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How walking changed my life

18 months ago, I was hospitalised with a respiratory illness. This alongside a barrage of other issues at that point in time, lead to me suffering with symptoms of poor mental health. Stress, exhaustion, low mood and thoughts of hopelessness and worthlessness impacted work, social life, home and every part of my existence. I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, clinical depression and PTSD. Although I was prescribed medication and treatment nothing seemed to help.

The first lock down and the fear of catching Covid was a wake-up call, and I realised something had to change.

Something had to change

I had never been a particularly active person or even an outdoors person, but I started going for short daily walks. Initially at first to try and build back up my physical wellbeing, as the respiratory illness had left me feeling weak and fatigued. 

I decided to participate in the 2.6 Challenge in April, walking 26 miles in seven days. I investigated local nature spots within one hour walking distance of my home. 

With stunning sun rises, ducklings, baby lambs and the blossoming of flowers it felt like I was experiencing the beauty of spring for the first time. Even the wind and rain felt more refreshing. I found myself looking forward to daily walks and the sights I would see. 

The benefits of being outside and exercising really was helping to improve my mental wellbeing. After all it is very hard to feel sad when you are watching three fluffy baby geese with their Mum and Dad waddling around Poole Park. 

Over time I have challenged myself to walk longer distances and explore parks and nature reserves further afield. 

The benefits of switching off and walking

Being outside away from technology and the stresses of life has become a purpose, the more time I spend walking in nature the more I am able to switch off and the better I feel. This has become a definite positive for helping to manage the challenges and boundaries of working from home. 

I have also discovered that thinking about worries felt easier while I was walking. What may seem like the biggest catastrophe at home/work compared to the enormity of nature and the beauty outside somehow didn’t feel as significant. This has helped me re-frame my thoughts. I would often start a walk feeling very tense and sometimes crying my eyes out, but by the end I would feel calmer and more able to process stress and face problems. 

Interestingly, walking has also become a gauge as to where my mental health is at. I know that if I am struggling to leave the house to walk, or if I walk and I don’t feel better at the end of it, that this is a sign that my mental health has dipped. This may mean I am just tired and need to rest. But it could also be that I need to reach out for professional support. 

Having a goal helps 

Taking part in Dorset Mind challenges has helped me connect with others and share the joy of walking in nature. Through the winter Step-up Challenge, I participated with my son. He was living and walking in London, and I was walking in Dorset. Every day throughout the challenge we would share photos and experiences of walking with each other. This helped us to feel more connected too, even though we couldn’t be together. 

I know that initially I was dubious when people said going for a walk can improve your mental health. But if you are struggling, I highly recommend giving it a try. 

The power of walking in nature really has improved my mental health and changed my life. 

Special thanks to…

This article was written by our anonymous blogger – you know who you are, thank you. 

For Mental Health Awareness Week this year, the theme has been nature. We’ve been asking staff, volunteers and our friends to write blogs and share how nature has impacted them. 

News

Questioning Myself – My LBGTI+ Journey

I first realised I probably wasn’t straight when I was 14 or 15. I first started experiencing mental health issues when I was around 10.

For me, the two have gone together for longer than I can remember.

Questioning Myself

For me, I started trying to work out who I was, as well as witnessing a lot of homophobia at school. Seeing how much hetero-normality is embedded in our society it’s no surprise that the personal and social impacts on LGBT+ people lead to higher rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide. I was isolated, didn’t have any friends or social life and was in my own, not very healthy mind. To be honest, I had no idea really who I was, or what I was. I didn’t feel like I knew what my personality was and I experienced suicidal thoughts often. I catastrophized as I failed to imagine my future, let alone working out how I felt about other people.

Years later, I learnt that I’d been dissociating. Everything had been too traumatic for my mind to handle and so I shut it down. Simple. Except, every so often the monsters would takeover and I didn’t know how to stop them. I’d spent my life running away from feelings, so when my feelings came I just ran harder. The rest of my teenage years went past in a bit of a blur.

I got good grades at school despite attendance being an issue and there were tiny signs of improvement when I moved to Sixth Form. I fancied one of my tutors, loved my subjects and the feeling of liberation of being able to come and go out of college; I learnt to drive and would drive myself back between lessons. I dressed how I wanted and started to choose what I ate. I discovered dance and exercise. And I made small steps away from the child who had been so unhappy towards someone who felt a long way off adult. But who had some control over their life.

Questioning my sexuality

For years I didn’t really think about my sexuality. But when I did, it felt like a problem that I couldn’t really define but was desperate to fix. I’d go through periods of obsessing about it, researching in infinite detail like a forensic investigator trying to work out what I was. Growing up, there weren’t the labels there are now, and I had no idea that others felt how I felt, or that I was just as valid as anyone else. Sometimes I fancied women, sometimes I fancied men but I rarely wanted to do anything with either of them! A massive turning point for me came when I was 21. I’d been dominated by crippling anxiety, OCD, depression, experiences of PTSD and dissociation for more than a decade. My tentative first steps into the world had been totally dictated by my having leant to keep the demons happy.

