I realised recently that it’s 20 years since I had my first experience of counselling, as a client. It prompted me to think about the course that my life has taken since then, and to see that counselling did change my life.
I can’t remember now, exactly what it was that prompted me to seek counselling in 2003. I was miserable, I know that much. Feeling depressed, stressed, trapped, that life was meaningless, not feeling good enough – all these had been familiar states of being for me as long as I could remember, certainly since early teenage. I didn’t think of myself as having a bad life, as these feelings were interspersed with periods of relief, moments of joy, happy events and the comfort of some truly meaningful relationships.
I think I was probably closer to truly believing “I can’t cope” than usual. “I can’t cope” is a phrase that I’ve become accustomed to hearing from other people, yet actually unhappy people are very good at coping. Coping is what we do; we manage, we survive, we keep on going. Often, I believe, when we say “I can’t cope” to another person, something in us is saying “I don’t want ‘coping’ to be my way of life. I want more from life than ‘coping.’”
I remember that I went to my GP. It wasn’t the first time that I had spoken to a doctor about mental distress, although I didn’t have the language to describe it other than to say that I was stressed. Although the word ‘depression’ had resonated with me for many years I thought that people who were depressed didn’t have functioning lives so didn’t think I had the right to the word. On at least one previous doctor’s appointment, I’d been offered medication, but had been reluctant to pursue that route, thinking agreeing would be an admission that I was never going to feel better (rather than seeing it as an opportunity to help me feel better).
I can’t now remember whether I was offered anti-depressants in 2003, but I do remember the GP giving me a leaflet with a list of local counsellors and counselling organisations on it. They couldn’t provide me with this via the NHS, but they could signpost me to where I could access it for myself.
I now see that even that was hugely important – the doctor (I can’t remember who it was, but I can certainly remember those old white male GPs who it sure as shit wouldn’t have been) helping me believe that talking to someone was a valid avenue to pursue, and also that there was something I could do for myself that might help, rather than getting that via the NHS. GPs even now have a powerful role, and that GP – though I had wanted them to tell me what to do – handed some of that power back to me.
Clearly I was in a sufficiently privileged position to be able to pay for counselling, although I’m sure I, like many clients I’ve worked with since, struggled to believe that it was really a justifiable expenditure. I expect I could probably have afforded more than the 4 or 5 sessions I permitted myself, but at the time, my emotional wellbeing didn’t sit in the same position in my priorities that it does now. In fact, the phrase ‘my emotional wellbeing’ wouldn’t even have been in my vocabulary.
There’s lots I can’t remember. I can’t remember the name of the counsellor who I saw, although I’m reminded of them anytime I pass the end of the street that they lived on, where I would visit for sessions on dark winter evenings. I wouldn’t recognise them if I passed them in the street. I don’t remember much of what we talked about.
What I do remember is that, during those few weeks, I noticed an advert in my local paper for care assistants at a local respite centre. The pay was significantly lower than my earnings in my customer service role in a financial company, yet something drew me to it. I didn’t really believe I should apply for a job as a care assistant; I worried I was just trying to run away from work stress in my existing role, but I mentioned it to my counsellor, who responded as if it was a perfectly normal thing to be interested in, and helped me explore the potential rewards and fulfilment in such a position that were missing from my job. I remember her suggesting that caring for others might in itself be something that I would find nourishing.
It was possibly the first time that I’d been encouraged to trust my gut instinct for what felt right, rather than what I imagined was the appropriate or culturally expected way forward (and by culturally I mean my family culture as well as society; I already thought I was a failure for not having a ‘graduate’ job).
I went into the session wondering if my counsellor would know what was wrong with me for being attracted to that job. I came out of the session thinking “I am allowed to want this.”
And I made a change.
I resigned my job in the city and exchanged a long bus commute for a half-hour drive across farmland in the opposite direction, to Leuchie House, a respite centre for people with long-term conditions. I can remember those first shifts, where I didn’t really know what I was doing, but was blown away by all the interesting guests (we never called them patients) I got to meet, and nourished by the gratitude and appreciation they expressed to me for helping them with tasks of daily living that I took for granted.
It changed my life.
