Depression, Anxiety and the Outdoors

Our Ambassador Jenae Johnston talks us through her battle with depression and anxiety and how she found coping and revitalisation in the outdoors.

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Please note : this is a personal account of experiencing depression, if this story raises issues for you call LIFELINE on 13 11 14 or consult your personal doctor

Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with Postnatal Depression.

It appeared to pop up out of nowhere about three weeks post-birth of my second child. The standard signs were there; disconnection, inability to cope and an unbearable weight of unhappiness. Help came in the form of a family intervention, an urgent after-hours visit to a GP and prescribed medications and psychologist appointments. 

My process involved rounds of alternate medications to avoid as many side effects as possible, binge drinking on weekends (against advice) and a conclusion that psychologically I was deemed 'normal'...

'Normal' in the sense that there were no events or baggage in my past that caused this, nor any underlying mental illness that needed alternate treatment. There was nothing 'wrong' with me, other than a chemical imbalance that was causing havoc with my serotonin and my ability to relate to this world; I had textbook Postnatal Depression. 

After about ten months, I gradually found the ability to wean off the medication and to try and get some normality back in my life. It was a failure and I found myself again back on medication to curb the dark thoughts and unbearable sadness.

It wasn't until I underwent a 10-week course of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine that I saw light at the end of the tunnel. The treatment went to the root of my physical issues which included severe anaemia. It freed me up to deal with the emotional scars left behind by the ordeal which now had been going on for a number of years.

Five years past diagnosis, I finally could leave the anti-depressants behind after a physically gruelling process of weaning off the medication.

As the years go on, I have developed some coping mechanisms and revelations. Being outdoors was a big part of this journey and process, so here's how I did it.

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 Source : @bushwalkthegong

Source : @bushwalkthegong

Firstly, medication didn't cure my depression permanently...

Medication can give you the tools to cope with life, like going to work and getting out of bed.

It doesn't cure your mental or emotional state, it merely masks destructive thoughts and smooths the edges. In fact, I personally found medication disappointing. The expectation is that you will feel happy again when you take them and I didn't. I moved the emotional low point from sporadic suicidal thoughts to become slightly more positive to just unhappy. I became more stable, but dull, lifeless and uninterested in the joys of life.

Acknowledging these facts forced me to look for better ways.

Initially being on medication gave me the strength I needed to start doing this and returning to them gave me the strength to continue.

-- Always consult your personal doctor when weaning off anti-depressants or making any changes to your medication. This is my personal story, however each case is individual and you should be under a watchful eye of your personal doctor whether undergoing Eastern or Western medicine to achieve the best outcome for you -- 

I had to actively change my path to change my destination

Once I had the epiphany of realising medication didn't fix the issue, it was time to move onto making positive changes in my life.

Mild physical exercise outdoors, yoga and intensive meditation seemed to help.

Removal of any preservatives, colours and flavourings from food also made a big difference.

Shortly after, I realised that alcohol had to go too and that cold turkey was the only way.

A holistic approach needed to be taken; clean the life to clean the mind. As much as family can support you, it was ultimately my lifestyle that needed to change.

 Source: @bushwalkthegong

Source: @bushwalkthegong

Physical changes improve your emotional health                                                

Continuing on with actively changing my path, I found it much easier to cure the outside first. Get your body in shape and fuel your body with wholesome healthy foods (except for chocolate of course!) and practise strengthening the mind with meditation.

Having the physical conditioning allowed the emotions to take centre stage with strength and determination as a foundation.

In fact, to my surprise three quarters of the work was done and I was so much better equipped to mindfully watch the emotions, understand them and become in control of them.

The books all say to do exercise, it's true, but when you are battling depression, it's not easy to just go out and run. It can be a long pathway to even get out of bed, let alone do laps in the pool. I just did what I could at my own pace.

My life has changed: don't wish for the past back, be prepared to start again. 

Know that once you have had depression, you can never go back to the time pre-depression.

You are acutely aware of every rise and fall in your emotions and are constantly on guard against a relapse. 

Thoughts of 'should I be sad now?' 'is this a normal reaction?' flood your mind as you begin to over-analyse and hypothesise your brain's next move. There is a constant struggle of comparisons of emotions: normal vs. abnormal, sad vs. depressed... and here floods in the anxiety, the waves of physical debilitation.

Realistically, this process of acceptance took years. One 'first world problem' and a blatant slap in the face was that I could no longer snowboard without crippling anxiety; one thing I have officially decided to leave in my past and don't plan to revisit! I've found more appropriate outdoor activities for my current state that don't cause such stress.

