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Sunday, 11 February 2018

Walking and Mental Health

I blame Dr Beeching.
When I was but a sprog, I suddenly and unexpectedly passed my 11+ exam. The outcome of this  was that I would have to travel 8 miles to Ermysteds Grammar School For Boys in Skipton by train; the Barlick Flyer. This was an ironic name since the speed the flyer got up to was never more than about 12 mph. It was a steam train, and, on the way to the station, if you could see a column of steam on the horizon, you knew you had to speed up in order not to be outrageously late for school. The Barlick Flyer was fun.  It had individual compartments. You could smoke fags, or, in our case, dried bananas. You could ride in the luggage racks or you could swing out over the track holding on to the leather. strap on the door. You could discourage regular passengers from disturbing the privacy of your compartment by smoking a lot and doing some swearing and being noisy. You didn't get any nausea.
Then Mr Beeching decided to close the railway line to Skipton and, ahead of time, the Barlick Flyer was scrapped and we had to go to school on the bus. This would have been fine, apart from the travel sickness. Bus drivers from Earby to Skipton soon became drained by the stress of having me spewing up my  breakfast toast on the approaches to Skipton. I was also quite miserable. So Me Mam took me to see Dr Morrison who prescribed Dramamine, an anti-histamine which can prevent travel sickness. This went well for a short while. Dramamine, though, at the time, had soporific effects and, I spent much of my time asleep, both at school and at home. Then something went seriously wrong. I began to be confused as to whether or not I was asleep or whether I was in a dream. Reality and dreams became mixed-up. I would dream that I was at school and then I’d wake-up in bed, having missed the bus, and the school. I became fearful of whatever it was  lurking dangerously upstairs late at night. I remember walking up to the moors late one night with my friend, Neil and witnessing multiple shooting stars and becoming extremely frightened by the lights in the sky. It seemed that something horrendously sinister was going on.In the end,  I was hallucinating and not making any sense, a state masked by my notoriously dry/dark sense of humour and the fact that I was just 13 years old, and, like 13 year-olds everywhere, prone to quite surreal outbursts. . I had no idea what was going on almost any of the time.  Me and Neil kept on going on the moors, sitting and smoking and setting the world to rights. It seemed that nobody noticed the strange behaviour and I was much too out of reality that I didn’t say anything to anybody.  One day my mum put the dramamine down the toilet but never mentioned it.  I moved on to barley sugars and slowly returned to a vague semblance of sanity. Maybe I’d taken too many pills.
I strongly suspect that this was a period of travel-sickness drug illness though; a short episode when reality melded with a world of panic and fear which went away shortly after I stopped taking the tablets. I don’t think anybody else knew about this at the time. I didn’t think anybody else noticed it. Apart from me Mam.
Almost everybody I know has had periods of depression, sometimes really severe, debillitating  depression, sometimes anxiety, sometimes both. One friend is bi-polar and he has a friend who is definately paranoid and suspects people of talking about him when he’s out of the room. He has strange rituals and is reported to be convinced that I am God himself (must be the beard).
What I’m getting at here, is that depression is really really common and anxiety is not much less common and that many other mental illnesses exist, whether caused by drugs or brain chemicals or a physical illness, or whatever.  And I was approached last week by a company to blog about how walking is a help towards the recovery from mental illness. The odd things are that the peeps who approached me were from an Art Supplies company and questions about provenance have gone unanswered. I am determined to write the piece anyway. Its a puzzle I intend to ignore.
But it seems that a survey indicates that walking is the number 1 response by people who’s wish is to reduce stress in their life. I’m not specially surprised by this. But stress isn’t mental illness. Mental illness may be a response to stress, or an inability to cope with whatever levels of stress might be around at the time. But stress itself surely is a natural phenomena. Everybody is attacked by some kind of stress. Stress is what keeps you upright and functioning. Our ancestors lived with disease, the possibility of starvation,  random violence, accidents….  families…..  bad weather….  All a bit more seriously stressful than a traffic-jam on the M6, surely.
Later, I worked in an A&E department as a clerk. Much of this was quite good fun.  Much of it was quite hilarious. Some of it was quite, quite grim.  Then ,in another job, I had to visit a mortuary on a daily basis. This was not much fun. I get the occasional flash-back or nasty dream from each job. All of my early NHS jobs have memories attached, some very good, and some almost surreal in their levels of abject, dirty, snivelling evil. And all at the same the time, I’ve been hillwalking whilst unconciously processing all this stuff..
And can walking help?
Yes. It can help. It can be a relief from stress. If you need to be alone, you can be alone. You can sit in lush woodland and give yourself time to think. Or not to think. You can sit on a summer hill and hear the larks and the meadow pipits and not much else. You can listen to water. You can watch the clouds for a bit. Importantly, you can be alone with the world.
You can dip into a freezing dangerously deep, dark pool and come out euphoric anhd shivering
You can march along at a pace, getting blood circulating, being cold, being hot, not feeling, feeling not remembering or remembering.
If you’re lonely you can join other people to walk with. You can chat to them or you can be quiet.
You can be mindful and listen to your body. Or you can ignore it till it hurts
You can eat too much cheese and talk to spiders crawling up a piece of grass.
This is not going to stop the ghosts or the bad memories. This is not going to interfere with hallucinations or fear of something you can’t describe. This is not going to make you feel happy if you’re basically unhappy or pump you up if you’re flat. You have to be a bit better to make the effort. A seriously depressed person will probably be unable to get outside to have a walk.
But you can do it. You can have a walk and feel tired and achy afterwards. It won’t be unstressful. There will be frisky and dangerous cattle and horses and the weather will sometimes be against you and, sometimes, it has to be said, your choice of companions will have been poor. Sometimes they will be irritating, or annoying, or have exactly the opposite political views or will disappear over the horizon when they’re supposed to be a walking partner.
On the recent 100 Best British Walks programme, it was significant, though, how many people mentioned a “spiritual” element to their walks. I make no further comment on this except to say that this part is quite important for me and is why I enjoy my time in the countryside the most when it’s just me and the dog. (respects, though to everybody else I go walking with, obviously)
Clearly, I’m completely unqualified to pontificate in this way, but I would be interested in other people’s views on whether or not walking is any help in improving a person’s mental health.
Pics are from the delayed walk around Staithes in North Yorkshire. I came back clarty (covered in mud) LTD has lost all his mud in the back of the knipemobile, and in various other places he’s not really allowed in.  Dhuhh…  He’s a very clean dog.


