Dr Seuss seems to have something good to say about everything, including anxiety and depression.
In the depths of my Slump, I cannot leave the house. Some days, I cannot leave my bed. Anxiety is a prison not of my own making, a chemical reaction racing through my body that will not respond to reason, logic or science. Other days it is a trickling undercurrent to my life; unseen but undermining everything. Anxiety is not a one size fits all type of illness, but whichever form it takes, it is always unwelcome, constantly distracting, and often debilitating.
Whenever I leave the house, I take my anxiety with me, so going for a walk should not be the first thing I think of as an aid to recovery. Life outside the comfort of my own four walls is challenging; within my space I have control – outside I have uncertainty and chaos. When you are in the midst of living with anxiety, stepping outside of the front door isn’t always at the top of your list, but, having taken a bit of a backwards step these last few months, coupled with the onset of the perimenopause and a huge weight gain over lockdown, I realised that I had to do something more than just relying on medication and CBT.
So why walk? Well, the science is there to show that walking helps in several ways to calm, exhilarate and distract the mind. It has huge beneficial effects on easing tension in the muscles, it can alter the negative chemistry in the brain, and it helps the amygdala to control the release of the adrenaline that causes the fight or flight desire. Exercise burns off that excess adrenaline pumping through you and it releases the happy hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, to balance the negative with some positive. And, of course, most simple of all, it distracts the mind from the hurly-burly undercurrents that the anxiety is stirring.
Of course, knowing all of this is only the beginning of the battle. Making the decision to start and actually doing it are not always done on the same day. Not always in the same week. Not always consistently. What you know you have to do and what you feel you are capable of doing are two different things.
The answer is to do what you can and let go of the guilt.
Going for that walk is about feeling better, not about being burdened by other people’s expectations. It’s about taking your time, finding your own pace and exploring your own route. It’s about being comfortable with where, when and for how long you walk. For some it is the local park for social company and distraction, whereas, for me, it is a remote footpath and open countryside for seclusion. I began by aiming to take the dog to the local field for thirty minutes on a Tuesday. It wasn’t really much of a walk (I spent most of my time throwing the ball around) and by the second Tuesday I was already buckling, finding as many excuses as possible not to go. But now I walk three days a week, yes, slow and plodding, but exploring the woods, clambering over stiles and crossing fords.
There is something fantastically liberating about standing on top of a hill being battered by the wind – my anxiety is still standing there next to me, worrying about what is going to happen if another walker appears, but sometimes, just for a few seconds, it shuts up and just looks at the view.
Of course, not only where, but also if, I go is dependant on how I am feeling . Brisk regular exercise is said to produce the best results, but that isn’t always possible. Some days it is just a big, fat no. I try to do what I can do, even if it is as simple as a walk around the garden. If that is all my anxiety is letting me do today, then I take what it is offering. I hope that I am growing braver and stronger and although I take a risk every time I leave the house that today will be the day that it all comes crashing down on me, I try to carry the positive experiences with me.
I have also dipped my toe into the world of mindfulness. I try to focus on 5 things that I can see, 4 things that I can touch, 3 things I can hear, 2 things I can smell and 1 thing that I can taste. It can be tough going but, when I get it right, each helps to ground me in the moment. Walking helps. I get to try different things every day – the view from the hill, the sound of the birds, the feel of the path beneath my feet today; the closeness of the woods, the sound of the stream, the smell of the undergrowth tomorrow. The change in the weather brings different experiences – snowy days are one of my favourites.
I’ve also embraced distraction in the form of photography, but what started as a need has turned into something fun and rewarding. I concentrate on what I can see through the lens of my camera (or mobile phone) and just for a moment the sound of the anxiety rattling in my head is gone. It makes me look up and around me, challenging one of my key coping mechanisms (to keep my head down in case I am forced to make eye contact with anyone) and it takes me out of what is in my head and look beyond. Some days I go big with landscapes across the valley, whilst the next it might be small with intricate studies of a moss on a stone wall. And of course, it gives me an excuse to have to stop when the hill gets too much for my tired little legs.
So, I leave the last words to Dr Seuss, who always seems to know the right thing to say: