapist before you’ve got all your shit together?”
This made me reflect on my own thoughts and feelings about having therapy, how these have changed over time – and about being a therapist AND a client. This blog, rather than focusing on the ethical and professional reasons for therapists to have therapy, muses on those reflections.
I remember my very first taste of therapy training;
beginning a course in counselling skills. I remember making the decision that –
though it wasn’t a requirement at this level – I wanted to see a counsellor to
help me think about how the different bits of learning applied to me. It wasn’t
because I felt I had specific ‘issues’ (that catch-all word for so many things from
discomfort through to deep trauma) – I simply found I was thinking myself into
a fankle* when I fit myself into all the different theories or models I was
learning about – and boy, they certainly all seemed to apply to me!
I realised I was really good at thinking myself into a
mess (or a dead-end) rather than out of it, and that counselling could help me
find other ways of looking at things. That counsellor was an artist whose
counselling room was also her studio, and some of the most significant
learnings I made there stuck in my head as vivid visual images that just
couldn’t be conveyed in any other way. That experience has coloured the way I
work with clients and I will often offer images that come up for me as they are
speaking without ‘interpreting’ them. Those images can speak in ways that words
sometimes can’t, and add richness and depth to the work as we explore them
I remember also saying to the trainer “I’m interested in
being a counsellor, but I need to get my own stuff sorted out first”. She
laughed – kindly – at the idea that there might be a point when I knew I was
Completely Normal. This was a revelation to me – the idea that I might have
insecurities, fears, areas where I lacked self-belief……..and yet still be able
to work with other people on their own struggles. Not long after, I read one of
the books of Carl Rogers (the founder of person-centred therapy) and was blown
away by his proposal that therapy wasn’t about ‘fixing’ people, and that in
fact, the word ‘fixed’ also implied rigidity and immobility: “a person is a
fluid process, not a fixed and static entity; a flowing river of change, not a
block of solid material; a continually changing constellation of
potentialities, not a fixed quantity of traits.”
As I moved into the world of Transactional Analysis (TA) training, I recognised the influence of a very strong ‘Be Perfect’ Driver (i.e. perfectionist tendencies, fear of getting things wrong) and realised that my unquestioned belief, shared years before with that tutor, had been “I can’t do [whatever I want to do at that point] until I’m as Perfectly Mentally Healthy as [I imagine] everyone around me is.” And what’s changed since then, isn’t my fear of not getting things exactly right, so much as an awareness of that fear, and a kind of wry gentleness towards it. TA’s fundamental principle is: “People are OK” – and that includes me.
My internal conversation might go something like “Oh, there
you are again, Mrs Be Perfect. Worrying about getting this blog right. That’s
OK, I know you’re there. What would be the worst thing that happened if you
didn’t do it perfectly?” Much of this gentleness and understanding has come
through the personal therapy that I had alongside my psychotherapy training,
and of course it influences how I work with clients myself – my knowledge of my
own vulnerability is a strength.
That’s the thing about counselling counsellors; we are human
too. We suffer from exactly the same weaknesses, fears and issues as others.
Often we’re more aware of them because we’ve spent time bringing them to the
surface and that can be uncomfortable as well as useful – oh, for sure, sometimes
I’d like to be able to switch that awareness off! And sometimes we’re NOT aware
of them, and they have subtle influences on our work with clients which we may
only realise after the event – which is why it’s so important to keep
developing our own self-awareness. It’s a constant journey of personal growth.
As a therapist, the learning never stops. I see the
influence of my past therapists in how I am in the counselling relationship.
But I learn as much from clients as I do from training. It is a privilege and
an honour to share in the personal work of others, and for people to trust me
with their tender places and thoughts. That is as true for clients who are
counsellors as it is for clients from any other walk of life.
When I was training to be a counsellor, my therapist asked me “Would you be here if it wasn’t a course requirement?” I saw it as a luxury I was obliged to pay for, to ‘do my learning perfectly’ – and yes, I continued it for some time after my training finished, but I still excused the expenditure, to myself, in other ways – it would help me transition to a new job, it would help me prepare for the challenges of moving abroad. Yet those reasons were only part of the story. I hope that next time I enter into a new personal therapy relationship, I will choose to do so just for me, because I’m worth it.
*for non-Scottish readers, a fankle is a bit of a mess – think a tangled mass of string.
