How walking helped transform my mental health journey

Walking can be a powerful form of exercise, not just physically, but mentally too. So in support of Mental Health Awareness week, hear from walking enthusiast Jake Tyler, who turned to walking and the great outdoors to help him cope with depression.

Jake Tyler is a mental health advocate and broadcaster. His book, A Walk From The Wild Edge’, is Jake’s account of how, after coming close to suicide, he embarked on a 3000-mile walk around the UK in an attempt to regain control of his life. He covered every national park, walked along coastal paths and traversed over hills and mountains. His book tells the story of his walk around the British mainland and also how his journey, and being in the great outdoors, helped him get on the road to recovery. Here’s what he learnt along the way…

How I got into walking

When I look back on it now, I have so little idea about where the idea to walk around the country came from. I’ve often attempted to retrace my steps prior to making the decision to try and pinpoint an exact moment. I think it was a collision of multiple moments, some being hard to relive, that simply created a space for something big. Being signed off work meant life became a vast open space with not a single date or plan to create a routine around. Moving back home onto mum’s boat removed any big commitments, tenancy contracts or financial restraint and allowed space for an opportunity for something so unrestricted.

I'm lucky that within my depression there is an element of my mostly laid-back, cavalier personality which is superseded by a short-tempered grump which surfaces just as it feels like things will never be better. There is a time, between days in bed, ignoring my friends and sleep deprived nights, when I get frustrated where I’ll think, ‘Screw this, I’m sick of this now. I don’t feel any better, but I have to do something.’ Not everyone is like that, but I seem to be. I consider myself fortunate in that regard.

My response to a massive depressive episode during the darkest time in my life began with a decision to walk my mum’s dog Reggie every day. It was uncomfortable at first – too bright, too strenuous, too hot, too cold, too many eyes. But at least I was feeling. Beyond the bustling town of Maldon, where these walks began, there were trees and fields and peace. I began walking Reggie every day. As my resilience grew and my mood improved, staying outside for longer and longer became a choice, a choice that I made because it was the only thing that made me feel any better.

The healing power of nature

I wouldn’t have ever really described myself as an outdoorsy type in adult life. However, walking through the woods and fields I used to play in as a kid was reawakening a love for it all. The way the trees on either side of the track behind Leeches Garden met each other at the top to create a tunnel. The willow trees that sat swaying in the breeze as they always used to, so full of character and personality. The vastness of woodland I could see in the middle distance from a certain spot. It was all still there, and it will continue to be there long after I depart. There was something about that realization that made my problems seem so small. A grander picture. Nature evokes that feeling more than anything and, in those surroundings, I felt like I was being brought out of the darkness. It was saving me.

The age-old argument of the physical benefits of exercise were well and truly being played out in real time too. I was eating less junk, sleeping better and releasing some seriously built-up tension from my muscles. It was also giving me the mental space I desperately needed to think about what was going on in my life in a more removed, quiet and reflective way than my lifestyle had previously allowed. It hit me quite profoundly that ‘outside’ was where I needed to be. I needed to strip away all the work, the complicated relationships, the never-ending to-do list, the unbearable stress, unfulfillment and all the other little things that had been chipping away at me, making my life as miserable as it was. I wanted to return to basics, as close as I could get to a primal existence. No possessions, no distractions, just me on my own in the vast openness of the country.

An inspiring journey in the UK

In a moment of pure inspiration I planned a route, deciding that I wanted to visit the best natural parts of Britain and try to show people that being outside and being in nature and walking outside can be really beneficial to mental health. If it was working for me, it had to work for other people. Over the course of a year, I covered 3,000 miles of coast, fields, hills, bridleways, national trails, national parks and mountains, being mindful of my surroundings and existing in the moment.

 I discovered places and visited sections of the country I’d always wanted to see. I watched the landscape change mile by mile, a privilege that only walking can offer. I suppose I’ve taken that mindset into wider life now. It’s been over three years since the walk ended and living in the moment was something I don’t think I ever really did before. These days if my mind is in the past or future it doesn’t take much for me to recognize that, and if I need a break from my own thoughts or to reconnect with what’s happening in the here and now, I know how to get into that headspace more easily.

Advice for those living with depression

If you live in a city, you may be wondering how you’d hear your thoughts or find relaxation amongst blaring car horns and 24-hour noise, and you’d be right. That’s why it’s important to get out into the open. As well as the physical space walking provides, it also gives you a lot of mental space to process things. If I’m inside, I feel like I’m relaxing but really it’s just a kind of distraction. Walking calms and relaxes me and makes me feel like I’m stepping out of a stressful life, but it also allows me the mental space to work through things without getting distracted. You don’t need a hobbit-esque adventure like mine to get what you need, just enough time away from the noise, and a willingness to immerse yourself in the natural world. It’s a quiet place, and it’s there waiting for you, and it always will be.

Feeling inspired?

For those eager to hear more from Jake, you can order a copy of his ‘A Walk on the Wild Edge book, which details his walking journey around the UK. If, like Jake, you’re looking to take on a walking trip yourself, don’t miss our expertly designed men’s and women’s walking kit to help you get started. We’ve developed this blog in support of Mental Health Awareness week (9th to 15th May) head to the dedicated website to learn more about this.