It's not an easy thing to write about either, but I've spoken about the fact that I've struggled with depression and I think it's a topic worth covering further. Particularly as walking genuinely has made a big difference in helping me to cope with it.
I feel I ought to qualify this post by saying that I can't profess to be an expert on this area. I count myself very lucky that I've only ever had what would be termed mild depression - it felt pretty damn bad to me, so I can't even begin to imagine how awful it must be to be severely depressed.
So what is written here is based on my experience and my story, but hopefully there are some kernels of truth in there about depression in general which might help you to understand it better (or which you might recognise), and which will help you understand how walking has helped me to deal with it.
How I used to be
It's hard to describe, or pinpoint a cause for my depression. The best way I can think of to describe it, as I experienced it, is that my default 'setting' was unhappy.
So it's not to say that I was permanently sad and never managed to break out and enjoy myself, but if I wasn't doing anything or I had time to think, I invariably felt unhappy. Unhappy to the point that I would cry, sometimes inconsolably, and just felt like I was slipping slowly into a black hole where everything was awful all the time.
I think for me the unhappiness was very much tied up with my self-image. I'm naturally quite shy, but being bullied at school eroded any confidence I had in myself. I saw myself as overweight, unattractive, and completely, pathetically incapable when it came to talking to new people.
This obviously made me unhappy, but I think I also used these things as excuses for why I was unhappy. I thought that if I lost weight, or I had a boyfriend or I gained confidence then I wouldn't feel low anymore.
This sense carried on, and in fact got somewhat worse, through University when I lost the safety blanket of living at home with a loving family.
Making small steps
I don't want to turn this into a sob story. As I mentioned, it's not that my life was all awful and that I was completely mired in unhappiness the entire time.
The thing I've learnt about depression - at least as I faced it - is that only I can make myself feel better. I always had some truly fantastic friends and family telling me to believe better of myself, that things really weren't so bad, that life is good. Quite often, they would also try to suggest things I should do, solutions to the problem, but when I was down, things seemed so awful that I couldn't believe I would ever be able to do any of their suggestions, or, even if I did, that they wouldn't really help. It was only when I decided to begin doing positive things to address how I felt about myself that things really began to change.
How did I make that start? I'm not entirely sure, but I think that applying myself at work and beginning to prove my worth certainly helped. That sense of success, and the confidence I gained in being forced to be more outgoing, to meet new people and to push forward my views gave me the confidence to try other new things. I moved house, and then when a friend suggested I go on a blind date I said yes. That's how I met The Boy.
There's no doubt that having someone who loves you so completely and persistently tells you you're awesome does help (a lot). But I have to say that, perhaps not surprisingly, it wasn't a solution to my depression. The Boy has helped me immensely, in the same way that my fantastic friends and family have, but I still often felt low and would then feel angry at myself for that, because I didn't feel like I ought to.
I've already described how I got started with walking. That snap decision that I made about joining WeightWatchers had far reaching effects - more than just losing weight.
That decision, and the effects it had, made me realise what a huge difference a relatively small step could make in helping me to feel better about myself. Even before I lost a lot of weight, it was the fact that I had done something to change things, that I was taking action, that made me feel more positive.
It's amazing how doing something, and doing it because you want to, for yourself, rather than because anyone else has told you to, can make you feel so much better. That initial boost that I got helped me with other things too. I started looking at things I was unhappy with and making lists of one thing I could do every day to make a positive change.
It worked even with small things. Just making a note to myself saying that I would email my friends and suggest meeting up, rather than worrying (for no justified reason) that they didn't have time or interest in seeing me, made a world of difference. I started seeing life in a really different way - I could control how things worked, I could make positive change.
And that's where walking came in. As I've written about, I took up walking as part of taking part in an event, but I don't know if I would have had the courage to sign up to that event if I hadn't started making those other positive steps.
Walking has helped me in so many ways. As with the other decisions I've made, initially it helped me to feel a lot more positive because I felt like I was doing something to help myself get healthier, feel fitter, lose weight. But more than that, it also did actually do those things. I lost weight, felt more positive about myself and the way I looked, felt I was in better shape and therefore did even more walking, and the positive cycle continued.
More than that, walking outdoors (anywhere, but particularly when I've been lucky enough to escape the city and get out to the countryside) releases the tensions and stresses that build up. It's a chance to unwind, relax and think about things. Being out in the countryside seems to allow that to happen even more, the beautiful views and fresh air really do take your mind off everything else.
The way I feel about myself has changed so much over the last year and a half and it really has been walking that has done that. I used to feel helpless and like I couldn't change what I thought about how I looked and felt about myself. Now I realise that couldn't be further from the truth.
Just realising that, in turn, made me realise that I can change other areas of my life. I think that all in all, what walking, and the results of it, really taught me is that I can do things that I didn't think I could do, that I told myself I couldn't fix. That's not to say that I never feel unhappy now. I think that the feeling of depression, will never truly leave me. The difference now, is that I recognise it, I know what the pitfalls of giving into it could be and I take evasive action - small, positive steps to make changes.
Dealing with depression isn't easy, and I can understand that what's worked for me might not necessarily work for everyone, but I would say that the thing about walking is that it's easy. You put on some shoes and you walk out of the door. Even if you just go to the end of the road, or just to the local shop, just getting out and about can make all the difference.
It's less easy to believe that life is awful and you're stuck in the same place forever when you leave your home, walk around and see other people living their lives. It's less easy to believe you are on your own. And when you've started doing one positive thing, it suddenly seems a lot easier to do others.
In the end...
So, this has been rather a mammoth post, and not an easy one to write, but I hope it's been illuminating at least. My summary would be - depression really sucks, try to understand people who are stuck in the middle of it, as it really isn't as simple as just 'snapping out of it' (an evil phrase). Meanwhile, taking small positive steps makes all the difference, and getting out for a walk is a great way to do that.
For how much it has helped me, I will be eternally grateful to walking. From being prone to bouts of abject misery, to being happy and positive most of the time is a pretty big leap. I fully intend to carry on my walking obsession for as long as I am physically able and to try to encourage others to love it as much as me.
12/11/12 P.S. Since originally writing this post I've come across a couple of other bloggers with similar experiences of the wonders walking can do for your mental health. Check out Col Wood's post here, and also Sian Taylder's post here, for more inspiration!