Berne, E. 1966. Principles
of group treatment. New York: Oxford University Press.
In the first part of this blog I talked about setting myself a challenge of using my bike every day for a week, in order to change my ‘transport habits’, and what I learned from that experiment. Now I’m going to explore what makes changing behaviour hard, and offer some tips that might help.
Why is it difficult to change behaviours?
Negative motivation: Take a moment to consider your own process when you plan to change something. Do you focus on the benefits? Or are there lots of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ that come into play? Usually when I think about doing things differently, it goes something like “I shouldn’t be doing X” or “I need to be better at Y” and there’s quite a punitive quality about it.
As an article by David DiSalvo says “Negative emotion may trigger us to think about everything we’re not doing, or feel like we’re doing wrong, but it’s horrible fuel for making changes that stick.” We need to find positive reasons to want to make the change rather than chasing ourselves with a big stick.
Oversized targets: Another problem is that we often set our aims unrealistically high or have huge but vague targets. The classic one is gym membership – forking out hundreds of pounds in an effort to shame or punish ourselves into getting more exercise or getting fit. 3 spinning classes in the first week after New Year, yeah! we feel great with how well we’re doing – then something happens that interrupts that momentum, we have a week off and then beat ourselves up for failing at ‘change’.
It becomes an all-or-nothing belief, and as ‘all’ is an unfeasibly large goal we pretty soon end up with nothing. The smaller the steps, the better, when it comes to making changes, because even small steps move you forward; there’s a better chance of small changes sticking; and ‘mony a mickle maks a muckle’ (translation for non-Scots: lots of little things add up to big things).
Life challenges: Let’s not ignore that there may be additional factors which we have no control over. Changing to a healthier lifestyle when you’re a lone parent struggling to make ends meet and are trying to hold down 3 jobs, or when you grew up in poverty and neglect, or when you’ve survived civil war and have arrived in the UK and are fighting for your right to stay…….the odds are stacked against you. The impact of the environment you’re in is sometimes ignored in the individual-centred world of psychotherapy. It’s important not to discount the role that society and inequality play in our having control over our lives.
Habits: We tend to think we can ‘just make’ a change – mind over matter, perhaps – rather than thinking about the factors that support that change or prevent it. Remember what I said in the first part of this blog about my biggest learning being to make it easy? We are creatures of routine and habit, so no matter how firm our intentions are, once we slip into the daily routine it’s difficult to remember those intentions.
This is where planning and using reminders or alarms come in. Telling people what we’re doing and asking for their support can help too – rather than trying to do it all alone in the hope that we can then suddenly explode like a new-born butterfly in all our radiant changedness.
Stages of change
Prochaska and DiClemente introduced the Stages of Change Model in the 1970s to help understanding of what happens during the process of change. The model splits change into six stages:
Stage 1: Precontemplation. At this point I am in denial about there being a problem, or about believing that I have control over my behaviour; “this is just how things are”. Sometimes people come to therapy at this point because they know something needs to change but they’re not sure what.
Stage 2: Contemplation. I’m aware that there are benefits to making a change – but I’m also aware of the costs, so I have conflicted emotions about changing. In order to gain the benefits, be they physical or emotional, something will need to be given up, and this in itself can mean that this stage lasts for a long time.
Stage 3: Preparation. I’m experimenting with doing things differently in small ways and gathering information about what I need in order to make the change. For change to be successful, this stage needs to be given time in order to find or build supports and decide on specific goals before throwing yourself into action.
Stage 4: Action. I start direct action towards my goal. But did I spend enough time contemplating the change and preparing for it? Any positive steps taken at this point need to be reinforced by congratulation and reward to maintain the movement towards lasting change.
Stage 5: Maintenance. Having made changes, I’m avoiding reverting to former patterns of behaviour and continuing to reward myself for keeping up new ones. This stage takes time, and will be interwoven with…..
Stage 6: Relapse. Inevitably, I’m only human, and I relapse into previous behaviour. I’m pissed off and disappointed with myself. The key with relapse is to accept that it is inevitable and to use it to learn for next time – what triggered the relapse? What might help manage this trigger in future? This is a good opportunity to return to the preparation stage, especially if this was rushed through.
Is now the right time to make a change?