Sir Hugh said...

I received the same request from what I am sure is the same source from the details you have given. They quoted some statistics from a supposed survey they had commissioned, but when I questioned the logic I didn't get a satisfactory answer, and I then asked them to give me more details about the qualifications of their survey outfit. I did write a blog post which avoided mentioning the statistics and submitted it in draft for their approval along with my request for verification of the credentials of the survey. I have had no reply.

Dawn Linney said...

So true Mike. Being out walking help refocus the mind. There are different things to see and do outside of daily doings. Antidepressants may offer a short term solution. There is a real danger though, of becoming reliant on those medicines. As the body becomes used to the drugs so the need for stronger doses. It can lead to addiction, a prescription drug addict. Here I speak from experience.
Walking, backpacking and outdoor activities do not offer an instant fix. Applied though, over time they can make a noticeable difference in ones life.

Alan Sloman said...

I would just post it to your blog, Conrad.
The survey is merely illustrative of things that can help. It ties in with other sources I unearthed elsewhere.

Great post Mike. I discarded half of my own post on the topic as it still felt too raw.

Mike Knipe said...

I wouldn't worry about it, Sir Hugh - I suspect it's more to do with them moving on to something else or an inability to deal with something off-script. If you've got something to say, and you want to say it, just post whatever you've got, like wot Alan said
Thanks Dawn - I defer to your experience on this.
Alan - I've agonised over this quite a bit - and there's a lot unsaid. And it's probably not really what they asked for!