I didn’t stay in the role for long. Caring wasn’t for me after all, plus the pay levels at the time were unsustainable for me, on top of running a car to commute 30 miles a day (there being no public transport). I found the process of deciding what to next, 10 months later, stressful, and felt anxious about my future all over again – but I still didn’t regret having made that move. I remained with the organisation, ultimately moving to a managerial role and developing a career in human resources, and stayed there for 13 years, during which the organisation went through some incredibly challenging times, and so did I.
It wasn’t perfect, and at times I struggled with work stress. By the time I left to build a private counselling practice, I felt I had given as much as I could and was ready to go.
But I also thrived in the various roles that I had, and at times felt a sense of purpose that had been missing, being part of a team working towards a single aim, that of providing the best possible nursing care in a holiday home environment. I met and worked with some really inspirational and passionate people. And the experience that I gained, including practising mediation skills, having difficult conversations, supporting colleagues through difficult times, meant, when I was offered the opportunity to do a counselling skills course, I jumped at it, which ultimately led me to being a therapist today.
I’m absolutely not saying that I took one step in a different direction and never looked back. The decision to switch jobs didn’t change me totally. That younger Lucy, who was stressed, depressed, anxious and self-judgmental still resides within me. Although she doesn’t appear anything like as much, or have such an influence on what I think and feel and do, that’s not just about me having had one change of direction. It’s thanks to many years of therapy, lots of hours of psychotherapy training, learning Focusing skills and practising behaviours or skills to shift my mindset, over those 20 years. Plus a bunch of other experiences, influential people and being taught to see that difficult times could also be AFLOGs (Another Fucking Learning Opportunity for Growth).
But, as I look back over 20 years, I can see the thread that links my life now – as a therapist moving into my seventh year of self-employment – to the choice I made as a result of those few counselling sessions in someone’s living room 20 years ago. I can see the thread that links some rewarding adventures, following scary decisions, to the encouragement, from that therapist back then, to trust what feels right, not what I imagine other people think is right.
And I’m very, very grateful to that anonymous counsellor whose name I’ve forgotten, and who doesn’t know the huge difference she made. Counselling changes lives.
If you’ve read this you might be wondering whether you could use some help in making a big decision – or a small one. A decision that might seem relatively small, can have a much bigger impact on your life than you expect.
Or perhaps something is feeling off-kilter in your life and you don’t know what to do about it. Maybe you don’t want ‘coping’ to be your life. Talking to someone can help you to access a deeper understanding in yourself, and discover that there is wisdom there that can show you the way.
When I want to escape to another world, I do it through reading. For that half-hour, I’m not in my own life anymore, I’m inhabiting a different world, where I really care deeply about the experience of someone else, where I feel their feelings, even becoming a different person.
I believe reading can change your life in different ways.
Throughout history, education has literally changed people’s lives, and there is a political and humanitarian argument for literacy being a right for that reason. While I completely subscribe to that (after all, restricting educational access to males, or to white people, has been a way of subjugating different parts of societies in order to keep power in the hands of the few)- what I’m talking about here is at a more individual level.
I grew up with my nose in a book. We didn’t have a telly in my house, a fact that I was resentful of at various points in my childhood. (If you want to know how to nurture a child’s belief that they’re the odd one out or will never belong, deprive them of the ability to engage in playground conversations about last night’s Grange Hill episode – I used to watch TV round at my best friend’s house, but Grange Hill came on just at the time when I had to go home for my tea.)
However, setting aside the injustices of my upbringing for a moment, what I did have plenty of was books. Apparently even before I learned to read, my parents would be woken up each morning by me calling from my cot “Light on and books!” I’m not sure I would describe reading as a favourite activity – it was, simply, an indelible part of my life.
When I grew up and left home for uni, then work, reading time was squeezed by the demands of adult life – and by my developing tendency to, at some level, believe that ‘unproductive’ time was self-indulgent. I wonder now if there’s some connection for me with reading being ‘lazy’ because it’s a sedentary activity. I still really enjoyed to read – but I wouldn’t let myself do it as much as I liked – I was always too busy.
I was well into my 30s when I started a bookgroup with a friend. Having to read a book a month, for that, encouraged me to make more time for reading. I think the logic probably went something like this: “Reading a book for bookgroup isn’t self-indulgent because I’m answerable to other people.” But I began to feel resentful that everything I was reading was chosen by others (we take it in turns to choose a book) and so that prompted me to carve out more time so that I could read what I wanted to read too.