I’m very aware that it was relatively easy for me to try something different when I did; my circumstances at that time meant that I had some time to play around with – and so the last thing I want is for this to sound like I’m implying that changing behaviour is easy, or even that I’m particularly good at it! Context made it possible.
So it’s important to notice what may be going on around you that makes changing behaviour difficult – environment, friends, a challenging personal situation, poverty. That’s part of the precontemplation and contemplation stages.
But it’s also important to be aware that there is never going to be a ‘perfect’ time to change behaviour. Perhaps you can look at the reality of the behavioural change that you want to make and see if it can be broken down into smaller, more achievable – more affordable, simpler, whatever – chunks. Preparation. Then do it – and remember that relapse is part of the deal.
Ten tips to help you make and maintain a behavioural change
1. Set small and specific goals
Notice I say SMALL and specific. What’s small for one person may not be for another. My goal of using my bike every day was achievable for me that week because of circumstances. “I’m going to get more exercise” isn’t specific…… but rather than “I’m going to walk to and from work every day” you could start with “I’m going to get off the bus 5 minutes early and walk the rest of the way 3 times a week”.
2. Accept that you will relapse
Hold this in mind right at the start.
Being aware that, at some point, you will have a relapse in behaviour will enable you to be more forgiving of yourself when this happens, instead of thinking “I’m useless at this, I knew I’d never be able to do it”. Relapses help you learn what you could do differently next time.
3. Set times to review
Do you need to change the goals?
Make an appointment with yourself at the end of each week to check how you’ve done, and to notice what has been difficult. Maybe your goal was too big and you need to scale it down; succeeding with a small goal is more motivating than failing with a big one. You can always raise the bar later.
4. Consider how you’ll reward yourself
Positive motivation for change is more successful than beating yourself up for failure, as mentioned earlier. Think of a reward that you’ll enjoy but that won’t conflict with your goals (i.e. don’t give yourself a junk food reward for eating healthily!) – buy yourself the book you wanted, go and see a film.
Make rewards part of your plan.
5. Plan and prepare
You might be seized with enthusiasm once you’ve decided to make a change, but planning and preparation give you the best opportunity to succeed, just like they do with DIY tasks!
What resources do you need to make this change? Who or what might support you? And what might get in your way – be obstacles or triggers? Is there anyone you need to avoid?
Take time to think about where you can look for help.
6. Accept that changing behaviour is hard!
Most of us live by routines and habits – it’s normal and it makes life work because you don’t have to think about everything you do. But it means that we become wired to do things in a particular way, and that takes time to change.
When you notice what hasn’t gone well, try and catch yourself and reflect on a positive – rather than saying “I had an unhealthy snack two days this week” switch it to “I managed five days this week where I didn’t have an unhealthy snack”.
7. Track and review your progress
Keep a journal, or a food diary, or use an app on your phone. It can help to express your frustrations, and keeping track of the positives will help you recover when things aren’t going so well.
8. Ask for support
Remember you don’t have to do this alone!
Perhaps there’s someone else who might be interested in working towards the same goal and you could buddy up together. Or someone you know who might have skills or advice to offer. You might get in touch with a therapist if you need help understanding why you’re finding it difficult to make a change.
At the very least, sharing what you’re working towards means that your friend or partner can help, by encouraging you and giving you feedback when things are going well.
9. Reward yourself. ALWAYS.
DON’T SKIP THE REWARDS!
If you’ve done well, take a moment to pat yourself on the back and acknowledge the achievement, even if it feels uncomfortable.
10. Be compassionate with yourself
Don’t make it harder than it already is. Think of how you might support someone else who is trying to change their behaviour.
Can you offer that support to yourself?
What am I doing differently since ‘The Bike Challenge’?
Today, as I write this blog, is the first day I’ve got clients in the new room that I’ve rented in Edinburgh, and I’m cycling in. I chose this room over another because of its proximity to good cycle routes avoiding busy roads – even though it’s further from a handy bus stop (Make It easy). I know I’ll be tired when I leave to come home, but I’m hoping I’ll appreciate a different experience from my usual bus ride (Don’t compare apples and pears). It’s raining right now but I’ve got a change of clothing and I’ve packed some calories to make sure I’ve got sufficient energy both for my clients and for the cycle home. And I’ve looked out the bike lights – which I may need to elastic-band to my handlebars (Don’t do this at home, kids) in case it’s dark when I return (Plan and prepare).
