We’re getting pretty used to the word ‘unprecedented’ and the various phrases that seem to come along with it be used time and time again to explain the effects that the past year has had on us collectively. Of course, the pandemic has had a big impact on everyone, but the severity of that impact varies from person to person. This is just the same when we think about the psychological impact that this has had on people in a whole variety of ways. One thing that I have been seeing a lot in recent weeks is the conversation around burnout. It isn’t particularly hard to understand what has been leading to this feeling – culminating in feeling exhausted, with less energy or simply with a lack of interest in things that were once enjoyed.
This can be particularly prevalent if you have an underlying condition – and whilst there is a whole other article there, I’m going to be focusing on the effects that mental health issues can have on our energy levels and how this can impact our ability to get outside. Aside from the pandemic, the effect our mental state has on our energy levels is not to be discounted. So, if you’ve found yourself struggling even more over the last year, it is not surprising. Whilst in this article I’m going to be talking about the impact of depression and anxiety on getting outside, I’d like to make it clear that this can be applied to many mental health issues outside of this.
Of course, as you know, a lot of the work we do is around the profound benefits of nature for mental health and mindfulness – but what about when you actually feel like you can’t get out? I know from my personal experience that some days with anxiety and depression can make it feel almost impossible to get outside, especially on a tough day or period of days where perhaps the quality of your sleep hasn’t been great or you’re dealing with an issue that has come up. Actually getting out of bed can feel like an achievement, and you can really end up feeling guilty for not doing the things that you may well know are good for your self care. Some days, the idea of even walking 10 minutes feels like too much to comprehend and it is fairly common to feel pretty apathetic about doing anything other than curling up under the duvet and hoping the world just keeps ticking by without you having to have an impact on it. But then, on the days where I can muster up the courage (and I say courage because it really feels like that is the right word to explain the feeling around this) to get outside, I generally find that my mood shifts a little and I do feel some relief (or at least a transmutation of how I’m feeling to a slightly different place which is often a relief).
When I look at my own experience around this, I know that this is a really different experience for everyone. You may not feel this in the same way I do, you might feel a completely different set of feelings around this. You might only experience this very intermittently. I think it is an incredibly powerful step to look at what the tell tale signs are for you that you’re feeling physically impacted by your mental health – because once we know what is going on, we can generally take steps to try and improve them.
ID: Portrait image. Fay stands next to a fence near a horse enclosure. Fay wears blue jacket and black sunglasses. The setting sun is filtering through the trees and is casting flare onto Fay’s face.
So, how do we get outside when we feel like we can’t because our mental health is impacting us?
I’ve put together a range of thinking points and ideas for you below that have really worked for me. At this point, I want to point out that just as much as there are a whole range of emotions, there is a huge spectrum of mental health issues and mental illness concerns. Ultimately, you know your own body and mind, and if you have any concerns and are considering something new that you are not sure about, if you are able, please consult your doctor. If you are seriously worried about your mental health, whilst getting outdoors and connecting mindfully can be an incredible tool to help, consulting a registered psychologist or doctor may be the best option for you before you look at further, complimentary options such as this.
Listen to the self talk and be mindful of other’s opinions
I’ve actually read a number of articles in the past about motivation and depression. I was horrified when I read many people talk about depression as being an excuse that stops you from doing the thing you want to do. What I find incredibly difficult about that language is that is seems to impose the idea that depression is a limiting belief and that we just need to get past what it is in order to be more productive. Which of course, in practice, is just not true, nor is this thinking helpful. Sadly, I feel that this mentality is often engrained in many, but it doesn’t look at the fact that when you are experiencing a whole range of mental health issues, there is a lot more going on. Being gentle and understanding that the thoughts we have about our perceived ‘good enough-ness’ are often actually societal pressures can be very helpful in starting at ground zero when it comes to trying to explore new ways of self care. Being aware of those thoughts and seeing their root can be a powerful part of nurture.
We so often expect a lot from ourselves. The pressures of life can do that to us, but this is something that can be engrained from our school years or from previous experiences too. Being gentle isn’t just a quick fix practice, it does take a lot of work and conditioning yourself to steer your thoughts in a certain direction, but when we beat ourselves up over not feeling like getting outside, it actually can make us feel a lot worse than we did before, and in turn, have a lot less energy. Is there anything that is stopping you from going outside that can easily be fixed? Is there anything you can say no to? Can you organize your time a little differently so you can make time when you feel more able?