My time was often constrained, especially when I started psychotherapy training alongside work – and transferred my ‘shoulds’ about productive behaviour to the self-expectation of reading books by therapy experts. But at least personal therapy, and psychotherapy training, helped me to recognise what a strong ‘Critical Parent’ lived in me – telling me what I ‘should’ be doing – and I gradually started to allow myself to trust my instincts into what I wanted – or needed – once more.
In recent years, reading has become a form of self-care, and I feel more connected to that little Lucy who liked to escape from the real world with a book.
One of the things I’ve appreciated about lockdown is that I’ve been able to indulge (that word again!) that love, because there’s not so much than I can do (regardless of whether I want to or not), and because so much of my work is screen-based, that looking at a page instead is a way of looking after myself physically as well as mentally.
The experience of recently ramping up my book-reading has prompted me to reflect on how I experience emotional benefits from it.
How is reading a form of self-care?
1. It can ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression
Reading a book that you can lose yourself in gives you a break from life. I don’t generally advocate distraction as a technique for managing anxiety or depression, as it can shore up a habit that if there are feelings that are too uncomfortable to deal with, they get ignored or suppressed, and however that might feel comfortable in the moment, those feelings don’t go away; they just get stored up.
Having said that, if you get into cycles of overthinking, ruminating, feeling anxious and trying to think your way out of it, interrupting that cycle can be helpful. The fight or flight hormones (that are running through your body as a result of some part of you panicking that it needs to do something to keep safe by ‘fixing a problem’) get a chance to dissipate. That allows your breathing to steady, your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax; there’s a physical as well as mental and emotional benefit.
Note – I’m recommending a book you can ‘lose yourself in’, that will allow you to switch off, so preferably one unrelated to the situation you’re worrying about or trying to fix. I know only too well that when my imposter syndrome kicks in, and part of me believes I’m not a good-enough therapist, I feel a pull to read ‘professional stuff’ – about techniques, or presenting problems or theory. That kind of reading has its place – but not here.
This is about taking care of your whole self, not about fixing the problem your busy brain is worrying away at.
2. It helps you make connections
There’s nothing like being immersed in another world to help me develop my empathy for what someone else, with a completely different life experience from me, might be feeling. The process of doing this by reading is different from that of watching a film because the brain engages and involves itself in a different way – for example, reading about riding a bike activates the parts of the brain that would be involved in riding a bike.
Even if you’ve never left your country or particular area of the world, you can visit other places through books and build your understanding, and that will help you connect to others – virtual travel broadening your mind. If you want a further stretch then reading in another language from that of your mother tongue can also help you shift your perspective, because the way that different languages behave shapes the way that people think.
Obviously this has potential to benefit others – if you meet people from different places and with different backgrounds from you, you’ve developed your intuition and empathy to respond to them – but there is also a benefit to you, because of the emotional experience of connecting more deeply.
You might make connections to experiences too, perhaps to something you didn’t notice you were missing. For example, I’m often drawn to books that are embedded in the landscape or nature and reading them benefits me in at least two ways; firstly, I get something of that experience of actually being in the place described, of feeling that awe or wonder or amazement; and secondly that they remind me to notice my environment when I’m outside, often at quite a small scale – they prompt me to rediscover the world around me and to really notice where I am right now, grounding me.
3. It improves your communication skills, helping you be heard and understood
Reading develops your language skills because it introduces you to different ways of expressing things you may experience around you, and to new vocabulary. Many languages – and certainly English – have a huge vocabulary providing potential for saying one thing in a myriad of very subtly different ways.
This isn’t just about ‘sounding more intelligent’(although I have had situations in my life where wielding words has helped me level a power dynamic) but also about being understood. If you can express yourself in different ways, it gives you more options when talking about difficult subjects, or when asking for what you want in your important relationships, and this can make a real difference to your ability to be clear about communicating your needs, setting boundaries and for saying No gently.
