Being pro-active about your mental health – jogging for the soul.

We are all recognise the concept of the value of routine exercise for physical fitness. Some people run, others swim, still others go to the gym and workout. Even if you are closer to your couch than you are to 5K today we are all familiar with the idea of being pro-active about our physical health.

…we are all familiar with the idea of being pro-active about our physical health.

As we entered this pandemic in the Spring of 2020 a thought came to me. I would need to be proactive about my mental health. Here in the UK we are within months of the other side of the pandemic, and am reviewing how well my approach has worked for me. Whilst considering this it came to me that whilst there are many messages about being proactive about keeping physically fit, I’ve heard little said within the mainstream media or from the NHS about being pro-active with our mental health.

I’ve heard little said…about being pro-active with our mental health.

Chances are that ignoring your physical health will shorten your life more than ignoring your mental health, but in terms of quality life years I’d suggest that the latter is at least as important. So what did I do to keep myself mentally stable during this crazy time?

  1. I acknowledged my needs and weaknesses and worked out how I could address them.

It’s hard to admit things about yourself of which you are not proud. In my case I needed to be honest about the value I get from routine. I might like to present a different face to the world but I needed to admit to myself that the requirement to be ‘at work’ at a specific time each day, and the sometimes routines tasks of work life were something that where important to me.

Also I needed to admit that I am mentally fragile, I’m not the resilient super hero that, as a man, I would like to be or paint myself as. I needed to acknowledge the need to act to preserve my mental and emotional stability.

2. I was purposeful about building the ‘connections’ which are most important to me.

I wrote in an earlier post about the excellent book “Lost Connections” by Johann Hari. In this he lists key facets of our life such as our connection to nature, connection to friends and four other key connections within our life. I know that for me that my connections to nature, God and friends are all particularly life giving.

The beauty of being purposeful in maintaining these connections is that it’s not like training for a race. It’s not painful or dull exercise which we are motivated to do simply because of the end goal. Maintaining connections is about doing things which we enjoy which have the co-benefit of a positive effect on our mental well-being. In my case I made time to phone my friends to make up for the loss in face to face contact. I made sure that I got out into the countryside regularly, even if that was just an evening stroll in the local park. Finally, I focussed more on the disciplines of my faith. The connections which are most important to you may well be different to those most critical to me.

3. I learned how to recognise and express my emotions in a healthy way.

You may or may not relate to the Christian centred teaching of Chip Dodd. Like many American Evangelicals he says in a chapter what could easily have been covered in a paragraph, but there is gold in them there hills of words! To summarise what he says: (1) Our emotions can be distilled down to a small number of underlying feelings; (2) We can express these feelings in positive or negative ways. Let’s start with the negative/s – we can internalise those feelings leading to a negative expression, or we can transfer those feelings to others which is neither good for us or nice for them. The positive approach is to express them in a helpful way. Let’s look at just one example, which Dodd calls anger (and I prefer to call passion).

Let’s say you come home to a messy kitchen. You could shout at your spouse, but we all know that this would not end well for either of you. You could calmly express that it makes you sad to see the kitchen in a mess after you’d cleaned the house at the weekend, or you could discuss how a kitchen cleaning rota might be arranged. You have a choice of how you express and resolve how you feel. You don’t have to try to make your problem someone else’s problem, instead you could be an agent for change.

A good summary is this – bottled up emotions tend to come to the surface eventually and when they do its rarely in a good way. Transferring your emotions (like anger) to someone else does not resolve the emotion, it simply moves it to someone else with some added bad feeling with it. Recognising and expressing your emotion well leads to good and healthy outcomes.

Perhaps not all the above approaches are ones you can relate to, but for a better and sustained quality of life think about what you can do to actively promote your mental health and start working on it. In my experience it leads to a whole lot of benefit at very low cost.

Blencathra, Skiddaw and the Minor Northern Fells – A Two Day Rishi Ramble

As soon as my management team heard that Lancashire was on the brink of becoming a Tier 3 COVID zone they acted. Most of the team were put onto full time furlough, but two brewers and a dray-man put onto a two day week. Thankfully for my sanity I am one of those working part time*.

