Seeing as May is mental health awareness month, it’s got me thinking about the things that help my mental health. As you’d expect, there are lots of things. However, there are three things in particular that help my mental health more than anything else and I want to share those three things with you today.
My love of walking hasn’t always been there. As a child I couldn’t stand it. I liked it even less as a teenager. I was always the one at the back, moaning, driving my parents nuts. But as I hit my late thirties, something changed. Suddenly, I wanted to walk everywhere. And now I can’t imagine a day going by without some kind of walk featuring in it.
I guess walking became more of a thing to me when I started running. Going out with the running group I’m in helped me to discover lots of different routes that I would never have found myself. It gave me the confidence to get out there and to explore. To trust that if I get lost, I know the area well enough to find my way back. And then when we got a dog, well the deal was sealed.
Over Easter I walked the second half of the South Downs Way in two days. If you don’t know it, the route goes from Amberley to Eastbourne, that’s 54 miles in total. That’s basically more than two marathons. And I did it. Teen me would never have believed it. And the best of it is, I enjoyed it! Last weekend I also walked from Winchester to Petersfield, the first quarter of the SDW, another 25 miles. And I am also due to go on a three-day hike in the mountains of Italy at the end of next month. To say I love walking is an understatement.
Aside from the physical benefits of walking, and the fact I’ve realised I’m actually quite good at it, the headspace it gives me is incomparable to anything else. I have certain routes that I walk when I feel particularly stressed or anxious. It has become like a pilgrimage to me. Of course, it involves a hill (in my opinion all good walks should include a hill at some point), and woodland paths, and views for absolute days. There is one particular place that holds a special place in my heart, called the Poets Stone. I go there when I know my head needs emptying. I usually go there and have a bit of a cry. I go there when I’m worried about something, or stressed, or just a bit twitchy. And every single time I go, I come back feeling a million times better. The place is special, but the whole process of getting there is incredibly healing for me, such is the power of a good walk.
Walking used to be about getting from A to B. Not now. Now it is a journey. A journey to be enjoyed the whole step of the way. A means to clear my head, to rationalise, to put things into perspective, and to focus on the positives.
Everyone has their favourite place. It might be on the beach, or in the mountains, or maybe even Disneyland. But for me, it’s the forest. Give me a couple of hours of free roaming in the woods and this girl is all kinds of happy. It is a key component of what I need to help my mental health.
The woods have long played a key role in my life. I have fond memories of visiting my grandparents and going for walks in the woods at the side of their house. Even now whenever I see a flowering gorse it reminds me of them and those woods. In addition to that, one of the houses I lived in for a few years when I was little had a garden that backed onto the woods. Oh, the adventures me and my brother had in those woods. Potion making, climbing and falling out of trees, getting stuck in bogs, freaking ourselves out in the dark bits, running up and down the monkey bumps (large dips in the ground that to this day I still have no clue why they were called that!), and disappearing for hours at a time. That forest was our playground. Our world in fact. It was a place where time stood still, where nothing was impossible. A space where we could be free to be our true selves. And I guess that has stuck with me. That glorious nostalgia from some of the best times of my childhood has cemented my love for the woods. So much so that it was one of the ‘must haves’ on my list of places I would move to when we were looking for a new house. It can’t be a coincidence that the house we chose backs onto the most stunning woodland, and even better we own a few acres of it! Literally my dream come true.
It’s not just the feel-good vibes from my childhood that I love about the woods. These days I find it an incredibly peaceful and restorative place to be in too. Research has shown that being around trees is good for us in a number of different ways. They can help lower our blood pressure, make us feel calm and less stressed, reduce anxiety, and well, they’re just bloody brilliant.
Here’s an example for you…
This morning teen 1 wouldn’t get out of bed. Teen 2 was stressing she’d be late, which to be fair she would be and has been every blinking Thursday (teen 1 has double history on a Thursday so it’s like trying to pull a snail out of its shell trying to get him to leave the house on that day!) I’m on day 2 of a bad period, feeling achy and heavy and my stomach feels like it’s been put through a mangle. I want to stay in bed and wallow, but the dog needs walking and those teens really aren’t going to get out of the house themselves. I feel like crap, and my mood isn’t much better. And yet within seconds of stepping out onto the mossy carpet of woodland at the bottom of my garden I am restored. I take deep lungful’s of air, my eyes absorb the verdant green landscape, and I feel at home. I am calm. I am in control. I am capable of anything.
And that is why I love the woods and why my mental health benefits so greatly from spending time out there in among the trees, and the moss, and the wildlife. It is my happy place. The place I feel like me. The place that takes me back to the past, holds me present, and inspires me towards the future all at the same time.