4. It can build and deepen relationships
As mentioned earlier, reading can be a way of connecting to others, but there’s another way that reading can develop relationships – through sharing your reading experience. That became important to me in the last few years when I moved away from the UK to live elsewhere for a while, and then, a year after returning, found myself in a different kind of isolation because of Covid 19 stay-at-home restrictions!
The book group I’ve been a part of for 15 years has been a precious lifeline over the last 4 – a steady mooring rooted in my diary when I’ve felt adrift and isolated. We’ve continued to meet and talk and argue and laugh via webcam when we haven’t been able to do it in person. (Obviously this would apply to many other types of groups as well as reading ones.)
Reading together with others has encouraged me to try and explore other worlds that I might not have done (even while complaining about being made to read about the real life drama of a college American football team, for example). It has given a focus away from the other struggles of life for a few hours a week. It has brought the joy of connecting through shared experience.
Our book group is the best in the world, which helps. Though I may be a bit biased.
5. It’s an overt message to yourself that you matter
Pausing to read a book is a commitment to yourself that you are important and deserve this time. It’s just not possible to read a book ‘busily’. (Actually, one member of my bookgroup, realising that they weren’t going to get the book finished on time, decided to listen to the audiobook at 4 x normal speed. They arrived at the meeting in a wide-eyed manic state having got quite a different sense of the book from the rest of us, and they didn’t recommend it as a relaxing activity.)
It’s one of the most common things I hear when friends say ‘Oh, I love reading, but I just don’t have the time’. I used to say it myself – especially while studying, when I would make time to read neuroscience tomes, but not to pick up a fantasy novel.
No one else is going to make that time for you. If you think you don’t have the time to read because that’s not ‘productive time’ – think again. Think of the longer-term benefits of allowing yourself to take a break, to do something that you enjoy, something that relaxes you, that slows you down.
6. It can teach you how to be healthier and happier
Personally, I very rarely read self-help books. Anything with a title that seems to be saying ‘This book will change your life’ is a definite turn-off (note to self: don’t title this blog ‘reading this will change your life’).
Having said that, I do read books to educate and ‘improve’ myself. Like many other white people, over the last year I’ve been reading more literature by Black authors on addressing my privilege and unconscious racism, and of course, that hasn’t been comfortable. But without building my tolerance to that discomfort, I can’t engage in the antiracist behaviour required to mend that disconnect between ‘thinking I’m a good person’ and ignoring the benefits I enjoy by living in a white-centred society – i.e. I see it as enabling me to become more true to who I think I am.
Lots of people find self-help books useful, either because of the practical steps that they introduce to doing things differently, or even because – as mentioned above – picking up a book that promises to improve your life sends a little message to yourself that you matter.
If you’re attracted to self-help books, but find that they don’t seem to bring the change that you want, it might be useful to reflect on whether the subconscious message you’re directing at yourself is ‘you’re not good enough and need to change’ rather than ‘I want you to be happier because you’re important’. See if reframing this shifts the sort of book you want to read!
7. It can take you on a voyage of self-discovery
In another form of self-help, I believe books can help you become more understanding of yourself and more aware of what you need. If you have a strong reaction when you read a book, taking some time to reflect on this can lead to you learning more about yourself.
What is it in this book that triggered that anger, or feeling of being overwhelmed with love, or despair, or feeling a bit lost, or defensive? Did something about one of the characters speak to something in you? Was it a sense of affinity that you felt with a particular event?
I sometimes find that a book that I didn’t feel I was particularly enjoying at the time of reading can stay with me for days or even weeks afterward, returning to my mind as if there’s some kind of message there that it has for me. I can be prompted to notice something that I’ve let go in my life, that feels missing or that I need more of, by my reaction to what I read. Even if I can’t pin my finger on exactly what it’s about, spending a little bit of time alongside that part in me that responds strongly feels therapeutic, as if it’s meeting a need of something that wants attention.
Reading tastes are so personal, and what some people find therapeutic, others may feel is just too much hard work. Here’s 7 books that do it for me in different ways.
A book (or series – the Winternight trilogy) that I really lose myself in, this story has the flavour of a Russian folk tale, with a very strong young female main character – who is only too aware of her own vulnerability. A fantastic illustration of resilience, set in a wonderful magic realist sweeping fantasy.
