During lockdown, a large portion of time was spent exploring my local countryside. It has had an unmatched affect on my happiness and massively helped me cope with my anxiety.
I undertook a fundraising challenge of walking 1000 miles in 100 days. Something that I am so grateful and proud that I was able to complete. This was a challenge I wanted to do, to raise money for Oxfordshire Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre.
This challenge resulted in 700 miles of walking and 300 miles of cycling through the Oxfordshire countryside. I got to know the fields, the river and the sky as closely as I know my own hand. I had a beautiful time, one that helped me greatly. Before this challenge, I did know that nature and exercise help boost mental health, I just didn’t fully understand how.
With this post, I want to try and explain the exact ways in which it helped me. To begin with, I will give you some background to my anxiety and the reasons behind it. Hopefully, this will help me be more specific.
What started my anxiety?
It started in 2017 when I suffered a head injury. I became part of the unlucky 1 in 10 statistic who’s concussion symptoms persist long after the injury.
In the first six months it was at its worst; I had daily migraines, I was extremely sensitive to light and noise, I had intense mood swings, my vision was wonky and my memory was poor.
It left me unable to work, socialise or exercise. All of the things that would normally keep me busy and jolly were no longer possible. Having this happen to me at the age of 19 was extremely isolating.
This social isolation led to extreme anxiety. After six months, once it had got to the point where I could tolerate light and noise more, the anxiety had already developed and was holding a tight grip on me.
Before the injury, I loved being in large groups and meeting new people. Although sometimes I may have been shy or quiet, this was down to nerves and not anxiety. It is important to recognise the difference between the two. Nerves are the fuzzy butterflies in your stomach and are much easier to overcome, anxiety is the giant gang of demonic bats in your stomach and is very challenging to battle.
My attempt of putting the feelings into words
Quite often a trigger for my anxiety are my visual problems- spacial awareness and slow reaction time. Imagine you are walking through a busy, pedestrian street. People and obstacles are everywhere. Now imagine that there is a ‘warping’ affect on them, you can’t tell how close or far away they are.
The more you try and concentrate the worse your headache becomes and the more dizziness you develop. So it is easier to let the world around you stay distorted.
This forces me to be hyper-aware and constantly putting effort into not walking into people. You may also see me stopped at one side of a road for a painful amount of time, as I attempt to work out how far away the cars really are from me. This can all be quite amusing, but also exhausting when it is every day.
I also feel this affect when I walk into small spaces. Trying to work out how much space is around me and where I need to be often distresses me. It can sometimes lead to panic. It then begins to get warm, my heart beats fast and I feel like the whole room is closing in on me.
On top of this, my brain generally works slower now. My reaction time is definitely, not great. At an attempt for humour, I sometimes describe it to people by saying ‘there are no breaks on my legs’. So for example, once I have started crossing a road, my brain isn’t going to be able to stop me.. no matter how large or fast the vehicle that is hurtling towards me is. Luckily there have only been near misses so far..
But how did my daily walks help this?
Well for starters, the more I walk, the stronger I am getting at fighting dizziness. When I first hit my head, I couldn’t walk down the street without getting dizzy and needing to sit down. I remember one day I walked 10 minutes down the street, then had to sit at a bus stop for half an hour to recover and walk back.
During my lockdown I built up to walking 20 miles and still sometimes not feeling dizzy by the end. Although my spatial awareness isn’t perfect, my dizziness is improving which makes day to day life easier.
Spending more time outside, in vast countryside is a powerful escape from having to be hyper aware of my surroundings 24/7. Being able to walk without putting mass amounts of thought into every step is so relaxing for my brain.
It’s also freeing when there is no one around and actually it doesn’t matter, if I am stumbling around as if I have just downed a bottle of tequila.
Green and Blue Spaces
Green spaces are the grass, trees and mountains of nature. Blue spaces are the oceans, rivers, lakes and even fountains.
Being by the river has helped a great deal. Scientists have looked into the effect of ‘blue spaces’ on our mental health. People who lived around coastal areas, or rivers, or lakes generally tested to have better mental health than those who didn’t.
There are various reasons as to why this is, I think for me the strongest thing is, it works as a distraction. Getting lost in patterns on the river provides an amazing, almost hypnotic, escape from all that badness that usually clamps on to my thoughts.
I have often said to Harry that I am at my happiest when I am by the Sea. My spiritual self, tells me this is because I am a Pisces (a water sign) or possibly because I was born in a birth pool. However it’s nice to know that there is scientific evidence behind why the sea helps happiness too.
The changes I noticed
I really felt the difference in how I am communicating with people. I started to have conversations with people I passed on my walks. They are coming naturally and relaxed. I don’t have as many stressful things floating around in my head and it comes across in my voice.
On one walk, I shocked myself. I sparked up a conversation with a dog walker. I did it with a voice I almost didn’t recognise. A projected, calm and confident voice that I haven’t used in a long time. It was nice, I look forward to finding it more often.
My stress levels come down when I have had a long walk and my mood is up. I can see the difference in my anxiety if I go to socialise after a walking compared to if I socialise on a day where I have done nothing.
How to balance this with the ‘non-furlough’ life?
I am going to try and force myself out on walks often, even in this cold and uninviting weather.
I have been back at work now for under a month. It has exhausted me. I have recently made an important decision to step down from my Head Receptionist role. I am hoping this is going to allow me to prioritise coping with my symptoms.
The confidence to take this decision definitely came from my time furloughed. The 1000 miles I spent alone in the countryside, reminded me of what is important to me but also that I don’t have to let myself be disheveled and broken. That maybe recovery, or at least a better ‘normal’, could be possible. That I could find that projected and confident voice I addressed the dog waker with more often.
I am so, so excited to finally be prioritising my mental and physical health over what I think others will perceive as success, financial security or a ‘progressive career’.
When I travel again I am going to plan for lots of time in the countryside, in blue and green destinations. If any of you struggle with anxiety, but are also wanting to travel, I would recommend the same. Especially solo travellers. Think of mountainous destination, coastal regions and small cities with clean air.
I know this year has had a catastrophic affect for so many people. It has been shocking, hard and painful. It definitely hasn’t been good for me financially, or for anyone in the hospitality industry. Things are still uncertain in that aspect. However for my head, it has given me the first moment of relief since 2017.
Thank you for reading!
This turned out to be more of a ‘story time’ post than I originally planned but maybe sharing my raw experience is the best way to give advise to anyone going through the same. If you are going through any of the stuff I have talked about in this, my inbox is always open- I know how horrible going through a head injury can be when no one, not even the specialists understand so feel free to talk to me about it.
Let me know in the comments if and how spending time in nature has helped you. Don’t forget to subscribe to join the community! Have a fantastic day all!
Side note: if you are able to and would still like to donate to my challenge, donations are open still for one more week. Follow the link below to go to my JustGiving page.