The third thing to help my mental health is woofs. OK, I say woofs, of course I mean dogs – the language geek in me couldn’t resist the 3 things beginning with a W! So yeah, dogs. I absolutely hated them as a child. Was scared shitless.
If memory serves me correct, I think my fear of dogs all stemmed from a dog outside the chemists when I was little. I was waiting outside while my mum was inside buying something or other. Those were the days when it was totally fine to leave your very young child outside. I remember this particular chemist had a stuffed dog inside, well I say stuffed dog, I’m guessing it wasn’t actually a real stuffed dog. Anyway, I’d stroked this pretend dog before and I guess my innocent little mind figured that all dogs stayed still, liked to be stroked etc. So, while I waited for my mum alongside a real dog tied up to a bin, of course I thought it was a good idea to stoke it. The dog, however, wasn’t so keen. I don’t think it bit me, because I definitely didn’t go to hospital or anything like that, but it must have growled and bared its teeth at me. Which was it for me. Me and dogs were done.
And ever since that moment, I was absolutely petrified of all dogs. I remember another key dog trauma moment was being on holiday in Portugal. I must have been maybe 8 or 9 something like that and we were walking across this sort of wasteland from our hotel to get into town. In the distance I could see 2 dogs coming towards us. No owners or anything, so they were probably strays, but they weren’t being aggressive, they were just inquisitive. But my natural flight reaction kicked in and I immediately started running. Which of course is the worst thing you can do. The dogs ran after me, after all I was running and making a racket, what a fun game of chase this would be for them. My parents were shouting at me to stay still, but I was having none of it. Nothing bad happened thankfully, but it was another reason for me to hate dogs.
Ask any one of my relatives if I’d have a dog when I was older, and they’d have laughed and said no way. And yet here I am today, with a 4-year-old cockapoo that I am literally obsessed with. So, what changed?
Well, friends with gorgeous dogs helped for starters. But what really did it, was my daughter. Who at the age of 9 went on a full-blown mission to convince me we needed a dog. She took it upon herself to basically put a business plan together. She did her research, put together an entire folder of the reasons why we should get a dog, what the dog would need, key facts about dogs. She even went so far as to work out the costings and a budget plan. It was thorough. And when I realised how much it meant to her and that my only real issue with dogs was that I wasn’t overly enamoured about picking up dog poo, it seemed as though we were left with no choice. We were a family crying out for a dog. Myself and my husband both work from home. I love running and going on long walks. The kids were at a decent age to be responsible. And we had plenty of friends with dogs and who would offer to help out when we went on holiday. So yeah, we got a dog.
And my god it was the best thing that ever happened to us. Baxter has changed all of our lives for the better and we cannot now imagine life without him. He makes us laugh on a daily basis. He brings out a soft side to my teenage son that no one else can. He comforts my teenage daughter if she’s having one of those days. He helps get us outside every day. He even has his own theme tune. I mean come on, who doesn’t have a theme tune for their pet!?!
Without him, my mental health would be much harder to keep in check than it is. He’s my furry run buddy. My partner in crime. My shadow. And I can’t believe I never got it before. But dogs really are everything.
I still can’t quite believe that out of the 3 things that help my mental health, 2 of them are things that I absolutely detested when I was younger. It’s funny how things change isn’t it?
How we deal with our mental health is very much a personal thing. There’s no one size fits all solution. What works for one person, probably won’t work for another. It’s very much a trial and error process; a journey of self-discovery to explore what things help make you feel mentally healthy. I am grateful for every single one of these things. I just wish I’d figured out sooner that the things that make me happiest are far simpler than I ever realised. Any one of these things helps my head but combine all three (walking in the woods with my woofer) and my god I feel bloody amazing.
I wrote this blog post with the intention of it being a prompt to those who read it. I think sometimes we don’t allow ourselves enough time to reflect on the things that matter to us most. And it is this reflection that can help us achieve better mental health. So, take this time now to have a think about the 3 things that work wonders for your mental health. It can be absolutely anything at all. There are no wrong answers.
What Things Help You With Your Mental Health?
I’d love to hear about them, so get in touch:
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Becky Stafferton is a full-time content creator and web publisher. She continually strives to promote a realistic, sustainable and positive image of how to lead a healthy life. When she’s not writing she can be found swigging Prosecco from the bottle, running through muddy puddles, making lists of lists, having a good old moan, talking in funny voices to her dog, renovating her house in the country, and squatting like her life depends on it.