A book that has stuck with me long after reading, this novel is set during the real life events of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, and tells the story of the women who fought in that war. It pushed me to read more about Ethiopian history as I realised how little I knew of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and how much my perceptions of a country had been influenced by growing up in the 80s amidst white Western media depictions of famine victims.
One of my all-time favourites…….a novel, but also a poem to the land, and humans’ relationship to it. Every time I read this book I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and how imaginary and transient many of my worries, fixations and anxieties are. Books like this give me a way to talk about and develop my understanding of what really matters to me at my core. This book is an antidote to social media life of the 21st century.
This was almost unanimously popular (an unusual occurrence!) in my book group. Evaristo manages to succinctly capture on paper so many different lives, of mostly – though not entirely – Black British women. For me this was a fantastic combination of entertainment and exposure to lives different from mine, but also, in sharing our responses to the characters, and which ones we loved, a great book group read.
For escaping into new worlds, NK Jemisin, a science fiction / fantasy writer I’ve only recently discovered, takes some beating. (As a Black woman, she also challenges stereotypes of what a sci-fi writer ‘looks like’.) This book is set in a New York that is – and isn’t – just like the real one, and as well as having some full-on sci-fi concepts that take some bending your head around, is chock-full of strong female characters.
The closest I’ve got to self-help recently, Rewilding Yourself is a gentle book that brings you closer to nature. In a year when taking cruises to Alaska to see arctic wildlife hasn’t been an option (even for those who can bear to burn the fossil fuel to do it), this little book is a great introduction to becoming a small-scale David Attenborough in your own back garden or field.
Le Guin was an amazing writer – her Young Adult Earthsea books were a part of my growing up – and I recently discovered her adult fiction. I never read one of her books without being given pause for thought – about the assumptions we make about what is ‘normal’ or ‘real’ based on our experience, environment and upbringing. She deals with philosophical questions with a light touch. The Left Hand of Darkness – written in the 1960s – challenges concepts of sexuality and gender with a delicacy that is impressive 50 years later.
If you think you don’t like reading – perhaps you just need to give yourself more of a chance. Start with something that fills your soul. Read a love story, or a children’s book. A graphic novel (I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi, which tells her early life story, as a girl growing up in the Iran of the 1970s and 80s). When I need the reading equivalent of curling up under a blanket and hiding from the world, I read Joan Aiken’s children’s books, even now. Reading takes practice – but the rewards are so worth it!
It’s cheap, too, especially if you’ve got a library that is operational at the moment, or by making use of charity shops, or Betterworldbooks – although it’s also great to support authors by paying full whack for their labour, when you can afford it.
Of course, reading isn’t the only way of taking care of yourself! But it sure has benefits that can include learning more about yourself, giving yourself a break, connecting to others and building relationships.
If you’re a reader who struggles to prioritise time to read as much as you’d really really like to, I hope reading this may have helped you to recognise the longer-term benefits of doing what you love.
I’d love to hear what reading means to you, if you feel reading has a therapeutic benefit, and whether there are particular books you return to again and again.
And if reading isn’t enough, and you feel you could benefit from learning more about yourself through talking to someone, please get in touch here.
I had a week off recently. It was a bit ‘meh’. My previous week off had been a couple of months into lockdown and I relished being prevented from doing anything very much, in glorious weather. I expected to feel the same this time, and I didn’t.
Instead my mood yo-yoed and I found it difficult to settle. I enjoyed seeing some friends in real life – it felt like an ‘event’ – and I was also aware that in some ways seeing people in real life now feels a bit weird. Some days I kept bursting into tears and couldn’t motivate myself to do anything. One day the weather was terrible and I was relieved because it meant my options were reduced!
Exactly halfway through the week I crashed and had to go back to bed after breakfast. Initially I was railing against myself; unable to get up, to move, yet unable to allow myself to lie there – but by the afternoon I was able to surrender to not being able to do anything other than lie in bed and read Joan Aiken books. And that ‘surrender’ felt like an improvement – rather than being consumed by frustration that I wasn’t ‘making better use’ of my holiday.
The day after I felt, quite simply, better. We went to a wildlife reserve that we hadn’t been to for a few years……..and I realised how much I had needed to get away from home. I recognise how lucky I have been during lockdown to be able to get out for walks locally but something in me had really needed more country and to be out of earshot of traffic. For a while we just sat and listened to grasshoppers, birds and wind.