The turning point

I found a job that I loved and looking back at those years, I can see the same threads that defined that job through every job that I’ve done since and are important values and give me my sense of fulfilment. My boss was inspirational (who also happened to be very attractive) and played a large, if inadvertent part, in helping me realise that my sexuality was fluid and that’s absolutely fine. I started to find things I was good at, things that I enjoyed and that made me feel good about myself…sometimes. I met people, learnt new skills and gained opportunities.

Fast forward a few years and I eventually got myself a diagnosis. It sounds so cliched but it was like the missing piece of the jigsaw. I had all these experiences, from OCD, hypomania, acute anxiety, depression and finally there was a name that bought together lots of my experiences. It was like putting on a pair of glasses; I could see the world for the first time. There had been milestones in my life up until that point: like getting that job, like finding a good therapist, like starting to build my networks. But it was getting that diagnosis that now, looking back, everything really pivots back to.

Recovery

See, it was through that diagnosis that I was put in touch with the Recovery Education Centre. I started learning about my mental health and began gaining tools to manage it. I met people from different backgrounds, who were at different points in their life but we all had experience of mental health. Some of those people became great friends and that was like unlocking a door for me. My life to date had been defined by loneliness and isolation. Now I had an opportunity to be “normal”, whatever normal is and to enjoy being with people. It was magical, it was free and I was just being me – I’d finally started to discover who I was.

I remember once though, being out with a friend. They were straight, I wasn’t. But we were both comfortable being draped around each other in public but other people weren’t. And so I had my first direct experience of LGBT+ hate with some people muttering at us as we walked past. It shook me but it didn’t shake my sense of who I am. I’m queer. A label that was used to hate LGBT+ people for decades. Many in the community still reject it for that reason but for me, it captures that I don’t really fit into any particular box. Sometimes I’d say I was gay, other times bi or pan, demi, or greysexual. I’m attracted to people, I love queer/platonic relationships and intimacy but I’m aromantic and asexual.

Not just another woolly label

The Recovery Education Centre didn’t only help me find people like me, not did it only give me skills. through blending peer specialism, where people with lived experience of mental health share their stories and coping strategies with clinical specialists. It’s made recovery a real, touchable concept. Not just another woolly label in your journey slapped on by the people with no experience of what living day-to-day with mental health is like.

The more that I’ve learnt about my mental health and ways of managing it, the more I’ve been able to find out who I am. It’s like building a tower block, brick by brick: gradually, I’ve been adding one brick at a time and every so often I’ve completed a whole level. But it wasn’t until November last year… in the middle of the pandemic… when I was able to see my tower block. I hadn’t been well, although I hadn’t realised quite how unwell, for the first few months of last year; Although I was being discharged from a service, I couldn’t let go. I was clinging on to my therapist, to not having to face my feelings on my own and I ended up hitting self-destruct. I reached a point though, where I could see the self-destruction and all my building blocks lined up.

Finding myself…

I’d been doing more group work, talking to others with mental health issues and doing some professional development too. Suddenly a jumble of muddled up body parts was starting to morph into something resembling a proper, marker-penned body map. All of those tools, all of the learning I’d done over the years, the people I’d met, the support I had, everything lined up. And I chose November, in the middle of the pandemic, to find myself. To know who I was, what I wanted to be and how I was going to do it and you know what? I went ahead and did it.

And for me it starts with these 3 things:

  1. Breathing – grounding myself through techniques like Breathing Square, 7/11 breathing or a Breathing Space meditation;
  2. Looking up at the sky – it’s so easy to look down or to not really see anything in front of you. Just tipping your head back and looking at what’s above the trees instantly grounds me and fills me with hope; And finally…
  3. Time – our minds are the best special effects artists, making our feelings and demons seem much scarier that they really are. Allowing myself time to be with my feelings, understand them and be comfortable with them has helped me realise this.

I’ve had the best few months of mental health since then that I’ve had in a long time. Different aspects of my life combine to give me my sense of wellbeing. From fitness, to fun, fulfilment to pride. They’re all working together. I’m funny, I’m loving, I’m passionate, I’m proud of myself and of what I’m achieving.

Excited about the future

There’s still a long way to go. But I’m no longer stopping myself looking ahead at the journey in front of me. I have a sense of being propelled forward into my future by the excitement of what I’m accomplishing. And a sense that I can do this! I even asked a girl out the other day and got a “maybe”. It wasn’t a “no”, and even if it had been, that would have been ok because I tried! The demons probably won’t ever go away. But now I bring them along for the ride, I don’t let them dictate to me any more.
So, this LGBT+ History Month my message to you is this: find your values, find what makes you you and the right people will find you. Whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your gender identity: be proud, because you’re fabulous. And for the mental health, remember: you’re the best friend you could ever have.

LGBT+ Support locally:

If you are a member of the LGBTQ+ community and need support with your mental health, we deliver two support groups in Bournemouth and Weymouth. Follow this link for details.

Huge thanks to our guest blogger, who wishes to remain anonymous.