I’ve often dreamed of being a professional hill walker, well thanks to Rishi and his furlough scheme, I spent two days this week in the Lakeland Fells on 80% pay.**  My route took me from Mosedale over Blencathra and Skiddaw, and then back via the more minor Northern Fells that sit behind these two 900 m peaks. Minor in size and notoriety, but not in the pleasure of the views they afforded as I was to find out.

Day One took me over Blencathra and onto the col between Jenkin Hill and Little Man, some 700m up the 931 m of Skiddaw.

Day Two started in low cloud which persisted until I was part way down the further side of Skiddaw, but then lifted to afford great views.

  • Rainbow

The route worked out well, with 10.5 miles and most of the height gain on Day One, and 13 miles on Day Two. If I did it again I would tweak the route a little. My route and the changes I’d make to the end of each day are shown below:

Click on the links to download the .gpx files for my actual route and improved endings for days one and two.

*Mentally there is a world of difference between a two day week and not working at all. It’s easier to think positively about working shorter hours than not at all. OK, I’m only one week into this new regime, but it feels much more like something I could make the best of than it felt during the full ‘house arrest’ of earlier in the year.

** Joking aside, it’s really important that people who are furloughed keep themselves ‘fit’ for a return to work.  Brewing is a very physical job, so it’s good to remain physically fit.  Mental health is vital for everyone so reconstructing purpose and routine into these novel and prolonged periods away from work is also key.  Backpacking / wild camping in Fell Country fulfils both these goals for me

Reconnecting with life, reconnecting with happiness.

There is a lot of focus on mental health in the media at the moment, with people openly asking the question – “Why are the incidence of depression and anxiety rising so rapidly in the Western World?”

My aim in this post is to take Johann Hari’s 255 page “Lost Connections” book and distil a summary from this. Let’s start by outlining his list of connections:

Connections to:

  1. Meaningful work
  2. People and community
  3. Good values
  4. Status and respect
  5. The Natural World
  6. Hope for the future

If you consider the above list you quickly see that the direction that society is taking is reducing many peoples connections to a number of, of even all, of these areas. I have already found my way to items one, three, four and five. Lets unpack, rather more briefly than Hari, the above list, because if you can define the challenge you can look to work on solutions.

Meaningful work

A recent study suggested that only around 1/3 of the UK population enjoy the job which they do. That’s appalling! A key issue here is your extent of autonomy. Whilst autonomy might often rise with seniority that is far from always being the case.  There is a key difference between being told what to do and being told how to do it. Having someone prescribe the ‘how’ is a big problem, or at least it was for me. If you have staff reporting to you, trust them to know what they are doing. Depending on the role they may need different levels of direction, from broad-brush to specific. But within the needs of safety and quality allow them to do it their way. Not only is this better for mental health of the individual, if you are not using the thoughts and initiative of your employees you are missing out on a lot which they have to offer. If you want an automaton, buy a robot.

People & community

As a society we are becoming more individualistic. This is not a new phenomenon, you can see the roots of this in the thinking of the Renaissance, the replacement of monarchy by democracy and the birth of the Anglican and Non-conformist church. It’s not new. One of the key reasons why humans have flourished to a greater extent than other mammals is our ability to co-operate and work together. We have always worked best as a group or tribe, not as selfish disconnected individuals. Hari quotes an interesting study which shows that people who seek to promote the happiness of their community experience greater personal happiness than those who just seek their own fulfilment. Face to face interactions with friends are important too. Better to have 2-3 face to face relationships than several hundred connections via social media. By all means have both, but don’t – he mutes – allow the latter to overwhelm the former. Spend more time looking into the eyes of a friend than at a little screen in your hand.

Good Values

Depending on your cultural and faith background your view of good values may vary. But I’d suggest we could all agree on a list of junk values : consumerism, celebrity-worship, on-line curated popularity (i.e. having the perfect Instagram image), fast-fashion. What would you add to this list? That is a question I am meditating upon. What so many of these junk-values have in common is that their true role is to serve others and not us (or our community). We are becoming increasingly aware that these junk values are not just at our expense but are also at the expense of the planet and thus future generations.

Status & respect

Here Hari highlights that the happiness in countries where the gap between the richest and the poorest is smaller, happiness is greater. Read his book to know more. This one is a challenge, because as individuals most of us cannot influence these factors. However we can learn to be content with what we have and we can be more respectful of others. Also we could choose cast our vote for a leadership that shows preference to the poor rather than just the rich. Your view on who that is may vary.

