WELLBEING | Ecotherapy & Rebuilding An Active Life In The Face Of Chronic Pain & Depression

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This is one of my rare personal posts, a musing on my own struggles with chronic pain and depression and how ecotheraphy, in particular spending more time being active outdoors, has helped me to cope.

kinder-scout-trig-pointCelebrating at the Kinder Scout trig point

Living with depression and chronic pain can bring with it a number of challenges. From personal experience, following the accident (more about that later), the frustration of often being unable to do what I want to do has affected my mental health, causing my depression to resurface. During my recovery, maintaining a healthy weight became much more challenging, and trying to stay active when my body was unable to cooperate was maddening, all of which contributed to a very dark state of mind.

Without wishing to bang on about it, for those that are perhaps visiting the blog for the first time, let’s put my own experience into perspective.

I’d always been relatively active and was fairly fit. I loved the gym and much preferred being up and outdoors to sitting around. Then, back in 2014 I had a snowboarding accident and I broke my back, a compression fracture of my T10 to be exact.

snowboarding

Snowboarding in Whistler

My immune system kicked in, but sadly stayed switched on, even after my back had improved (though it will never fully heal now). My own immune system started to attack my healthy joints, leading to systemic inflammation and a triple diagnosis’ of Sero-Negative Palindromic Rheumatism, Chornic Pain and Fibromyalgia. Whilst I’ve never accepted the latter diagnosis, to make things more difficult, different experts don’t agree on my joint condition. My current specialist believes I have pre-radiographic Ankylosing Spondylitis. I also have disc lesions throughout my lumbar spine, and my T10 has a permanent bulge.

I’ve grown accustomed to living with constant unrelenting pain; something anyone with chronic pain will identify with.

I have days where rolling over in bed, bending over, getting in or out of the car or getting dressed on my own is agony, but I’ve grown accustomed to living with constant unrelenting pain; something anyone with chronic pain will identify with.

I was literally mourning the loss of my old life.

In the early days I felt a great deal of sorrow, and not knowing whether I’d be wheelchair bound or not, caused me to become withdrawn and depressed; I was literally mourning the loss of my old life. My future felt bleak and for a short time, I was of a mindset that if I couldn’t enjoy the outdoors and feel the buzz of adrenaline that things like snowboarding provided me, then life was pretty much pointless.

Shell Kayaking at Astbury Mere summer 2016

Back on the water, kayaking after a 2 year break

I refused anti-depressants reasoning I wanted to tackle the cause, and having taken anti-depressants a decade or so earlier, it took me many years to come off them, so I did not want to go down that route again and was determined to find an alternative. I felt instinctively that spending more time immersed in nature was what I needed to kickstart my emotional healing process, and that hunch turned out to be right.

The medical profession wasted no time in essentially writing me off, and I was simply advised to work fewer days and to lower my expectations of what I could do.

At that time however, walking for any distance was still very painful. The Body Pump gym classes I used to do were now impossible, and I couldn’t even manage gentle Yoga or Pilates, every bend and move caused agonising pain. The medical profession wasted no time in essentially writing me off, and I was simply told to work fewer days and to lower my expectations of what I could do.

Determined to do something, I ignored the bleak prognosis and summoned all of my courage and went back to the gym after 8 weeks away. I went swimming, and whilst it certainly wasn’t pain free, I managed a short swim. Instead of feeling happy I’d found something physical I could do, I was in turmoil. A 20 minute swim was a huge breakthrough, but it seemed pathetic compared to what I used to do, and the hopeless feeling triggered self loathing which all contributed to worsening the depression I was in. I became even more withdrawn and It was at that low point, that I realised I had a choice.

I could either admit defeat and let the pain and disability limit my life, or I could do everything possible to manage and live with it.

Keen Uneek ShoesCamping allows me to spend extended periods of time outdoors, which centres me and staves off depression

Gradually I moved from feeling like my life was over, to recognising how lucky I was. As the months went by, I realised I should be grateful that I wasn’t paralysed, and so I started using the mantra “it could have been so much worse”. It was around this time too that the #ThisGirlCan advertising campaign was launched and the mindfulness movement too was gaining a voice, and both of those things really resonated with me.

The change in mindset galvanised me into action, as well as starting this blog, I did more of the only thing I could do at that time, which was swimming. I started getting up at 6am and going every morning before work. After a couple of months, the physical activity had banished much of my depression, and I was able to begin accepting and shaping the ‘new’ me.

I was doing things that some of my able-bodied friends couldn’t do, and that realisation spurred me on.

Instead of focusing on the things I couldn’t do, I focused on the positives. I thought about how determined I must be for sticking to my morning swimming routine, how tough I was because I wasn’t choosing the easy option and I looked better and felt fitter too….and I was doing it all despite being in so much pain that I’d often be crying into the pool as I swam.

Gradually I stopped feeling like a victim and I felt like a warrior. I was doing things that some of my depression free, able-bodied friends couldn’t do, and that realisation was epic and helped to spur me on.

The Roaches, Peak District

I started to congratulate myself and to be kinder to myself, which helped lift my self esteem. After a couple of months of swimming 5 days I week, I started doing gentle Yoga at home in the evening too. Then I started going out for little walks at lunch time at work and gradually my fitness started to increase again and I lost almost 3 stone, and amazingly, I now felt like I was managing my pain and not the other way around.

