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How walking helped me cope

Jen on a walk

I have never been a ‘happy’ person. Since childhood, I was always the ‘quiet’ one, the ‘introvert’, and have always been terrified of big groups of people. I would avoid people like the plague – I wouldn’t be interesting enough, I’d make a fool of myself. When I did have to socialise, I would obsess for weeks and months (and sometimes years) over things I’d said or done that was embarrassing and/or a faux pas. I had few close friends and rarely went out.

I’d been treated for periods of depression since my early teenage years. I’ve been riding the waves of the regular cycles of depression – lots of medication and a little time off work – my entire working life. Then in Easter 2014, I was completely body-slammed by the worst episode I have ever experienced. This breakdown brought with it a new sidekick: anxiety. I had six weeks off work, various medications, and weekly trips to the GP. I honestly thought life was coming to an end. I couldn’t see a way out.

My lovely housemate, a no-nonsense Northerner and an avid hill walker, encouraged me to go walking with her, first only a mile or so and then we progressed. The process of moving was great, and I could feel the massive knot of anxiety that had taken up permanent residence in my chest start to lessen a little. I started going out by myself, into the local country park or woodland trail, and built up to 3, 4, 5 miles. Being outdoors gave me the space I needed to start dealing with all the thoughts that would be crowding in my brain, completely overwhelming me. I was able to gain some perspective and start to figure out who I was. I was able to accept my condition, one that I’d kept running away from over two decades, and figure out how to cope with it.

The times that I walked with my housemate, I found that I could talk to her about things that I wouldn’t when we were in an enclosed space. I think it could’ve been a case of we were walking side-by-side and not making eye contact. Whatever it was, being outdoors allowed me to open up in a way I have never been able before and was massively beneficial.

Walking has also given me a newfound confidence to be able to socialise more. I have joined a Ramblers’ group specifically for 20s to 30s – we did a 12 mile walk recently and I found that nobody was waiting for me to make a fool of myself, I wasn’t lagging and everyone was generally very nice. I also climbed Snowdon with an old friend I had reconnected with on Facebook and three perfect strangers. Again, the earth wasn’t waiting to swallow me up; I made it to the top and back down without humiliation or catastrophe!

My next step is a walking holiday in the Moroccan Atlases: it’s an organised group holiday and I’m going on my own. It’s a huge challenge, both physically (46 miles in four days) and emotionally (anxiety, stay away!). However, I feel like I’m in a place where I have to keep challenging myself or I’ll start slipping backwards to where I was eighteen months ago.

I’m by no means ‘cured’ – I still have days when the Black Dog keeps trying to bite my bum – but they are not as frequent as they were. On those days, when I can manage it, I drive to the nearest green space and walk. It really does help.

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