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Walking and wild camping to manage my mental health

Thursday, 16 November 2023 Andrew

Andrew, a keen hiker, explains why he is walking and wild camping the 177-mile Offa’s Dyke National Trail to raise money for Mind.

While I love a hike, I wasn’t always this way. Hiking and the outdoors are relatively new interests that came about in my early 30s. Growing up in south Wales I was never very far from rolling hills, craggy coastlines and woodland walking tracks, but my teenage attention was more often directed towards less rural pursuits, like watching tele and eating crisps.

TV and crisps probably sustained me for a lot longer than they should have, but as we all know, life doesn’t always stay so simple. As a young lad, I was affected by the usual angst and overwhelm about fitting in and not being good enough. It was easy to dismiss it as typical for that age, an annoyingly necessary stage of adolescence.

But over the years and into my 20s, dismissing or bottling up thoughts and feelings turned into a habit, which later developed into a skill I could employ without even realising it. This helped in the short-term – allowing a measure of social acceptance – but the inevitable was always on the horizon.

Not expressing myself in any meaningful way kept everything rattling around in my head, garbled and indecipherable. I couldn’t make head nor tail of my own mind, and eventually I gave up trying. By degrees, I’d learnt there was no value in what I thought or who I was, and I grew alienated.

The flatness I felt was an improvement on fretful worry but inevitably, in time, my repression found expression through semi-regular panic attacks, social anxiety and unshakable self-hate. This all came to a head in my early 30s when living in London and so finally I resolved to do something about it.

In reality, I wanted to do nothing. Sitting on my own under a tree by a river would have been perfect. But I appreciated that wasn’t going to jibe with friends and family. “You’re doing nothing? Why? When are you going back to work?”, I imagined them ask.

I knew I couldn’t just do nothing, so instead I walked. I walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela across France and Spain. It was an extremely challenging two months for many different reasons but the singular daily goal of walking from A to B put life in simple terms again.

Crossing a couple of countries on foot might have been an overreaction but it didn’t feel that way at the time – I craved the escapism, the peace, the chance to breathe with the volume of the world turned down.

Of course, it didn’t fix all my problems, but it did give me the time and space to address them. And now that’s how I view hiking more broadly, as the opportunity to turn the volume down on the world and let thoughts play out without being regularly intercepted by anxiety attacks or self-doubt.

And that’s another thing, walking is achievable, a way to take back and exercise your autonomy. A long-distance trudge over a ridgeline in the rain might not be easy but it’s simple. Simple in the fact that all that’s asked of you is to put one foot in front of the other. It's the simplicity of hiking and the honesty of the elements that brings a steadiness back to inner and outer life. Walking in nature feels like an antidote to the busy mind.

"The positive influence hiking in nature has had on my mental wellbeing is the reason why I’ve chosen to raise money for Mind."

I’ll be walking and wild camping the 177-mile Offa’s Dyke National Trail in December 2023. I’m a keen day-hiker but, given the time of year, this trip poses some novel weather and terrain related challenges I won’t have faced before.

It would mean a great deal if you could help me raise some funds to contribute towards the important mental wellbeing services Mind provides country wide. And if you'd like to follow my journey, you can on Instagram at @JockeyWilson.


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