I caught up with a couple of people by phone/Zoom and discovered that I wasn’t alone in struggling, and that what I was dealing with was partly ‘Covid weirdness’. We spoke about places we’d been together, and I was taken a little out of myself and my horizons pushed further away.
It occurred to me that I’d shifted into another state from the initial fire-fighting in the weeks immediately before and after lockdown, through the girding-my-loins for the long-haul, and into something that felt a little like ‘pandemic fatigue’.
As I got ready to return to work, I noted down some of the things I’d learned that week. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. It helps to reach out
………even in a small way. Let others know that you’re finding it tough. Sometimes opening up to someone new can really help – not necessarily a counsellor, but someone you don’t normally have such conversations with. It can help you feel you’re not moaning all the time to the same people about the same old stuff.
2. Sometimes you need a few plans in place
Having a completely empty week that I could do what I liked in didn’t help me on this occasion – I just felt additional pressure to Use It Well. A couple of appointments, days out or even planned tasks, would have given me a bit of structure……….
3. …………and routine
Even on a holiday routine can sometimes be helpful; not necessarily the SAME routine, but something to create a scaffolding to hang your day on, such as getting outdoors at the start or end of the day.
4. Finding ANYTHING weird at the moment is normal
Even things you think are ‘just the same’. So much has changed in how we do things, that it’s affecting relationships, work, leisure. We’re more likely to notice BIG changes and consciously attend to them, but the subtle ones can be slightly out of our awareness and hence more destabilising.
5. Getting moving helps
Going for a walk is always useful for me; I had a looooong walk one day. Although it didn’t ‘make me feel happy’ something about the movement and being in a different space stirred me up and enabled me to clarify and voice some of the stuff that had been going round in my head and bugging me. Walking brought some kind of shift, and that’s what I needed. Swimming outside helped too, for different reasons. When I’m swimming in the sea, most of my focus is on not drowning or doing anything (too) risky and that makes it hard to ruminate – in fact, I’m too busy ‘being’ to notice how I’m feeling.
6. A change of scene is good
It doesn’t have to be a trip abroad. Taking a train, a drive, a cycle to somewhere else gets you away from your usual space. In my case this meant getting away from the reminders of all the things I wasn’t getting done at home, freeing up a little bit of space in my head. The risk of catching Covid from the car club car was outweighed, for me, by the emotional benefits.
7. Small tasks or activities help your mental health
Even things like cleaning or tidying. Finding a way to bring it back to one thing and focusing on that rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of everything that I wasn’t getting done enabled me to do something and to feel a small sense of achievement from that, even where it was just cleaning the bathroom. It helps if it’s something you can do mindfully, bringing your attention to what you’re doing as you’re doing it (I did a bit of berry-picking) rather than, for example, clearing a pile of paperwork where each piece can potentially lead to another ‘to-do’!
8. Sometimes I just need to surrender to misery!
…….and to hide in bed. Fighting it can mean it takes longer to get through. For the morning of the day I spent in bed, I had a voice in my head telling me I was being lazy / needed to pull myself together / was wasting my week off, but once I’d made the decision to just stay there until I sensed that I wanted to get up, the relief of giving myself permission to collapse was – well, a relief. It was a turning point that seemed to free up more of my energy for the next day.
I’m not saying just letting go and being miserable is always the solution, but my hunch is that it’s more often helpful than you think – because there’s something about giving yourself permission that sends a really significant message to the part of you that might feel it’s not good enough.
Part of me continues to say “but you’ve had it easy during 2020 compared to many people”. I get that. I am grateful that my income hasn’t been affected, that I haven’t had to worry about home-schooling, that I have other privileges that many people don’t (not just my colour, but economics, class and where I live, too), that have meant that I haven’t been hit as hard as many people by this.
I can be grateful for all of that and I can also listen to that part of me that’s frightened and fed up and doesn’t know what’s going to happen…… and to let it know that I hear it. Expending energy on giving yourself a hard time for being a snowflake doesn’t help anyone else (or yourself).
If you can find the things that support you in difficult times you’ll have more energy available to support others.
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.