(NB: I wrote this over a month ago. As I publish it today, I can look back at a month’s worth of Wednesday cycles where I’ve enjoyed the processing time on the ride home after seeing clients.)
I’m not using my bike every day. I need more practice to
really embed it as part of my routine and I’m mindful that my attitude may
change when winter weather arrives. But I’m incorporating cycling more into my
professional decisions – like the room hire, or arranging meetings – and I’m now
using it as a mode of transport more than the bus, which is a definite shift. Every
time I use my bike to run a quick errand it gives me a little lift. So I’m
pretty happy; and I’m going to reward myself with a new set of pedals, because
those pesky toe clips still don’t fit properly!
I’ve included some links to other resources below. If there’s a change you’re wanting to make in your behaviour, and you’re finding it difficult to get started, please get in touch with me. There are many factors that contribute to the habits that we find ourselves in, and you may find it useful to explore what these factors may be, for you, in therapy.
Saturday 8 June was the start of National Bike Week 2019. What a great opportunity for a post on my Facebook page encouraging people to get out on their bikes, I thought. I’ll say that I’m planning to use my bike every day this week.
That gave me pause, though – because if I was going to make a public declaration like that, I needed to actually do it! There’s a whole world of difference between exhorting other people to do something different for their self-care, and actually doing it myself.
I’d bought a new bike a couple of months earlier after deciding to try living without a car, thinking I’d use a lighter-weight bike more as a means of transport. But WHY hadn’t I used it as much as I’d hoped – even though I liked the idea, and the new bike? What was getting in the way of me doing that? I decided to make it A Project. I thought perhaps if I could track each day, I might learn something – from looking at the things that motivated me to use my bike, or the things that put me off.
And so it began.
The change-my-life bike challenge
I noticed there was sawdust on my bike seat……woodworm in the shed roof! I decided to cycle to the nearest place where I could buy woodworm treatment, about 4 miles away. Oh, but first I realised I needed to change the toe-clips on my bike, the ones the bike shop had put on were useless………oh and it looked like it was going to rain…….and where did I put my pannier? At least the bike locks were handy, as I hadn’t put them away…..
It started raining while I was out, and I got soaked. But…..I had plenty of time, it was a Saturday, I could get changed when I got home, I was already in suitable clothes for cycling and crucially there was the novelty feeling of having decided to make this ‘a challenge’.
I suggested to my partner that we ride to a nearby town to see an exhibition but he was feeling tired, so instead I decided to get a quick ride in alone and call in at the Co-op for some shopping on the way back. I was put off a little by thinking I ‘should’ be doing something with my partner because it was the weekend, but I felt full of beans and wanted the exercise – and once again there were no time pressures.
It was a beautiful morning and I had the familiar experience of flying along on the outer leg with the wind behind me (and then having to really push into the westerly wind on the way home).
Oh-ho! Back to real life, how do I incorporate cycling into the working week? I had a morning meeting in Edinburgh to see a room I might want to rent, so decided to cycle in – a round trip of around 23 miles. I was somewhat nervous about this as I hadn’t cycled in the city for years and the prospect of navigating traffic made me anxious. I was worried about arriving late and also about getting sweaty and looking unprofessional!
On the other hand, I had a flexible schedule that day so could leave plenty of time, and after researching routes found that much of the ride could be done on cycle paths. It seemed like a good opportunity for a ‘test’ commute – as it wasn’t a client appointment it didn’t matter if I was a bit windblown!
An unexpected drama came a third of my way in when my saddle came loose, and I didn’t have the necessary tool to sort it out. After swithering about whether to lock my bike somewhere nearby and take the bus the rest of the way I decided to carry on, getting on and off rather gingerly at junctions. I was heartily glad my route involved few busy roads. After my meeting I headed to the nearest bike shop where they kindly fixed my saddle free of charge and I had a much more comfortable ride home.
An easy day – a quick dash to the shop to get a sandwich for my lunch, a round trip of not much over a mile. It seemed a bit of a faff to get the bike out of the shed for such a short journey, but crucially, having been using it every day, the operation of getting everything together was pretty quick. I was wearing skinny jeans so no need to change clothes for this short ride, and I was there and back with plenty of time to sit and eat my lunch!