The Natural World

There is mounting evidence that exercise and time outside is good for all aspects of our health. In addition it gives us a sense of perspective. It puts our challenges in their place and causes us to be less inward looking. If you’ve read much of this blog you’ll see how much I love the outdoors and spending ten months working on a sheep farm was instrumental in my recovery from burn out. Having a faith also helps with perspective, if you understand your position relative to your God that allows you to see things more realistically.  That the good in your life is bigger than your thought and the bad less significant than you give it credit for when you feel down. Even if faith is not your thing, ‘counting your blessings’ has been shown by the work of Dr Laurie Santos at Yale University to be highly beneficial to your well-being. Her interview on Radio Four is well worth a listen.

Hope for the future

Have plans, have dreams, think beyond tomorrow. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Increasingly we are being seen as part of a machine to keep the economy growing year on year. Stop conforming to the goals of the large corporations and set your own goals, challenging ones, and work towards them. But make those goals intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Do things which you love in their own right, not because of what they could lead to. I walk because I love the wild, not because it keeps me fit. I work for the satisfaction not simply for the money. I brew because I love the creative challenge, not because I want cheap beer.

I spent 13 years in school and seven years at University and was never taught any of the above. It’s time that messages such as the above were more widely known. Certainly they are concepts I plan to pass onto Junior. What has reading this summary made you think? I’d love to know.

 
 

A Pennine Perambulation – Walking & Wild Camping in the Cheviots

Part of the pleasure of a walking tour is the planning stage. Staring at maps and day dreaming, looking for wild/camping spots.  This October my idea was to walk the Western section of Wainwright’s Coast to Coast. The section I loved most when I walked the whole route back in, ahem, 1993.  My planning had yielded a route which would take me close to a pub each night so I didn’t need to carry cooking gear and could enjoy the interplay of the physical and zymological landscape of Cumbria. Akin to my walk in early September. I enjoyed the planning so much that was reminded of another idea I’d had which was to walk the very Northern section of the Pennine Way which traces the Border Ridge between the Cheviots and Scotland’s Roxburghshire. As the time for my walk approached I thought it would be wise to keep an open mind which route I did and base it on the better weather. Perhaps unsurprisingly the East won and my planned walk across Cumbria actually started at Byrness in Northumberland.

Cheviot Route Map

It was a three hour drive to the start, so I planned a ¾ day of just ten miles to get me started. It was very much a ‘walk in’ but whilst the scenery was only secondary to getting to my ‘real start point’ the cloudscape proved a highlight of the day, along with the pleasure of being out in the wild again and away from ‘civilisation’.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The wind built as the day went on, so camping on top of Windy Gyle seemed unwise. As an aside, a Gyle is the traditional name for a ‘batch’ in the brewing industry. The source of this word seems uncertain. Some link it back the French for ‘to ferment’ whilst others link it to the Gallic for bog!  Having now visited Windy Gyle the both the idea of a ‘Windy Bog’ or a ‘Fermenting Wind’ seem appropriate, you make your choice… As a brewer I’d say the wind was as vigorous as the fermentation of a Saison, so I opted for the best, yet modest, shelter I could find on the col between Mozie’s Law and Windy Gyle before it got dark. The sun set as I pitched my tent, but 11 miles and 420 m was not a bad achievement in an autumn afternoon with full kit.

dsc_0623

dsc_0626

I work up in cloud and the gratitude of being in a Hilleberg when I recalled the tent being pushed flat onto my face in the night because of the strength of the wind. After striking camp, Peak One was the aforementioned Windy Gyle.

Honestly that is what is behind the cloud in shown in the photo. I continued along the ridge in the cloud, but was delighted when it lifted just before 1100. The views were their own reward, I’ll let the pictures tell their own story.  It was then decision time, my plan was to spend one of my four nights in a lowland campsite. Would that be Yetholm (the end of the Pennine Way) or Wooler?

