Solvitur Ambulando: Walking with my Mental Health

Solvitur ambulando: an appeal to practical experience for a solution, Latin, literally “(the problem) is solved by walking”.

Huntspill River

I feel very fortunate to have grown up where I did. Granted, when I was actually doing that growing up I didn’t think much of my stretch of the Somerset coast, what with its murky seawaters, its treacherous sinking mud, its boggy, flooded fields. But now that I’m a little older and (I like to think) a little wiser, I’ve really come to appreciate how privileged I am to have been shaped by what truly is such a beautiful and formidable landscape.

I’ve been exploring that landscape a lot lately. I’ve always been a firm devotee of rambling—when it comes to the great outdoors, I believe that following your nose and getting completely lost is all part of the fun. And so when the springtime brings with it clear skies and warm weather, I can usually be found miles from home, perched on a hillside or following a riverbank deep inland.

River Brue

Now, one of the things I so love about embarking on a good ramble—besides the opportunity for some bitchin’ Facebook cover photos, of course—is the benefits it yields for my mental health.

It’s advice that’s given out so often it’s almost become a self-care cliché, that a little exercise and fresh air can go a long way when it comes to issues like depression and anxiety.

But as generic as it sounds, there is actually a lot of truth to it. Admittedly, I’m not too clued up on the exact reasons why—partly because research on the subject still appears to be relatively scant, and partly because I payed too little attention in school science classes to start understanding biology now. But according to organisations like Mind and the NHS, even the simplest act of exercise is enough to give you a quick shot of endorphins, those feel-good brain chemicals whose name I can only imagine was chosen to conjure images of happy, playful mind-dolphins.

Or, if like me you still need the help of Pixar’s Inside Out to understand the complexities of the human brain, the simpler explanation is that being active, much like Shalamar, can make you feel good. And although walking might not involve Lycra or ball skills, it still counts as exercise, and is still enough to get those endorphins flowing.

Glastonbury Tor

For me, however, the role walking has played in my recovery over the years goes beyond just getting a quick self-esteem boost from a little physical activity.

As a writer, I’ve always found walking to be highly conducive to problem-solving: whenever I feel writer’s block setting in, I always go outside and work through it on my feet. It’s as if by undertaking the physical act of getting from here to there I’m able to trick my brain into making a progression of its own from problem through to solution. In fact, I’m actually writing this very sentence on the move—to borrow the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Methinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”

In time, I came to apply this practice to my mental wellbeing too. If you’ve not suffered from a mental illness before, you might not be aware that part of what makes them so potent is the state of reeling confusion that floods in their wake, as the initial Blitzkrieg assault leaves you with no idea of what the hell is happening to you or where the hell it came from. All of a sudden your emotional spectrum is thrown off balance, your nerves are stretched tight, the earth itself might have moved beneath your feet for all you know—all you can say for certain is that something, somewhere, has gone wrong.

Jennycliff

It was whilst in this state of blindness that walking became invaluable to me. Where some sufferers use exercise as a distraction or to rebuild confidence, I used it to piece together the puzzle my life had become. It was a form of meditation, I suppose, or self-counselling. Just as I did with writer’s block, I would leave the house with a single, simple question in mind, and allow the cadence of my feet and my surroundings to coax some sense out of the uncertainty; the only difference was, instead of exploring some sticky passage or narrative hitch, I’d ask myself “Why do I struggle talking to people now?”, or “Why do I keep having panic attacks in the middle of Tesco?”

Although confronting my newfound vulnerabilities in that way was terrifying at first, by talking them for a walk (so to speak) I was able to explore them in a calm, methodical way, following those daunting questions through to clarity the same way I’d follow my feet to a destination. It enabled me to make sense of what I was going through in a way that counsellors’ advice and medical definitions had never come close to before, and ultimately led me to regaining that feeling of self-control I had lost when my illness began—in other words, walking through my problems allowed me to go from just knowing how to fight fires when they arose, to understanding why they started in the first place and thus how to prevent them in the future.

And so whilst it would be beyond a stretch to say that my beef with the Big D has been completely solved by walking, I certainly feel justified in saying that a large part of my journey back to stability is owed to the introspective power of a good long walk. Solvitur ambulando? Perhaps not yet—but it definitely is helping.

Plymouth Hoe

Disclaimer: although walking, and indeed any exercise, is great for taking a little extra care of your mental wellbeing, that doesn’t necessarily make it a treatment for mental illness by itself. Mental health issues are complex, with as many solutions as there are problems, and exercise is just one of many potential ways of tackling them—for more on that, read this post on Mind.org.

The Unwanted Christmas Guest

December’s got off to a weird start this year. It’s usually my favourite month of the year – not just because it starts with my birthday and ends with Christmas, but also because of that feeling of carefree finality that comes with the end of the year. Because it’s a time to recharge, take stock, and, however briefly and shamelessly, be merry for merriment’s sake.

But for some reason, I’m just not feeling that this time. Traditionally for me, December starts with a sudden lurch into festivity. The tinsel comes down from the loft and is draped over every surface, the kitchen gets snowed under with stollen and biscotti, every cup of tea is festooned with cinnamon sticks. Love Actually and a festive Scotch is a staple of the first night of the month. But whilst none of that has been forgotten this year, I’m feeling a bit like it’s all being done on autopilot, like I’m feeling Christmassy because I should rather than because I actually am.

Part of me isn’t really that surprised, given the year we’ve had. I mean, personally 2016 has been a terrific year, full of momentum and huge forward gains, but externally all that just looks like a silver lining to an increasingly bleak bigger picture. The foul aftermath of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the resurgence of the far right across the world: coming into December has really brought home that New Year’s Eve is not the big reset button we like to pretend it is, and the thought of all that continuing on the other side of the calendar does rather push Christmas spirit down the list of priorities.

And of course another part of me is concerned that all this is actually much more internal than an anxious reaction to the state of the world. In the past, this kind of lethargy and disinterest has usually been the herald of a period of depression, so naturally I can’t help worrying if this isn’t just a common funk but a warning I should take note of.

Still, these days I am nothing if not positive; and the fact that I am actually able to hear the warning now is proof that I am far more able than I was twelve months ago to deal with whatever comes next. And in a way, there’s actually some relief to be had from seeing the Big D again. However great my progress has been over the last year, I’ve always accepted that someday I would inevitably have to face down another “episode”. That’s unfortunately just the nature of mental illness – you can move to a dry country, but you’re still going to have to dodge the rain from time to time. But now that time is here, I can focus on how to deal with it rather than keep looking over my shoulder for it to come.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I’ve read things right and the Big D is planning on a Christmas visit, that’s OK. It’s not the end of the world anymore. Because as much as I’d rather it stay the fuck away, I know better now than to ignore it. The lows are just an inevitable part of life, and just as depression isn’t simply an illness that makes you sad all the time, overcoming it doesn’t mean you have to always be happy. The trick for me has always been in practicing control rather than abstinence; in learning how to go down without going under, and being able to watch the sun set knowing it will rise again.