Mountain walking: a healing balm for depression

Mountain walking. What do you think of when you hear that phrase? Scary, impenetrable rock faces looming out of the mist? Enormous crags stretching off into the distance, rain clouds blowing in making your weary legs scream in protest?

Well I say fun, beautiful and healing.

Fact is, being outside in nature, wherever it is, is good for your wellbeing. There’s lots of research in this area and science is proving it (see e.g. The Nature Fix).

And by sharing my story – how mountains helped me recover from depression – perhaps you’ll be inspired to use nature’s healing balm for yourself…


How I fell in love with the mountains

The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award

I was introduced to the joy of hills and mountains at school. Through D of E I discovered some of Britain’s most stunning countryside…

I roamed the wild and woolly expanse of Dartmoor in all its granitey glory, boot-sucking bogs squelching below. I bathed walk-weary feet in rushing streams on Exmoor while a herd of wild ponies looked on, bewildered by the strange gaggle of humans.

Exmoor ponies grazing on the moor

And the Southern Uplands? Well they were glorious mix of rugged high places and rolling green hills. Even through squally showers that sprung out of nowhere drenching us to the core, this genteel landscape never failed to surprise me with its views.

I fell in love with exploring new places, experiencing the weather, camping out and walking with friends. But it wasn’t all plain sailing…

No. I nearly froze to death in my tent during the coldest April known to mankind, had to shoo nosy cattle away repeatedly, not to mention being chased by some of the horned variety! And how exactly do you go to the loo with dignity in a field when the boys are spying on you?

But somehow this all added to the fun!


School scrambling trips

Then there were the scrambling trips to Wales.

AND MY FIRST MOUNTAIN – whoop whoop!

For this reason Moel Siabod in Snowdonia has a special place in my heart.

I remember the trip well. I wasn’t at my best to say the least – teenage hormones running rampant, lack of sleep and a damp day made sure of that. But somehow the prospect of climbing up a gnarly mountain ridge kept me smiling. Even after my first encounter with a huge sphagnum-filled bog (no I didn’t fall in), there was no stopping me. What a feeling making it up that ridge. What euphoria. And the exhilaration from standing on the top with the wind in my hair, woo hoooooooooo!


University walking trips and geology

But it was at University I really fell in love with the mountains. I was enthralled by the landscapes of the North and learned to understand them in detail on my geology course. And yep, also shared it with plenty of (?un)lucky walkers at the weekends.

Most weeks I’d explore some new part of the British countryside – the Lake District, North Yorkshire Moors, Yorkshire Dales, Scottish Highlands to name a few – and I became an experienced mountain walker and leader. With so many happy mountain-walking memories, I’ll always think of this time fondly.

Geological mapping in Assynt, Scotland


But then…

Depression strikes!

What do you do when you’re knocked out by crippling thoughts of unworthiness and failure? When you feel life is not worth living (no, you know life is not worth living)? When every day you’re just going through the motions of life? Plodding…plodding…plodding…

In 2002, and for the next ten years, I had to deal with this nasty beast. Although varying in severity I was suicidal at my worst and had to go to hospital several times. Could I be bothered to emerge from my duvet? Did I want to speak to any one?

No and no!

Mostly I blotted out the world and hid (if not literally, definitely metaphorically). I slept a lot and often felt flat and emotionless. This was the worst thing. When films you know are extremely sad but they don’t make you cry, or hilarious TV programmes don’t even make you smile, you know it’s bad.

Fortunately I had my mountains. And for ten years they kept me sane.

Susan on the summit of her last Wainwright

Three things that helped me were:

  1. Having a challenge to focus on: I climbed all of The Wainwrights (the Lake District’s 214 mountains described in AW’s guidebooks). But any challenge would be good. It’s best to pick whatever suits you.
  2. Sharing the challenge with a close friend: I did it with one of my best friends who knew me well and accepted me just as I am (despite what my depressed mind was telling me.) As well as good company a friend can motivate you to get out of bed!
  3. Escaping: going to the countryside was so much better than hiding in bed. Getting away from the hum-drum of life gave me a teeny bit of bounce and each time I returned I could engage with life that little bit more. And hey, if you don’t feel any better at least you know you’ve done something!

Although mountains were essential to my recovery, counselling and my Christian faith helped too. The three worked together. It was hard work and emotionally difficult going through counselling so I needed to let off steam by going mountain walking. And while I was in the mountains I could enjoy God’s creation and get some spiritual refreshment. Win win!


Since depression

So what now?

Well, my mental health is good but I know I need to do certain things to keep it that way. And one of those things is to keep walking outside.

It’s hard because I’ve now got CFS/ME and can’t mountain-walk like I used to. But any walking or just being outside helps.

Now I enjoy flatter walking (you can still drive up things and walk from there… on a road I mean…), being around trees (think forest bathing), mindful walking, photography and of course, eating outside is always good!

And enter the walk1000miles challenge. With this all you have to do is walk 1000 miles in a year. Simple! But don’t worry if you can’t do that much in a year. I certainly can’t so I did it at a pace I could manage. Hitting 1000 miles last summer, yay!


Get outside for good mental health!

Susan relaxing in a field

So, if you have any mental health concerns I suggest getting outside. It helps. And even if you don’t, just go out because it will help prevent future issues.

And it’s fun!

Why not take up a challenge like walk1000miles? You can do it however you like, perhaps even a bit of mountain walking.

But however you do, it’s the perfect time of year with spring approaching. So why not shake off those winter cobwebs and breathe in some revitalising air?

I’d love to hear about your adventures. Do comment below. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

Happy walking 😊

By | 2020-07-01T17:29:34+01:00 March 2nd, 2020|Mental health and wellbeing, The great outdoors|0 Comments

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