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A combination of the weather and practicality led to me choosing Wooler, so one hour into my transition to the St Cuthbert’s Way I started to look for a wild camping spot. I had already salvaged some water from a sheep trough supply and I found a flat grassy spot in the lea of am old dry stone sheep ‘stell’ or shelter. Dinner with a view. (Day 2 – 16 miles)

dsc_0652

As an aside on the subject of dinner, because I was carrying all my food for four days I wanted something light, flavoursome and suitably calorific. All my memories of dehydrated meals were all poor ones, both the taste and the after effects! I figured this opinion might well now be well over 20 years out of date so I shook the internet to see what fell out. A number of reviews spoke well of ‘Food on the Move’ dehydrated food pouches. I opted for the larger expedition size. I cannot eat regular pasta or cous-cous (due to the Fructans within them) so I opted for three rice based options. The two curry’s where excellent. The risotto was rather herb heavy for my taste, but it filled me up; I’d certainly use their curry options again.  For those travelling light it’s also great to be able to east straight from the packet – no washing up, and thus a few less things to carry.

The forecast for day three was rain from 1300. I could easily get to Wooler in this time (8 miles, 240 m) and hoped to find a pub with an open fire and read my book for the afternoon. St Cuthbert’s Way was really pleasant, and a contrast from the high fells. It was mostly double track which let me to wonder, did ‘Berty ride a quad bike?  Sadly Wooler proved a disappointment. It has three pubs, The Angel is only for generic lager drinkers, The Black Bull with it’s sign saying “Open all day” was closed and as I approached the Anchor I was met by someone being physically thrown from the establishment. I took that as a poor sign.  Luckily the local Co-op was well stocked with craft cans, so I filled my pockets and headed back to the tent to sit out the rain in comfort. No open fire, but at least I had good beer (Vocation, Adnams [Dry-hopped Lager], Brewdog) and a good book.

Day four (14 miles, 1200 m) was to be my big day in terms of assent as it involved climbing over The Cheviot back to the Border Ridge / Pennine Way. It was a great walk-in through deserted grouse moor. I passed the spot where I might have wild camped

dsc_0661

Should you ever want a spot to camp in this area, give Wooler a body swerve and go to NT 958 257. It has everything, shelter, flat grass, solitude and a fast flowing stream.

From here it was an upward plod until reaching the summit of The Cheviot, where I found a dusting of snow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s something very satisfying about backpacking to the snow line, even if I wasn’t really equipped to sleep in comfort at this temperature / altitude. Another 1.5 miles and I rejoined my outbound route but now in glorious sunshine. This time I could fully appreciate the viewed I’d hope to see on my way out. They were just as I’d hoped.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Up here in the fells with my kit on my back I felt like I was in my 20’s again. My new career keeps me as fit as I’ve ever been. The differences are much better hill-wisdom, allowing for safe, comfortable and stunning wild camping at altitude and the benefits of the kit that I’ve been able to afford to buy over the years. I’m part way through a book by Johann Hari on managing depression without medication. One thing he points to is seek intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals. That is, goals which are the end in themselves, not a route to an end. Doing something you simply love, rather than aspiring to money, status other other paths which you use these to get something you think you’ll love. The former, he proposes, sustainably satisfies. The latter are quests which never really end. The sheer love of being in the splendid isolation of beautiful fell country is certainly a great intrinsic goal for me, and that made possible by a job I love in itself not for what it pays (not a great deal) or the status it affords (I’m no rock star). These are truths I never learnt as a child, I guess they are not what the consumerist world wants you to know, but ones I plan to pass onto Junior.

The rough plan was to walk back to Mozie’s Law and camp where I had on the first night. This time however I arrived with more time to pick a pitch. Again it was rather windy but with more time to review my options I found a narrow pitch just 100 metres from the original which was nicely sheltered as well as affording great views to enjoy whilst I boiled water for a brew. This had proved the finest day of this mini-tour and it was wonderful to see the sun go down from 550 metres in splendid isolation, albeit a herald of a very cold night. Whilst it’s true that I slept in all my clothes, hat and all, I was very impressed with the capability of my +5 C rated summer sleeping bag, a Lamina 35.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

With just 11 miles to do on my final day I allowed the sun to wake me.

dsc_0692

And whilst it’s true that this was now just a ‘walk out’ rather than any kind of highlight, everything tends to look better in the sunshine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Well most things anyway…

dsc_0700

Next time I’ll have the courage to head out for five days totally in the wild, with decent dehydrated food and iodate tablets to make the river water safe, what’s not to like?