The weather was a bit rubbish but I had something to take to the post office. To be honest I might not have made myself do it on foot because of time required in a rather busy day. It was a lesson that I could get an errand out of the way really quickly in less than 15 minutes by using my bike.
I learned I could ride in wellies – after a fashion. It was a really miserable day, I had no commitments outside home and there is no way I would have got my bike out had it not been for having set myself the task of doing it. Once again a quick dash to the shop, but I felt a bit lost about the pointlessness of ‘the bike challenge’ as a project.
I was very conscious that I was just getting my bike out for the sake of it, and having to look for a reason to do so. However, I cycled to the library – only a mile or so away – and actually this was probably a perfect example of cycling making life easier. The journey on foot was a little too far to squeeze into my working day, but on a bike it was much quicker and I could pop the books into my pannier rather than having to carry them. I might not have finally got round to using my library without the bike challenge.
So what did I learn from setting myself the target of using my bike every day?
Make it easy.
This was my absolute No. 1 takeaway from this experiment, that I was reminded of every day. In order to change how you do things, you need to make it easy for yourself. We’d already changed the way we stored our bikes so that they were easy to get in and out of the shed quickly. In addition I’ve moved my pannier from an inaccessible shelf in a cupboard to near the back door ready for use and the bike locks are also on a shelf handy to grab. Now I can get my bike out and ready to use in a little over a minute.
Plan and prepare.
Don’t assume it is going to be easy until you’ve established a routine! So, I need to think about what to wear when I’m going to meetings, and I need to factor in the time until I get the hang of how long it takes to get places. Wearing clothes that mean I can quickly jump on my bike AND be appropriately dressed for work (leggings are my friend here) makes life easier.
Don’t compare apples and pears.
……….or bus journeys and bike journeys. You can learn to enjoy a different way of doing things. Particularly with the ride into Edinburgh I felt conscious of how long it was taking me. But the second time I did this run I was able to enjoy the opportunity of being out and getting exercise rather than focusing on whether I was using my time ‘efficiently’ (and actually traffic snarls aren’t a factor on a bike path).
This applies to other behaviour changes too; you need to acknowledge what you’ll lose by changing what you do, but you can also appreciate what you’ll gain.
Some investments are worth it.
It felt like an extravagance to buy a new bike – but a lighter bike made it easier for me to use it more (although things have improved, in the UK we have bike paths that involve carrying your bike up the steps of a bridge over a railway, for example).
If you can afford it, it’s worth spending money on things that will facilitate you changing what you do; e.g. buying a good pannier rack meant that it’s simple for me to carry stuff comfortably on my bike.
Ask for help.
Flippin’ heck, I can never be reminded of this one too often….. Only my saddle almost falling off pushed me into it; but of course cycling is a friendly world – and when I took my bike into Edinburgh Bike Co-op they graciously sorted it out instantly and free of charge. What’s the worst that could have happened? They might have said no, or have charged me a few quid. Big deal.
It takes time.
If you do something enough times, it forms a habit. But you HAVE to do it enough times, in order to remind yourself that this is how life is now. I decided at the end of the week to keep the ‘use-it-every-day’ practice going for another week to try and develop a routine. Since then other things have happened and I’ve been away, but I notice I AM using my bike more as it’s higher up my consciousness.
In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking about why it’s difficult to change habits and behaviours, and – crucially – offering some tips on how to make and maintain changes.
If you’re interested in support for making changes, or just have questions, please get in touch with me through my contact page.
Pause for a minute. Imagine that you’re in a wood. It’s quite light and open, with space between the trees……those beautiful, spreading oak trees, with great branches like arms that reach out as if to enfold you in a safe embrace.
The sun filters through the leaves, dappling the ground below, and playing on your face. As you move you pass through shafts of light. You can feel its warmth. Pay attention to the sounds you can hear – the rustle of the wind moving the branches of the trees, the twittering of song from birds, invisible, in the canopy above you. As you walk along, you hear the scrunch of twigs and fallen leaves under your feet.
What’s that smell? Fresh and musty at the same time – damp earth and vegetation; perhaps it rained earlier or there was a heavy dew. And then behind that, a sweet perfume that comes and goes – you see a carpet of blue under the trees. Thousands of bluebells, their delicate smell massed together to reach your nose. Just take a moment to see, hear, feel all of that wonderful space of nature, to let it sink in to you. Let it feed your soul. Take a moment – before you come back.
