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How developing a stronger connection to nature helped me recover from burn out.

About five years ago, I took up running. I’ve always been quite active but running for the sake of it didn’t appeal to me and it was something I never thought I could do. Over the previous four years I’d had two children within 18 months of each other, taken on a new, very stressful job and moved house twice, both to different towns. Self-care was not a priority and the thought of setting aside "time for me" seemed to be something other people did. I carried my stress around almost as a badge of honour and bought into the dangerous myth of "having it all", whatever that means. I didn't feel like I had it all by any stretch of the imagination but I hoped it looked that way from the outside.

Then it all began to get too much: my job hit a crisis point, I was doing a three-hour round commute four days a week, had two small children who just couldn’t master sleeping through the night and I lived 100 miles from all my friends. Whilst I didn’t fully recognise it at the time, I was burnt out emotionally and physically. However, I did realise that something needed to change and running seemed to be an answer. I didn’t know if it was the right one but it seemed worth a try. It was something that nobody wanted to come with me to do so it meant I could have half an hour to myself and get fitter at the same time. Also, because I didn’t really want to do it, nobody could accuse me that running was a self-indulgent use of my time (which was something I was weirdly worried about).

By chance, the house we were living in was right on the edge of town, a short way from miles of footpaths over hills and farmland. I started running there, mainly so that nobody could witness me puffing and panting away, sweaty and red in the face as I tried to keep going. After a couple of months, I could run 5km and what had been a way of getting out of the house became a real source of pleasure as I literally headed to the hills to lose myself for a while. It turned out that one of the mums from school was also a keen runner and we started running together. She seemed unstoppable and with her encouragement and determination, I was soon tackling longer routes, always out in the countryside. Pounding the pavements was not for us. She worked part time and as I was working from home by this time, we set aside Friday mornings to take on long runs that lasted a couple of hours or more. We’d plot new routes, get lost along the way, indulge in some low-scale trespassing and try to avoid being attacked by swans. When I couldn’t keep up with her (which was often), I fell in line behind her and I have vivid memories of hypnotically watching the backs of her trainers rise and fall, as I tried to pace myself against her never-wavering stride. She also introduced me to a local trail running group, whose members for the most part were women, and I’d occasionally join them for guided runs in new areas, exploring places I’d never been to before. The women were incredibly welcoming and encouraging and I felt seen as a person in my own right, rather than just a mum, a colleague, a wife or a daughter. My mum-running acquaintance became a firm friend and we supported each other outside of our running sessions, looking after each other’s kids when the other was working and helping the other one get a break if she needed it.

My wonderful running friend Hayley
With my wonderful running friend Hayley

Whilst I enjoyed running and was fitter and healthier than I’d ever been in my life, what running in the countryside really gave me was a renewed understanding of what being in nature felt like. I grew up on a farm so I’ve always had an embodied love of the countryside but having lived in cities for the past twenty years, I’d ignored how important that part of me was. Trail running helped me to re-discover part of me that I’d forgotten.

I wasn’t at all fussy about the weather – I’d go out in the wind, snow, rain, sun and hail. I suddenly remembered that I loved watching what the sky was doing, looking at cloud formations and the colours of it at different times of the day. I started noticing what was happening in the hedgerows and trees and indulging in the feeling of fresh air on my face and the thrill of unexpectedly spotting wildlife. I started actively observing the seasons and the effect they have on the landscape.

Around this time, we also got a dog and I took on the responsibility of walking her every day. She sometimes came running with me but she’s a leisurely, curious animal and prefers to take her time sniffing out new smells along the way. Despite working from home, I was still time pressured so out of necessity I started setting my alarm clock and walking her early in the morning, as the sun was coming up. I soon found that the sense of the world unfolding before us gave me a sense of perspective and clarity that I’d been missing in the unrelenting pace of my life.

It’s academically proven that time spent in nature is beneficial for your wellbeing and running, walking and taking time outside everyday helped heal me in a way that I didn’t know I needed. I felt calmer, as it unintentionally became a new coping strategy that helped me put my life into perspective. If I felt overwhelmed by work, I’d take a break and get outside. If the kids were driving me crazy, I’d put on my trainers and run for half an hour up in the hills. If things were tense at home, I’d get up early, walk the dog and watch the sunrise.

A sunrise on one of my early morning dog walks
A sunrise on one of my early morning dog walks

Unfortunately, I can no longer run as osteoarthritis has got me and I’m waiting for a hip replacement at the ripe old of 43. My feelings about this are worth another blog post in their own right so I won’t dwell on them here. However, what started out as a necessity to have some time to myself has turned into a life changing daily practice that I know I’ll have forever. I will never again ignore the world around me or fail to notice the change of seasons. Seemingly small details, such as the day the swallows arrive, are given the due wonder they deserve – how can such small creatures find their way here all the way from Africa (and on the exact same day three years running, to boot?)?

During the pandemic being in nature has become part of the zeitgeist, offering solace and comfort to a lot of people. Activities such as wild swimming have seen an explosion in popularity and it makes me really happy to know that people have found new ways to relax and explore the natural world around them. However, we slowly emerge into the dawn of a post-pandemic era, the trauma of the past year, coupled with post-Covid anxiety is a very pressing issue for many, including myself. My hope is that people will continue – or start – to prioritise time engaging with nature in an intentional and thoughtful way, benefitting from the consolation and security it can provide.



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