Anxiety can be your friend                                                                                        

Anxiety is a simple internal switch for me now. It's the internal wakeup call that tells me something is not right and I need to check in with myself. This could be from being complacent and not paying attention to my needs. It's an instant reminder to stop, listen and check my path is right. Once it's acknowledged, it's usually enough for the breathing to calm, the heartbeats to slow and the cold sweating to stop. The key is the stop and assess, and quickly. Regardless of where I am or what I'm doing, I give this physical moment priority.

Find your thing                                                                                                                   

Once I came back to the 'real world', there was certainly a sense of being out of place. I was happy again, but I felt I had no sense of direction. I needed to rediscover what made me happy, other than my family of course.

I needed my own thing. I picked up my photography, ditched the quest for stupid material possessions and started looking for a real connection and nature is where I found it.

After a short trip to Bali, I had the epiphany to start living life more fully every week, not just on holidays. My first mission was to 'holiday' in my own natural backyard in Wollongong...and the rest is history for Bushwalk the 'Gong 

Ultimately, had I not had Postnatal Depression, I'm not sure I would have found this journey - so that's something to be thankful for.

 Source: @bushwalkthegong

Source: @bushwalkthegong

So how does someone with depression or anxiety 'deal' in the outdoors?

Safety in numbers

Ease yourself into this. The decision-making and the detail can be overwhelming. Take a friend, join a bushwalking group; this will spread the stress and anxiety around of starting something new in a different environment. There are other people around you that can help make decisions with you, tell you what to take and guide you on the trails.

Now is the time to use your network or find one. Having support on the trails is accessible and very sensible and it's very rewarding to meet people that are like-minded; I guarantee you will meet lovely, open and supportive people.

Trust your instinct

Another throwback I've gained from anxiety is being scared of heights/cliffs and confined spaces. This is not a bad thing. It's my mind telling me to chill for a moment and reassess this decision, it may not be safe - it's my instinct kicking in. In the outdoors, you need this trigger. There can be a lot of dangerous situations. Embrace your anxiety and thank your body for the warning. You can then make the decision to continue, or try another path. I've found with practice, I can now get reasonably close to an edge, and I'm proud of that, but anxiety also keeps me a good safe distance away from danger too, which is a great instinct to embrace.

Be prepared to fail

I also struggle with jumping across rocks over a large span. Even though physics and my reasonably long legs tell me it is very possible, I cave at most situations. I once had the experience where there were two burly trusted blokes with arms outstretched waiting to steady me on the other side of a jump across rocks and water. And yet no amount of talking myself through it or coaxing helped, I was frozen. As I backed away, my words were, "I trust you, but I don't trust myself". I then took the long walk around and felt completely defeated. On reflection, I realised this is all part of the journey of anxiety. Some things I'm not going to be up to doing and that's alright. I now take every opportunity to jump across easy sections to try and train the brain it's safe to do this.

You will fail at times, or maybe a lot, but that's just an opportunity to try again later.

The important thing is not to be upset by it, no one is judging you. I now find that I'm the one holding a helping hand to people. Understand that it's expected and acceptable that people get help in the outdoors; it's all part of the experience and learning for everyone. People you walk with are prepared to help you so let them feel satisfaction for offering assistance as a 'thank you' is all they need in return. It's not necessary for you to provide explanations or excuses - people are willing to help, no questions asked.

 Source: @bushwalkthegong

Source: @bushwalkthegong

Smell the roses

The outdoors, particularly being in the bush, is the ultimate healer. It's filled with atoms of clean, fresh air, soothing sounds and visual meditation. Once you become more familiar with the bush, and confident, a solo journey to potter and 'just be' is very healing. It's a great opportunity to go find a quiet corner and relax, have a look around the forest floor, look up in the trees and just go with the flow without concerning yourself with a destination.

The outdoors is critical for my health; my mind and body crave it to be revitalised and to take on the week ahead. 

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If this story raises issues for you call LIFELINE on 13 11 14 any time or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp . This article does not replace expert medical advice, you should seek appropriate help suitable to your situation.

|  Beyondblue 1300 224 636  |  Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800  |  MensLine Australia 1300 789 978

Bushwalk the 'Gong offers free beginner bushwalks encouraging a nurturing and supporting environment for people who wish to enjoy the outdoors with plenty of support. Any questions or feedback can be directed personally to Jenae via social media or

Follow Jenae:

Instagram | @bushwalkthegong

Facebook | @bushwalkthegong