When I was thinking about writing this blog, I imagined how I would describe why I like to walk outside. Everything I thought of seemed rather worthy……walking as something I ‘should’ be doing, part of that ‘must get your 5-a-day’ mentality. But when I thought of a recent walk – outlined above – I recalled all the myriad, tiny, experiences that happened in the moment, which combined to lift my spirits and nourish my soul.
That particular walk was an immersion in nature. Spaces like that are available to most of us, though to really get away from it all can be a challenge, especially if you live in a city or don’t have a car. But that doesn’t mean we can’t experience nature while walking – even in the town. In this blog I look at some of the ways in which walking, and walking in nature, can benefit your mental health.
7 ways in which walking can help your mental health
1. Walking helps your whole body
The most fundamental reason for walking helping your mental health, is that it helps your physical health. Our mind and body are intertwined – literally, given that the mind rests within the body.
I mentioned in my last blog (10 Stress Management tips) about the benefits of walking if you suffer from stress symptoms. Walking can help release some of the fight/flight hormones that build up when you’re feeling stressed. The simple act of moving in this way helps release the tension in muscles that may have become hunched and stiff. As you start to become more physically active, you will feel fitter and stronger, which can have the knock-on effect of improving how you feel about yourself. Remember, though – you are not competing against anyone. This is about you feeling better for your own sake.
2. Walking can reduce symptoms of depression
Physical activity stimulates the release of endorphins,
which can boost your mood in two ways. Firstly, endorphins stimulate a positive
feeling similar to the effects of morphine; with vigorous exercise this can
produce a ‘runner’s high’, feelings of euphoria – but even with mild to
moderate exercise the effect can still be noticed and can produce an energised
feeling, so that, counter-intuitively, getting exercise can give you the
feeling that you have more energy to tackle other tasks. The second way in
which endorphins can help, is that they diminish the perception of pain – so if
you are experiencing pain (assuming it’s not linked to the activity of walking)
then the release of endorphins has an analgesic effect which can help reduce
the discomfort you experience.
3. Walking can help you manage your thinking
Walking seems to help my brain work differently. That’s my experience – that somehow the act of movement stimulates my mind to work in a different way, and so if I’ve been ruminating about something where my thoughts just go round and round the same circuit, getting out there moving somehow shifts them off the train tracks (I’m not saying they never jump back on again, but a little derailing does help).
This may be because doing something physical requires a certain amount of attention by the brain – even if it seems pretty much instinctive – and therefore there’s a shift in focus which reshuffles everything else that’s going on in there. Indeed, as well as stimulating endorphins, as mentioned above, walking can alleviate the impact of cortisol – the stress hormone – by allowing its release through the body, which can reduce anxiety symptoms such as racing or intrusive thoughts.
4. Walking puts you in a different space
Well, duh, of course it does! It makes sense that the environment that you’re in is going to have an effect on your mood. Just think for a moment about how you’d feel if you’re sitting in a room with no windows and the walls painted grey, compared to sitting in a sunny space with a view over a sparkling sea. Where you are can also have less obvious effects connected to your (sometimes unconscious) associations – perhaps being in your house recalls a big argument that you just had with someone close to you, or all the maintenance tasks that you need to get done, for example.
Ideally I’d transport myself into the bluebell wood I mentioned earlier, in the blink of an eye. But it doesn’t need to be that extreme a contrast. Shifting yourself out of the space that you’re in can help shift your mindset. You can try this by simply going outside and consciously imagining those worries or preoccupations lifting off your shoulders and floating off into the greater space that surrounds you. I’m not pretending that they’re going to be gone forever, but allowing their release for even a short period of time can help boost your mood and improve your resilience to deal with them when they return.
5. Walking can help you connect with others
Walking with someone can give you the opportunity to talk about things that are bothering you in a neutral environment. For some people, ‘being alongside’ as they talk can be easier than talking about a difficult subject face to face. It can be a really helpful way of offloading – as with the last point, you can ‘let all this stuff out’ into the wider space rather than in the confines of a room. Or the flipside – when you’re walking with someone it’s OK not to talk, too, and just being in company with someone can improve your psychological health by meeting your need for human contact. Humans are social animals and we need to connect.
Walking can be a way of making new contacts and friends – for example through walking groups. There are many of these around the country geared to all ages and abilities, for example, where I live there is a fantastic local organisation that runs wellbeing walks. There’s some links at the bottom of this article.
