Long before we had kids, if ever we had a problem to solve or a big decision to make, Kelley and I would get high. Literally.
We would head out to the hills to sit atop the peaks in the hope to eventually resolve the struggles we were facing.
I think the reasons this was such a good strategy are manifold.
In part it was the struggle uphill. This served to both force us into a mindful state of the present, taking our direct focus away from the problem, and symbolise the figurative uphill struggle we were facing. If we could make it to the top, we could conquer what ever else is going on.
Add to this the inevitable fact that by climbing the hills you are out in Nature. Nature is our factory setting environment, and as a result it often has a calming effect on us. When we are on the hills we generally have the ability to see far out into the distance. This too has been shown to help us down regulate to the calm parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest’ nervous system response.
When we are in a state of stress, fear or panic, the Amygdala in our brain can take control. And while this has been useful in our ancestral past with physical threats, today we often suffer from an amygdala hijacking in response to emotional states rather than actual existential threats. This results in the system overriding our frontal lobes, the region of the brain responsible for reasoning and logical thinking. In short, we often react irrationally rather than responding logically.
By focusing on the horizon we essentially reverse engineer our nervous system response away from the ‘fight or flight system’ which is typically characterised by a short focal length. It calms us down. We discuss this more in this article.
And then we are obviously moving our bodies.
Exercise has been shown many times to have a positive effect on our mental state, and many people have used movements like walking to aid problem solving.
Charles Darwin, the godfather of modern evolutionary thinking, had a gravel track at his home in Kent that he referred to as his ‘thinking path’. He would walk circuits of this path daily, usually twice a day, and ponder his current problems and dilemmas.
Philosophers Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche, both used walking as a means to develop their work, and Steve Jobs believed his best ideas came about whilst walking.
Walking is a veritable human super power.
And when Kelley and I would reach the top we would have a literal change in perspective, above the smog and bustle of the world below (we live in the Victorian industrial era, clearly). We had space to breathe and to see the world in a new way. This always seemed to give us clarity of thought to better solve our problems.
We have both continued this practice as we have grown together. Sometimes we go together, sometimes we go alone. Kelley, ever-wise, is quick to suggest a mountain run for me when I start to wobble.
For a while I thought this was a case of me trying to run away from or exorcise my personal demons. I now realise that I am actually running with and exercising my demons.
They are always with me. They are me. And generally they are not a problem. If I don’t take them out for a gallop in the hills they get grouchy and start playing up.
Getting out in nature, moving my body, challenging myself, and changing my literal perspective have all played a major part in my ability to cope with anxiety.
I have been blessed with the ability to do this. I have been blessed with a beautiful supportive network of friends and family to pick me up when I crash down. I was lucky enough to work out a strategy and practice that has transformed my mental health from feeling like I am drowning in my own body to feeling like a robust force of nature.
Not everyone is as lucky as me.
Suicide is still the single biggest killer for men under 45. But it massively effects all genders, age groups and population demographics. We’ve seen a 30% increase in suicides here in the last 4 years.
We are in a mental health epidemic.
We still see mental health issues as something to be ashamed of, something to brushed under the carpet or talked about in hushed tones.
This needs to change. We need to move away from distinguishing between physical and mental health. There is only HEALTH.
Everyone will suffer the effects of mental health issues, either directly or indirectly, just as much as they will suffer from physical health issues. But because we can’t see it we look the other way.
People in real, desperate need get overlooked; they feel invisible and alone.
I see you. All of us that have suffered or watch as those we love suffer see you. You are never alone.
If you can’t find, or don’t feel you can turn to those around you for help, you are still not alone. There are many groups and charities out there waiting to help you.
S.T.E.P.S is just one such charity.
S.T.E.P.S (Suicide.Talking.Educating.Preventing.Support) – The aim of this group is to raise awareness of suicide and mental health, address the stigma of suicide and mental health and to help build the community to deal with suicide and mental health.
S.T.E.P.S and groups like them literally save lives.
S.T.E.P.S is a local charity to me and the community that I am part of, a community that has buried far too many people lost to suicide.
So this year I will again pit my body and my resolve against a really stupid idea to raise money for S.T.E.P.S. in another of my Birthday Challenges.
This will be my misogi.
Misogi is originally a term to refer to a Shinto ‘water purification’ but has since been repurposed.
Sports scientist Dr Marcus Elliott has used this term to describe the act of conducting an extreme activity, done out in nature, that pushes you to the brink of your personal limits. And he has taken part in a misogi every year for the last 25 years.
As Elliott poetically puts it:
“I believe people have innate evolutionary machinery that gets triggered when they go out and do really fucking hard things. ”Dr Marcus Elliott
There are just two rules to misogi
- Do not die.
- It must be really hard.
I’m totally down with rule 1. With regards to rule 2 the idea is that the challenge should have roughly a 50% chance of failure.
The point of a misogi is to test our limits; to prove that we are more capable than we think. That when we think we have reached our capacity to carry on we are likely to be only at 40% of our real potential.
By testing myself on each of my birthdays I feel that I have come to really understand my own capacity to keep going. And as these challenges are both physical and mental in character, it teaches me a great lesson in what I am truly capable of.
Whether I succeed in my challenge or not, I win. I finish my challenge better than when I started it. I’m more resilient, tougher, anti-fragile. This carries over to all areas of my life but especially my mental health.
There is an unwritten third rule: to keep quiet about your misogi. This takes the ego out of it. I am breaking this rule here but for good reason: to raise money for charity.
Glenn’s Mental Mountain Everest Challenge
So this year, as I leave that age bracket most effected by suicide, I am heading out to the hills. The small mountain of Carntogher to be exact which as luck would have it, is very close to my house.
Last year I realised that making the ascent 40 times takes you over the height of Everest (from sea-level), a total of 8,849 metres. I decided to run it each day for 40 days to get this total.
Whilst out running the thought came to me. “Could I do this in 48 hours?”
Well this year we will find out.
When I first pondered the idea it sounded doable, but as I look into it more and more the doubts start to rise. That’s about 100 miles of mountain to cover. My plan would be to try and get an ascent and descent done every hour for 20 hours, try and get some sleep, then repeat it the following day.
And the doubt keeps growing.
I honestly have no idea if I can feasibly manage this. But I am going to try my damnedest to see. And this is kind of the point of misogi.
To me this challenge symbolises the struggle that people face everyday. That uphill struggle that individuals face mentally in the solitude of their own minds, as they try and cope with whatever burdens life has passed their way.
Everyone is fighting a battle or climbing a mountain that you can’t see.
I want my challenge to shine a light for these people. To announce to them that we do see them.
So if you’d like to see an Englishman try something stupid, again, then follow my challenge.
And if you can support me please donate to my JustGiving page to raise money for a worthwhile cause:
And if you are not in a position to donate you can help by liking, commenting and sharing my posts to get the word out there. And your words of encouragement are always hugely appreciated.
So watch this space. I’ll be giving updates on my progress and the money raised.
When we started Wild Life the idea was to build a community, a tribe. You are all in that tribe. I need all of you to help with this. We will be doing this together. G x