Heather's story: walking in nature is my therapy

This content mentions depression, death or bereavement, anxiety and loneliness, which some people may find triggering.

Heather, aged 62 (and a half), is a mum of 4, grandmother of 5 and a child at heart. She shares how walking in nature helps her mental health.

I have experienced anxiety and depression over the last decade since my 18-year-old daughter died in late 2008. I was prescribed anti-depressants as a means to cope with this. Whilst they took the edge off my depression, they didn’t really make me feel like ‘I got this’ or lift my low mood.

I threw myself into work and family and never really looked at alternatives to the pills. I did try talking therapies, but whilst this helped me get things off my chest, it didn’t help in the longer term. I knew I’d never get over the death of my daughter, but I didn’t want to feel the emptiness that was overwhelming or wallow for the rest of my life.

I used food as a coping mechanism, and as a result, the weight piled on. My physical health was now as compromised as my mental health. It was a vicious circle – the more depressed I became, the more I ate. The more I ate, the heavier I got, and the depressive cycle ensued.

In late 2018, I decided on a new project – ME!

Photo of Heather

Using walking as exercise

I cut down on the rubbish I put into my body and decided to use walking as a form of exercise. At first, I just ‘pavement pounded’ and I used lamp posts as a guide and a challenge. From doing six lamp posts one day to ten a few days later and so on until I could walk for an hour. Once I was confident doing that, I joined in on a couple of free Ranger-led walks in my local country parks.

These are mostly free, and most local councils have them. This introduced me to the countryside, and I loved it. I then found a women’s walking group that was basically a Facebook page where women from all over Scotland organised walks in their local areas, and you could sign up for them – all free. On this journey, I managed to lose 4.5 stone and my mental health and well-being became the best it had been in a very long time.

Nature became my saviour, and I loved the calmness that I felt when I was out walking in the open air amongst the trees and green spaces. My mood instantly improved and a sense of well-being became evident. I loved this newfound freedom and escapism that walking gifted me. I even managed to come off my anti-depressants as my depression lifted.

The COVID-19 pandemic

Fast forward to March 2020, the pandemic hit, and lockdown ensued. My group walks stopped, and travel was banned except for essential travel. That and working from home had an impact on both my weight and my mental health. The weight crept up, and my mood began to get worse. I could feel the anxiety and depression taking hold of me again.

Life in lockdown had curtailed my newfound love of walking with a women’s walking group that I had joined the year before. I had just found the confidence to walk with complete strangers and had been introduced to new places that I had never been to before. The thing that worried me most was going back to feeling depressed and relying on meds to get me through the day.

I knew I had a foolproof formula that supported my well-being, I knew I loved being out in nature. I also knew I couldn’t travel down to Loch Lomond and further beyond, but I also knew that there were country parks and greenfield sites in my area, so I had a look at the walk highlands routes that include local walks, and amazingly I found dams and lochs, forests and even local parks had an abundance of green space locally in Renfrewshire.

I explored these places on my doorstep, and the wonder of nature didn’t disappoint. I could get to most places fairly easily and all within restrictions. The fresh air, the beauty of nature and the instant sense of calm and serenity I found walking in the green open spaces was all the therapy I needed. My mood lifted, the despair and crowded thoughts in my mind evaporated, and I felt a sense of peace enveloping my whole body.

How nature has impacted my mental health

Writing this in 2021 and reflecting on the past couple of years, I recognise that walking and connecting with nature has enabled me to discover beautiful peaceful places where I to listen to the birdsong without the disruptive noise of traffic outside my house on a busy main road. I can check out the flowers. I listen to the babbling streams and feel the breeze on my face and watch the sun filtering and dancing through the trees.

I discovered lochs and glens, forests and beaches and even climbed my first Munro – Ben Lomond at the age of 61! The scenery in Scotland is second to none, and even the weather plays a part in the beauty of nature, with moody skies, changeable cloud formations and four seasons in one day at times.

I got to see parts of Scotland that I had never been to. I splashed in mud and got soaked to the skin on many occasions; in those moments, I was transported back to childhood when I hadn’t a care in the world. I’ve met lots of lovely women, and many who also found that walking in nature had given them a sense of purpose, reduced their loneliness and isolation and improved their mental health and well-being, and for those few hours, they could just be themselves. Word must have got around as there are over 22,000 women in that walking group now!

Walking and connecting with nature for me meant that I managed to get off medication, as my anxiety and depression lifted. I know that when I feel my well-being becoming compromised, I have a healthy coping strategy to hand. However, I also know that if I needed to go back on medication, I would as there is nothing to be ashamed of.

For now, walking in nature is my therapy, and it works. It lowers my blood pressure, lessens my stress, makes me feel good, and I can be at peace with myself. If I lose the weight again, then that’ll be an added bonus; but for now, anything that makes me smile and look forward to the day ahead is good enough for me.

I’d encourage anyone who struggles with their mental health to give it a go – you have nothing to lose and plenty to gain. You don’t need to be super fit; a stroll or even a sit down in the park and take in the views.

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