At a basic level, walking helps you connect with others, in the opportunity it gives to say hello, smile, nod to the people that you pass as you’re out. Even these little contacts have a positive effect on your wellbeing and to a fundamental need for recognition by others.
6. Walking can help you connect with yourself
In contrast to the social benefits, walking can also help you to soothe yourself. Getting out for a walk allows the opportunity to take some time for yourself and pay attention to how you are away from the hurly-burly of whatever else is going on in your day. This isn’t just about escaping from stressful situations by absenting yourself from them – although that may also be relevant – but more about taking a few moments to notice how you are, in the moment, as you walk.
Walking can give you a chance to be mindful, for example by
bringing your attention to the movement of your arms, legs, feet, and noticing
any stiff or sore points. By walking mindfully you can connect to the
environment around you, as well as your body, and give yourself a rest, even
briefly, from what’s going on in your head. There’s a link to a mindful walking
7. Walking can be a way for you to commit to caring for yourself
There is lots of information around on how exercise is good for you mentally and physically……‘not getting enough exercise’ can become another stick for us to beat ourselves up with. But equally, the way we exercise often changes through our lives as our bodies change, and sometimes it is only when we experience an injury that we realise that our bodies aren’t machines that we can just keep on pushing.
Walking is a non-aggressive way of getting exercise. It gets the heart going, the blood pumping, the limbs moving, and with less impact on your joints and muscles than running or working out in the gym. It can help you sleep better, especially with the added effect of getting out in the fresh air. As we age, and if we have other added issues (physical or emotional), our bodies take longer to recover from illness or injury. You’re less likely to experience an injury when out walking than with most other forms of exercise. Yes, you might want to run a marathon – but perhaps your body isn’t ready for that yet. Rather than noticing what you can’t do, in walking perhaps you could look after your body; by valuing your body you are sending a subliminal message to yourself that you are important.
The equality of walking
Walking is cheap. It doesn’t require a gym membership. You don’t need to be an athlete. A little is better than none. If you’re a wheelchair-user you can still get the benefits of being outside, though you may not have as much opportunity for physical exertion. Even in a city you can connect with the natural world…….through gardens, and trees, and birds.
It’s important to recognise that you may not be well enough, physically or mentally, to walk at the moment, in which case reading this blog may well be frustrating! If this is the case the last thing I want to do is add to your burden. Walking isn’t possible for everyone, and if you’re not sure, I suggest you check with your GP. There are other ways that you can look after yourself and prioritise your needs, to your own level of physical, mental and emotional ability right now, and listening to your body may the best way to get some clue as to what those ways might be.
How can I motivate myself to walk?
With the above in mind, if you’re not walking at the moment and would like to but are struggling to find time or motivation to do it, here are some suggestions:
Be realistic and start small. Don’t push
yourself to get out for an hour’s walk every day. If time pressures are a
factor, start by fitting small walks into your day – 5 minutes after lunch, or
getting off the bus a stop early.
Do it with someone else. Buddy up with a friend
or join a group if you think making a plan with someone else will help motivate
you. I’m hoping to launch a walk-and-talk therapy service soon, to offer the option
of counselling while walking.
Focus on you. Don’t compare yourself with what
others are doing. You don’t need to compete with anyone – even yourself. Take
each day as it comes. One day where you get out for a walk is one day more than
Most importantly – be kind to yourself.
Sometimes you won’t feel like going outside your door, and if that happens
allow yourself to recognise that that is just one day, and that tomorrow may
well be different.
If I reflect for a moment on what walking means to me, so many things come up. When I walk I have space to get a little distance from whatever is going on, right now, in my life. Sometimes small things that I experience while I’m out walking can make a real difference to my day – hearing the first swifts of the summer screaming overhead, for example, can bring me a fleeting moment of joy that I reflect on throughout the day.
I feel connected to the rest of the world by the response of
my senses to what’s around me, whether that be the sound of the sea or the
taste of wild garlic I pick for my dinner. I feel connected to people, partly
through encountering them when I’m walking, but also because some walks trigger
memories of other people in my life, including those no longer alive, and for
that I am grateful. All these myriad, sometimes tiny, sometimes fleeting
experiences as I walk combine to……to what? Well, usually, to make me feel, in
some way, better.