Setting really small goals and not judging based on other days
Some days you may get outside and feel like you could hike or walk for hours on end. Other days, getting outside for ten minutes can feel like that is all you can do. But trying to reframe the way you look at this will help you to feel better. Not judging your experience on any given day based on another day can have a really big impact here. Some days in the past when I used to go outside and get annoyed with myself because I couldn’t manage very much time outdoors, I realized that I was judging this on other days. So, I started to try and stay in my lane that day. I started, as silly as it felt, to celebrate that achievement, as small as it was. It helped. It really started to turn around my experience of each day as a very different thing. It helped me to even further encase this feeling of mindfulness; that each passing moment is different. That this moment of not feeling like doing much would pass. I can tell you, it does, and you will, on another day, feel like hiking for miles and miles.
This one has been incredibly important for me – the idea of not setting an expectation of what I want from an outdoor experience. Of course, I love setting goals, but I often find that as people, if something doesn’t go exactly as we had it mapped out in our heads, we consider it a failure. We don’t look at the many wins we have had along the way, because we’re too keenly focused on the things that haven’t gone right. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with low mood or depression, this can actually be a compounding problem. When I think about some of the experiences I’ve had around the world that have come from things not going according to the rigid plan I had, I actually think back to some of my favourite memories. I’ve learnt to reframe it as best I can. I’ve learnt to not set expectations of myself on any given day (within limits). Look at how you are setting expectations for yourself and how you are attaching meaning to the idea of completing this or not. What self talk is happening for you around this? How can you work to release the expectations you have on yourself around getting outside, even if this is just slightly?
ID: Portrait image. Fay is framed close up and is wearing a white tip under a blue jacket. Fay is looking to camera right and the light is mottled on Fay’s hair casting shadows of trees and leaves. In the background is out of focus forest.
It might not make you feel better initially
I think we often have this idea that we are going to feel this huge, instant boost from time outdoors, and often, it just doesn’t happen like that. This does relate again to the idea of expectations, but if you go into your time outdoors not expecting anything, then you’ll have a much better experience. You might not feel tonnes better. You might just notice a little shift. You also might not feel instantly less anxious as soon as you head out. It might take a while. It might be a real struggle for you to practice being mindful. It might be a whole range of different things you hadn’t banked on feeling. The point I’m trying to make is that getting outdoors isn’t always going to be the most amazing experience. But realizing that your self care can differ from day to day will help you to keep going sometimes even when you don’t feel like you want to.
Exercise improves energy levels
Exercise might be the last thing you want to do when you feel exhausted. But exercise has been scientifically proven to actually give you an energy boost. On the days when I find it the hardest to get out, I realise when I get back that I do have improved energy. If I’ve felt like I could just fall asleep, generally when I get back, I will feel like I have the energy to do whatever it is I need to do and also allows me to sleep better. This is where keeping a note of how you feel before versus after time outdoors can be really helpful. This could literally just be a note on your phone where you rate your mood and energy level from 1-10 before and after you go out. Creating a pool of evidence can be incredibly helpful as a motivator when we don’t want to do something to help show us based on past events that this is likely to help us feel better.
Make each thing your task for the day
Generally, overwhelm comes from looking at a seemingly unsurmountable amount of things we need to do or tasks we need to get through. You’ve probably experienced that feeling at some point of lying in bed in the morning and running through the things you need to do that day. When you are experiencing low mood or depression, anxiety and a whole range of other mental health issues, this can become completely paralyzing and so the natural reaction is to want to retreat away. So how about you make each thing you need to do your only task for that day? Concentrate on it mindfully? This is sometimes the way my days sound: my only task right now is to get out of bed. My only task right now is to get dressed and put on my shoes. My only task is to go out of my front door. My only task is to walk for 5 minutes. My only task is to walk for another 5 minutes…and so on. This can of course be applied to getting outdoors, but it can also be applied when you feel overwhelmed by life and paralyzed by something that is happening. Remember there is no ‘beginning’ you need to start at. Just start with one thing. Make it an easy thing. Congratulate yourself for that. Then mindfully look at what else you think is possible for you. You get to choose. This has been a saving grace for me many times, not just for getting outdoors, but in general when I feel overwhelmed.
Following on from the theme of breaking it down into steps, when you feel exhausted from mental health issues, it might be that the idea of a long walk is really stopping you or feels really daunting. So can you break it down? Could you break down your 30 minute walk into three ten minute walks for example?
It is important to note that these are some of the methods I have found really work for me. I encourage you to look at this with an attitude of curiosity. This isn’t here to create more work for you, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed already. These are simply ideas of how you can look at things in a slightly pivoted way. Trying something once, even if it is a small change, can make a huge difference. Of course, it is all about finding what works for you as well and experimenting to find the tools that you can build up to help you when you need it.