I have spent a lot of my life living and working outdoors in isolated places, so I don’t underestimate the value of losing oneself in nature, but I also know how lonely such places can be. This article doesn’t really take account of the different ways that the wilderness experience interacts with mental processes, especially solitude. If you find that getting outdoors reduces your anxiety levels, and gives you peace, then it makes absolute sense to do so, but for many people, at certain times in life, it may not be the right thing at all. It's most helpful to do what you honestly want to do at the time, not what you or anyone else feel you “should” do.
Lesson 1: stay safe
If you have a lot on your plate, it may not be a good time to add to your perceived responsibilities. The need to stay safe in the outdoors, especially in winter, necessitates a responsible and thoughtful attitude towards route planning, kit and fellow travellers, that can be at odds with the need to just switch your brain off, to give yourself a break from ongoing mental pressure. I nearly fell off a cliff once, because I forgot to properly tighten my climbing harness. I was well-rested and well-fed, but completely distracted by months of personal conflict, which had boiled over into an argument just prior to the climb.
Lesson 2: it’s ok to stop for a while
One of the most problematic aspects of depression can be a strong tendency to blame oneself for perceived failures - effectively self-bullying. Once this becomes a habit, being alone with one’s thoughts can be very painful, and being outdoors, especially alone, can seriously exacerbate this. Trying to go out when depressed can be akin to forcing yourself to do a long walk whilst carrying an injury. If you don’t stop, take it seriously, and allow it the necessary time to heal, you can delay recovery, or even push yourself into deeper difficulties. This is the time to allow yourself some compassion, even if it means ignoring goals you have set for yourself, such as a seasonal expedition.
Would you tell a depressed person that they’re a failure, that there’s “nothing really wrong” with them, and they “just need to make an effort to get out” ? I am NOT suggesting this was what Cameron said in his article, but it is a common reaction to depression, both from sufferers themselves, and people around them, and it can result in people trying to “fix” problems by throwing themselves into exercise in an effort to “be better”. It comes from a fear of acknowledging the fact that something is really wrong, and an ignorance of the fact that depression can be successfully treated. Needless to say, it’s unhelpful. It’s naturally distressing to see time being wasted and goals falling by the wayside, but being kicked back down by this attitude does not allow people to get back on their feet.
If your best friend was injured and scared, would you try and persuade them that what they really wanted was to go a long hike, or would you tuck them up in bed, and tell them to take it easy? If you want to help yourself, you may feel better if you do something slightly irresponsible, silly, childish and completely pointless, in a safe environment. I don’t recommend that you drink yourself into the gutter, but allow yourself to put down self-imposed burdens of what you “should” be doing. Don’t get up early and “make the most of the day” if the sunshine is so at odds with how you feel that it makes you feel worse. Stay in. Eat nice food, junk food included. Sleep as much as you need to, not as long as you “should”. Watch stupid TV shows that make you laugh. Watch sentimental films that make you cry. Examine your problems in manageable doses, in a safe place where you can break down if you need to, and if you become exhausted, distract yourself so you can get some rest.
Lesson 3: it’s OK to call for help
A lot of outdoors philosophy involves learning to look after oneself, and gaining satisfaction from being able to plan, navigate, and physically accomplish challenging routes, using one’s own skills and determination. It’s a matter of pride that we can look after ourselves. But sometimes things go wrong in life, just like in the outdoors, and you can find yourself in deepening trouble, with bad weather on every horizon. Perhaps you are carrying the mental equivalent of a grossly overloaded pack, on a difficult route that you convinced yourself was good idea, and it’s getting dark. Your skills and equipment suddenly seem foolishly inadequate. You blame and curse yourself. You feel angry enough to bang your head against the nearest sharp rock, just to emphasise to yourself what a stupid idiot you are. It’s time to back off, and call for help. You don’t want to. A combination of pride, combined with terror that help won’t come, may stop you making that call for a long time. You’re covered in sweat, and it’s getting cold. Make the call.
Lesson 4: Find someone who can help you develop the skills to look after yourself at home, as well as in the mountains.
We are not taught the essential skills of being to navigate your own mental landscape, and the result is that when something goes wrong, it’s easy to feel so lost and scared you end up running around in the mist in panicked circles. Do what you would do in a strange, and challenging new country - get help from a professional guide. You can’t learn everything from them overnight – it will take time, but if you really need to lighten your load, they will show you how. The best thing of all is to be able to be happy with your real life, rather than having to escape yourself by going off on expeditions, from which you dread coming home. The outdoors is a friend that will always be there for you when you want to see it again. When you want to go out again, you will, and it will feel really good.