Guest blog by Hope Virgo, Author and Mental Health Campaigner
I’ve always loved the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I’d often find ways to escape the city and head into the forest near where I grew up. It was a place where I could switch off from everything and just slow down. I loved it, and felt safe there.
The struggles I’ve had with my mental health have helped me to realise just how important it is to spend time in green spaces. It has this healing power that we all need, helping us to regain focus and balance.
When I was 13 years old, I developed anorexia. There were a number of reasons why, one of which was as a coping mechanism to deal with childhood sexual abuse.
The anorexia was quite literally my best friend. It gave me a sense of purpose while at the same time numbing my emotions. Fast forward four years and I ended up in hospital. I spent a year trying to recover, gradually moving from rock bottom to regaining a healthy weight and trying to manage in the outside world.
One of the toughest parts for me was admitting I had a problem and that I needed help. For someone with anorexia, taking that first step can be so hard to do.
The hospital treatment I received was brilliant and the support I was given saved my life. But I also needed to find ways to improve my wellbeing outside of the hospital walls.
It wasn’t just about eating meals and snacks throughout the day, or about surviving in the world, but about thriving and not letting anorexia have any sort of hold over me.
The road to recovery
I started talking to people close to me, and challenging myself to find out what the triggers were. Then I started exercising in a healthy way, which eventually led to running outside!
When I first went in to hospital I wasn’t allowed to exercise outdoors but after ten months, I was finally made it out for a few short runs. I won’t ever forget the sense of freedom I felt on that first run, my face in the wind, the cold air on my legs and my feet on the ground. It was amazing and something that kept me motivated to keep pushing forward in my recovery.
The funny thing about running outside is that we often take everything for granted - the outside space, the fresh air, the scenery. The same can be said for trees. While they are nice to look at, I didn’t really think they could add that much to our wellbeing.
But that’s where I was so wrong!
Trees of life
Did you know that “walking among trees can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, while improving mood and lowering anxiety. It also boosts the immune system from breathing in phytoncides, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects.”
These days, spending enough time outside is a fundamental part of my daily routine. Sometimes this is heading up to the park, going for a walk, or sitting down to enjoy the sunshine after giving a talk.
Over the summer I’ve really focused on looking after myself with therapy and making sure I get out and about. I recently enjoyed an inspirational healing trip to Ireland, where I spent time a lot of time outside.
Being outdoors gives me the headspace I need. When I run outside I don’t worry about what I look like but instead enjoy soaking up the world around me. And for someone who has struggled with body image that is so refreshing.
We all have mental health and we need to find our own ways to look after it. Spending enough time outside, immersed in nature, is a wonderful place to start.
I promise when you do, it will do you the world of good.
Hope Virgo is a mental health advocate and public speaker, and Director of Speaker’s Collect. Her book, Stand Tall Little Girl: Facing Up to Anorexia, explores her own struggles with mental health and her journey to recovery.
You can find Hope on Twitter and Instagram.