Mindfulness and focusing on the natural world

I read a lot about mindfulness at the same time, and started to become more aware of my natural surroundings. I started looking at plants and trees and really seeing them, I started to learn to identify birds, wild plants and spent time in the woods beside my house immersing myself in the natural world. It’s then that true happiness slowly crept back upon me.

Left unchecked, that can quickly become the norm, impacting your beliefs and expectations of yourself – ultimately making your world much smaller.

With any kind of chronic pain and debilitating condition, it is so easy to let it win. From the many forums I’d participated in, it felt like some people with a similar diagnosis to me used it as an excuse to not even bother trying; validating their decision to sit on the sofa and watch TV all day. Admitting defeat occasionally is necessary I’ve learned, but left unchecked, that can quickly become the norm, impacting your beliefs and expectations of yourself – ultimately making your world much smaller.

Of course I’m aware that all chronic pain is not the same, and disability is subjective and varies greatly in how badly it impacts peoples lives. It’s not always a simple case of mind over matter, and I’m in no way saying it’s easy or something anyone can just ‘do’, but in my experience, a more mindful and nature-aware mindset had a huge impact both mentally and physically.

imag1020

Near the summit of Snowdon

What have I learned in the past couple of years?

Being active and spending time outdoors isn’t optional

I’ve learned that the stress relieving effects of both physical activity and spending time outdoors connected to nature is critical to my mental wellbeing, even more so than for my physical wellbeing. Suse wrote a wonderful article on mindfulness Stop, stop and listen for the bough top is whistling.

Stopping negative self-talk

I learned not to blame myself or beat myself up, though this was hard. After the accident I could barely move, and I put on weight and it caused self loathing that fueled my depression. Building up my activity levels again gave me a different perspective on myself, doing something was better than nothing, however futile it felt at the time.

Accepting limitations and celebrating achievements

Acceptance of my limitations was something that I battled against for a long time. I was strong and capable and could do anything I felt like doing prior to the accident, and I didn’t need anyone’s help. Coming to terms with the fact that this was no longer the case, was probably the most difficult thing for me, but that doesn’t mean I accepted what I’d been told. I instinctively fought against my prognosis and have achieved things mentally and physically at one point I’d have never have thought were possible.

It’s OK to admit defeat occasionally, but it can’t become your norm

Learning to listen to my body and rest when necessary, and even having to cancel plans, is something I do still battle with. I’m rubbish at resting, and as a result end up operating at full capacity for months on end, then I tend to burn out and crash. This is something I’m still trying to improve on…but when I do get a truly bad day, I no longer beat myself up about it or feel guilty.

Black Diamond Ladies Arete Teeers

My latest hobby, indoor climbing

It’s never too late to change your mindset and surprise yourself

With the right mindset I have learned that my chronic pain can be managed. I moved from a negative, frustrated tone of self-talk, to forcing myself to think more positively, remembering my mantra “it could have been so much worse” all the time. I have the odd day, when I don’t win; when the pain is unrelenting and I’m so exhausted from constantly fighting it, that my body just gives in and forces me to take a rest day, and that’s OK.

Taking each day as it comes, no longer being scared to make plans or push myself, is the mindset that has turned me into a warrior; a person I can be proud of being, and that’s played a big part in managing my depression and spurring me on to do things I’d never thought I’d be able to do, even before the accident!

Setting small achievable goals

My GP and specialist told me that I needed to accept my limitations, essentially, stop fighting. So If you’d have told me two years ago that in 2016 I would now be walking up mountains, that climbing would be my new hobby or that I’d be snowboarding again, I simply would not have believed it; I’m glad I chose to ignore what the medical profession told me. It all started with me swimming for just 20 minutes twice a week, then for an hour 5 days a week. Each time I did something new, the positive reinforcement helped me gain in confidence, and prove the naysayers wrong.

Craghoppers Discovery Adventures Stretch Jacket Electric PinkI’ve learned that it’s Important to listen to my body and rest when necessary

A few months later I tried my very first hill walk in Cumbria (with Large Outdoors). It was agony, but I did it, loved it and it proved to be pivotal moment for me. After that, I stopped being scared of what I couldn’t do and just went for it. I planned more hill walks and found I was capable of walking for 9 hours straight. I took a kayak out on the water for the first time in nearly 2 years, I went snowboarding again, I booked a climbing session, and gradually I found myself doing more and more simply because I believed I could.

I feel like the accident, and the resulting disability and depression has actually given me a chance to reinvent myself. I’ve learned so much about myself and have realised that I’m far tougher and more determined than I ever knew, in fact I’m writing this after reaching the summit of Snowdon a few days ago. How cool is that?!

The result? I am happier than ever with the new ‘me’ I’ve fought so hard to become. I do have physical limitations, which I now accept and I still have bad days too, but I no longer let them win and I constantly challenge the negative self-talk that plagued me when I was depressed.

I’ve learned that It’s never too late to strive to become a healthier, more active person and spending more time outdoors could actually provide the space and clarity you need to break past your current limitations and surprise yourself. Just keep telling yourself you will and you can.

Don’t struggle alone

If you’re living with mental health issues please don’t struggle alone. The most crucial first step for me, was to admit it to myself, and then to tell those around me. There’s heaps of advice on dealing with mental health issues on mind.co.uk , and they have a great section on Ecotherapy too.

For those struggling with chronic pain, the NHS Live Well website has some basic tips and advice for exercising with chronic pain.

I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of the people in my life who were kind, caring and considerate and have been endlessly patient and supportive of me over the last couple of years.

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