Geoff Crowther said...

That's a wonderful bit of writing Mike and I can relate to it having suffered on and off with depression for much of my adult life. For myself I think it's exercise that's key. Don't matter much what kind as long as it suits you. I can get as much pleasure and benefit for a long, solitary cycle journey as I can from hillwalking but each to their own y'know 👍

aroundthehills said...

Great post, Mike. There are few issues in my life that can't be reduced (if not resolved) by a night up a hill picking grass and spiders out of my dinner.

Mike Knipe said...

Geoff - thanks very much (I'm still simpering and examining shoe laces)I think you're probably right about exercise being a key - although sitting watching a cloud or something might have something to do with it for some people. Horses for course, innit?
Judith - You're far too well-balanced. You haven't mentioned slugs bobbing up in your tea or fighting off ticks...

Louise said...

Walking is my self-medication. If I am unable to walk for a while, I can feel my anxiety building. Walking can be a time when I'm just 'there', the birds make my heart sing, the wind in the trees, the flowers, clouds racing overhead and I'm just there. I've left everything else behind. It can be a time of angry conversations, in my head (...mostly...) arguing with myself or whoever has disgruntled me, sorting out what I want to, but will probably never say. Or a time of distress, I may or may not know what I'm upset by. I might set off with tears at the ready or just find myself sobbing half way round my walk.
But walk I must.
Thanks for posting Mike.

Mike Knipe said...

That's a very brave paragraph, Louise. And a bit poetic.. It left me struggling to write anything sensible in response, which is why I haven't, although I think I understand the sense of "just there". Seems that for some people, walking is very healing, maybe preventative..?

Louise said...

Thank you.
You're quite right, for me anyway, walking is both healing and preventative.

Paul said...

Good post Mike and very true. I think walking has kept me sane over the years, whether it be in an urban setting or in the hills. It’s very therapeutic. I can sort out a lot of ‘problems’ in my head whilst doing so. Additionally when I’m not out there, planning walks/walking holidays keeps my head occupied and prevents it from wandering off into darker places. When I worked I always said that walking particularly in wilder places ‘emptied my head.’ In the last twelve months I lost an overbearing mother who had dementia and both my lads now live and work abroad. There have been times when I’ve been low often remedied by getting out there especially when the sun shines. Roll on spring/summer eh?

Louise said...

Okay, so it's taken four days for me to register you said "brave"...and to work out why. I've got so out of the habit of blogging and commenting I'd forgotten this wasn't a 'private' conversation, on FB or Twitter (my accounts are quite private) or a DM, I just responded without thinking, with complete honesty, because you are my friend.
At 06:30 this morning I suddenly realised I'd laid myself bare to the world. Ah.
But do you know what? It's okay. I didn't panic. (Okay, I had a moment, a split second...) Because isn't this what it's all about? You can meet someone, anyone, socially, for work, anywhere anytime, and they can be perfectly 'normal'. You can chat to them, interview them for a job, fix their car, whatever, and you think they are 'normal', but inside they're are in turmoil, falling apart, dieing and YOU DON'T KNOW. Because we don't talk about it. Because it's taboo. Because it's dangerous. Because they're weak.
No. They ARE normal.
We are ALL normal.
And we should talk.
So not brave. A little slow perhaps 😂

Mike Knipe said...

Paul - Thanks for the words - hopefully, we'll get a good summer for some stravaiging (I think the winter's getting a bit drawn out now!)In my view, you're confirming the "horses for course" theme and, for you, it seems it's a positive distraction, a preventative thing.
Louise - You're quite correct, we're pretty much all the same, but we don't like to reveal our inner turmoils. I'm quite good at appearing relaxed as it happens and only the nurse who takes my bp might be able to tell the difference! Your comments are a sign of strength, though. And you didn't panic, at least not for long - Google says that "turmoils" is not a word by the way...