Mind Over Mountains

Alex Staniforth By Alex Staniforth

How do we keep going when we can’t see the top of the mountain? GetOutside Champion, Alex Staniforth shares his top tips for how he manages his mental health during tough times.


We’ve all had tough days in the outdoors. But no matter how bad things get – when the cloud refuses to budge and the rain never lets up – we know we’ll get there eventually. It will all feel worth it once we’re thawing out in the pub afterwards. In fact, it only adds to the sense of achievement. But right now, society is facing an unclimbed mountain. Nobody else has climbed it. There’s not even an OS map for back up… yet.

When our daily lives present their own hardships and challenges, our usual response might be heading outdoors to find the answers. But unless you’re lucky enough to have the countryside on your doorstep, the outdoor world has never felt so small. For the OS GetOutside Champions, our official job title is shouting from the mountains, seas and trees about our wonderful wild places and ways to enjoy them more often. Instead, we’ve been scratching our heads and looking for new ways to responsibly inspire a nation still reeling from unprecedented lockdown measures, whilst the barriers to getting people outside have been further beyond our control than ever before.

The storm will pass, even if we haven’t got a forecast for this one yet. Spending time in the elements and unpredictable wild places teaches us a lot about staying mentally resilient through storms and gives us valuable skills that we can draw on now.

Camping in mountains
Alex in bluebell woods

1. Focus on what we can control

We’re allowed to feel a bit frustrated and upset about things: cancelled challenges, trips and events we’ve worked hard for. But if we focus on things outside our circle of control then we become reactive – feeling stressed, anxious, depressed, and even hopeless. If we focus our energy on the things in our circle of control/influence then we become proactive, stay focused and distract ourselves from the worries. Maintaining our usual routine, such as our working times, meals and sleep will help us to start the day with the right mindset and prevent unhealthy habits forming instead.

Many of our short-term goals will have changed and been thrown into uncertainty, but this also opens new opportunities to learn, re-evaluate and challenge ourselves. During my ‘Climb The UK’ challenge in 2017 I stopped checking the weather forecast: if it was forecast torrential rain, I still had to get up and cycle 100 miles anyway!

2. Support each other

From the mountain rescue teams, to the clubs, fundraisers and walkers helping others in distress – the outdoor community excels at coming together and making the best of a situation.

Even if we can’t share our usual activities right now, it’s more important than ever we keep this connection going. Some will be more resilient due to their life experiences so far, whilst others will be overwhelmed by the change. Equally, everyone will be finding it hard at times and we should all take the time to check in with each other. Even if just sending a quick message of reassurance or sharing how you feel, we are only ever a message away.

3. Attitude of gratitude

Outdoor exercise strips back the clutter of our stressful modern lives and puts things back in perspective, where the most insignificant luxuries can suddenly mean the world. There’s nothing like a mug of hot chocolate in your tent after a cold day in the elements, your favourite snack bar in the rucksack, or emergency spare batteries for your headtorch when the route took longer than planned.

Whilst cycling the east coast of Scotland in 2017 and feeling sorrier than a drowned rat, simply finding an abandoned phone-box in a deserted glen to get changed somewhere dry for a few minutes was like re-inventing sliced bread. Adopting this attitude of gratitude encourages a more positive mindset when everything appears to be going wrong – try making a list of all the things you’re grateful for right now, however big or small.

4. Switch off

One of the main benefits of adventure is the opportunity to disconnect with technology in our ever-connected world. Watching the news recently has often felt overwhelming and difficult to escape.

Before the lockdown restrictions began and anxieties started to spiral, I packed my tent and headed to the fells one Sunday evening, with intermittent mobile signal and zero Wi-Fi connection. Watching the sunrise over Coniston Water with fresh coffee in my tent: it was hard to believe so much could be going wrong in the world.

Currently, this luxury is only something we can look forward to, but in the meantime, we can still take action to disconnect. Try to limit watching the news to just once a day, if at all, and the amount of time we spend scrolling on social media – and find some positive activities with the time instead.

5. Stay active

It’s fairly obvious, but staying physically active is crucial for our general physical and mental well-being. In the UK we’re now allowed unlimited exercise outside, whilst keeping to social distancing rules. More about that here.

Over that past few months, we’ve seen heaps of creative ideas; from marathons around the garden to climbing Everest on the stairs at home. But even 30 minutes a day or anything that gets the heart rate up will be beneficial for lowering stress and anxiety and releasing the feel-good endorphins. Use this time to set yourself a new challenge, prepare for future ones, and look for the opportunities to try something new.

Climbing Foel Cwmcerwyn
Bluebell woods

6. Unload the rucksack

Our stress buckets are a bit more full than usual so we shouldn’t realistically expect ourselves to perform at our usual ability all the time. However, it’s easy to compare ourselves to others and feel like we should be achieving and doing more, and then feel even worse as a result. Be kind to yourself and remember it’s OK to have bad days.

If you could learn or achieve just one thing during this period when you look back, what could that be?

Once this storm passes and some normality resumes, I hope that it won’t take much to convince people how important it is to spend time outside more often, and that our harmony with the outdoors in society changes for the better. Until then, we need to take care of ourselves and each other to climb this mountain together. We all have a part to play.


For 12 top tips on staying resilient and mentally well during this time, check out our Mind Over Mountains Inspiring Resilience series.

Mind Over Mountains Inspiring Resilience

For mental health support and resources during this challenging time, for you or a loved one, please click the link below.

Mental health support

Published 15/05/2020

Alex Staniforth By Alex Staniforth

About:

Alex is a endurance adventurer, obsessed runner, motivational speaker, author and Charity Director.

Find out more about Alex here.

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