Mental Health

World Mental Health Day - The Power of Getting Outdoors

Here are some tips on coping with mental health from a military spouse

Military spouse, mum, nurse, researcher, and blogger - Sally Cave definitely has her hands full. So how does she stay balanced?

My 13 years as a military spouse certainly hasn’t been boring: 6 houses, 6 jobs and 3 countries. Whilst moving isn’t always easy; personally, I love the challenges and opportunities it throws up - even if at the time, it may appear to be the most awkward and disruptive situation.  Our current posting means that for the first time in 13 years I’m not in employment, and my children - who once arranged my social life around playdates and toddler groups - are now at school. 

With a little more time on my hands, I’m hoping to try and find ways to combine a few passions.  Professionally, my passions are around public health, research and health promotion. At home, I love to get outdoors and be active.

Finally, there’s the military spouse part of me, an awareness of the challenges all military spouses face as we negotiate our way around postings, deployments, family life, employment… the list goes on.  So, I decided to start a health and wellbeing blog for military spouses. It’s in its infancy, but recently I blogged on the power of getting outdoors for mental wellbeing. 

Why? I was becoming aware that the mental health and wellbeing of military spouses may be an overlooked area. And this is what I found …

Comment in passing: ‘Why do you love exercising outdoors so much?’ 

Me: ’For my mental well-being, and to prevent an enlarging derrier...’

This was a valid question I was once asked. It left me slightly bemused but that’s because exercising outdoors has always been part of my lifestyle. Well at least since my early teens, when the power of the great outdoors first impacted.

To set the scene: I was fortunate enough to be on a school skiing holiday but, as a typical hormonal teenager, ended up desperately homesick. On day two, I ended up hitting the deck (hey ho it happens) but as I pulled my head out of the powder, I took a breath, looked up and BOOM - the view!

Snow-capped mountains and blue sky

I still remember it now.

The valley folded out, peaks in the distance with a blanket-white covering of fresh snow, backdropped by a bright blue sky. Cool fresh air whistled past my face. The homesickness subsided - the view, the outdoors and the skiing became my focus.

Since then, I’ve always tapped into exercise and the outdoors. Whilst I enjoyed sports at school it was low-key.

At university I was never sporty enough to make a team, but enjoyed being outside. I tried (yes, tried) to surf and - when that failed - started jogging ... at least I could get from A to B on land! So from there it grew and, as military postings have flung us from pillar to post, its importance has increased.

Hitting trails, rock-climbing, mountain biking, camping... so long as it is outdoors, I’m there.

But why do I believe we should we all embrace getting out into the great outdoors to ‘exercise’, and how can it positively impact us  ... especially as military spouses?

We know military life can be great fun and give great opportunities, but we also know all too well the challenges it can present. As spouses and families we negotiate multiple moves, deployments, periods of separation, unemployment and frequent changes in schooling, friendship circles, social situations and lifestyle.

Surely such continual turbulence may play out, and if so, how does this translate?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about, as a recent posting flung me out of my ’normal’ lifestyle. As there’s a bit of research geek in me, I turned to try and find some formal research into the quantifiable effects of this lifestyle on the health and wellbeing of military spouses. However, as I started scoping, I started to doubt my abilities.

I struggled to find any research on the health and wellbeing of military spouses.

I was flummoxed and surprised - the lack of research astounded me.  Maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree?

As a health professional I know research often looks at - I’m going to say it - ‘vulnerable’ groups. Now I certainly don’t want to label military spouses as ‘vulnerable’, they are in fact some of the strongest people I know, but arguably the sheer nature of the lifestyle makes us more ‘vulnerable’.

I continued the search and found a little nugget. A US-based study showed that 78% - yes, 78% - of US military wives reported mild to severe depression. I was shocked. Quite honestly, I thought this figure may be around about 30%, but not over 70% (please don’t judge me for this ?).

 

Variety of medications

A reported 78% of US military wives have suffered from mild to severe depression

Then, as I was writing (well, re-writing) this article, a UK-based study was published which concluded that military wives have a higher prevalence of probable depression and more hazardous drinking habits than the general population. The research is scanty but maybe I’m not so barking…

I’m not going to deeply analyse these studies here (I’d like you to keep reading!) - they may not be perfect, but they are a starting point. They offer food for thought on a very real subject and highlight 2 major points:

  1. More research is desperately needed to understand the mental wellbeing of military spouses. How does this lifestyle affect and translate into the health and wellbeing of military spouses? Social anxiety, isolation, depression, decreased confidence, loss of self worth and struggling? Words that anecdotally appear too often when discussing the effects of military lifestyle on spouses.
  2. Once this knowledge and understanding is gained, we need to identify how it can be best translated into action to support our spouses.

So here’s a call to grant holders: this is an issue which desperately needs addressing! 

But what about you and I?

What can we start doing right now, to start to help maintain and improve our wellbeing?

Well, health and wellbeing is multifactorial, but I truly believe outdoors 'exercise' holds one valuable key. It is free, anyone can access it - any time, anywhere - and it's proven in research to improve wellbeing. So if you need a little convincing please read on!

'Exercise' and 'activity': note the inverted commas?

Oh the emotive words! For some, these words can make you want to jump up and down. For some, they can cause a big shudder. For some, it is an indifferent necessity or, for you, it may be something else.

Please don’t shudder, please don’t switch off, because there’s power in exercise.

Physical activity triggers chemicals in the brain which positively change mood. Because of this, physical activity can be protective against anxiety, and can help mild depression. In addition, it has been shown to raise self esteem, improve self control and increase the ability to rise to a challenge. So surely it’s worth a shot?

"But wait, hold on... what if I’m one of those people who don’t like exercise / don’t do exercise / don’t have time for exercise / find it hard to fit into the day?"

I hear you, they’re valid responses - whilst exercise is my thing, if you asked me to crochet I’d be well out of my depth! But this is where the ‘’ come in.  This is where you mould exercise, and form it to be what you want it to be. Because, exercise has the power to help protect and improve mental wellbeing. So if your exercise is taking 5 steps out of the back door into fresh air, try it. If your exercise is walking to the bus stop, try it. If your exercise is running, carry on running, if your exercise is swimming, splash on, or if you’re climbing a mountain today... just keep going! Make your exercise your own, mould and form it to you.

But why outdoors?! Come on, it’s raining...

Well those who experience the outdoors have lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which is responsible for controlling your mood, motivation and fear. So by stepping outside you may help to lower the cortisol levels and calm those 'fight or flight' reactions. But, if you can consider combining exercise and being outside together, the potential to improve wellbeing increases further. Whilst any exercise is great, outdoors activity is thought to lower anxiety levels further than indoors activity, offering greater feelings of revitalisation and positive engagement.  And... wait for it… research reports that exercising outdoors is easier, and less demanding. I’ll go with that! Apparently there’s more distraction, which makes the exercise appear easier to our brains. I can certainly vouch for that - running on a treadmill is a mental wellbeing downer, but outside ... it’s a different kettle of fish!

 

By now I’m hopefully selling the outdoors!

It’s not always easy (though those big, remote military patches help) but try and seek out a greenish space … it’s considered a 'restorative environment’ which helps overcome mental fatigue, lower levels of stress and reduces anxiety and depression.

Finally - and this is exciting - it is thought that the first 5 minutes of exercise in green spaces has the greatest impact on mood and self esteem, suggesting there's immediate psychological benefit in getting outdoors. So even if it's 5 minutes out of a busy day, get out there. See the positives of those sometimes geographically-challenging and remote patches. Go to the park, walk down a green street, take a run, a swim, a bike ride.

Do what YOU can.

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