How Getting Outdoors Helped Me Fight Mental Illness
~ by Cat Crawford
I remember my first doctor's appointment after experiencing multiple heart palpitations and panic attacks, he told me that I could potentially have an anxiety disorder and that I just needed to ‘get out more’.
At the time, 14 year old me didn’t see this expert medical advice as anything more than a fob off, but he might have actually been onto something.
Learning to love the landscape
As a kid, our family days out would always involve getting out and about in the Cheshire countryside, whether that was a hike or visiting a local historic site, we were always encouraged to get out into the great outdoors and be active.
It was something that I often did with my heels firmly dug into the ground, gripping onto the car door, crying about how I just wanted to be at home playing on my Nintendo 64. Once they had prised my fingernails from the paintwork of my dad’s rickety red Volvo, I would relax into the rhythm of being outside, appreciating the vastness of the countryside and how freeing it felt to be a part of it.
Now, at the age of 27, I relish the thought of climbing to the top of a lush green hill to admire the stunning view of the world below.
How the outdoors helped me in my hour of need
It was only 2-3 years ago that I had a full-scale mental breakdown. In my second year of university, there were too many stresses, all piling up on top of my already fragile mental health and soon it all just collapsed inwards.
I couldn’t cope with normal everyday life, I couldn’t even face the thought of stepping outside my front door to nip to the shop or go to lectures. My life was being crippled by this irrational, yet powerful force that filled me with fear and panic without warning.
It wasn’t until after graduation that I realised I needed to turn back to my love of hiking, in order to get myself back on track and overcome the dark place I was currently struggling through.
It’s never as easy as it sounds
Of course, with paralyzing fear striking me every time I even thought about leaving the house, things weren’t that easy. It took a lot of baby steps to get me back to full capacity, simple walks down the road, a long walk down the park and then finally making it out to my favourite walking spots.
Standing on top of a hill after hiking my way up gives me a sense of freedom and lightness that is highly addictive, especially when you live day-to-day with this constant heavy, gripping feeling in your chest. It feels like the air is fresher, cleaner and easier to breathe. As if it is cleansing you as you take in the view and reflect on the hard work you had to put in to get there.
So, does it still have the same effect on me after 2 years? Absolutely! So much so that I actually signed up for my biggest hiking challenge yet. In October 2018, I set off to China with the Mental Health Foundation, in order to raise money for the charity and all the amazing work they do. I trekked the Great Wall of China, 6-8 hours of walking a day for a total of 10 days, all starting in Beijing.
Cat signed up for this epic adventure, not only to help raise money for a charity that pretty much saved her life in her darkest hour, but also because it’s a way to show herself, and those around her, just how far she has come.
Cat says "From someone too scared to leave the house, to jetting off with a group of strangers to take on one of the greatest wonders of the world, I think it’s safe to say I’ve done pretty well to get to this point".
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