How Walking Helped My Mental Health
February 07, 2023Feb 07, 2023By KEEN Fan Julia Belt
7 MIN READ living outside wellness
This morning I woke up feeling grateful. Yesterday was just one of those days - you know the amazing kind where everything just seems to flow? I had a full 8 hours of sleep, I took my dog for a walk with the sun shining overhead, my meetings throughout the day ran on time, and I ended the day cooking a delicious dinner with my husband. Most importantly, I felt happy, fulfilled, and grateful.
I'm telling you about this ideal day of mine, but let me assure you that it wasn’t always this way, and it took a long road to get where I am today.
There was a time when just getting out of bed felt like climbing an impossibly difficult mountain. I would wake up to feelings of dread and emptiness. Upon opening my eyes, there would be an instant pit in my stomach, paired with a racing heart, and topped off with negative thoughts spiraling out of control – all before 8 a.m.
The first time I felt this dark cloud of sadness, I was just a teenager. At the time, I didn't have the language to describe what was happening to me. There were alarm bells going off telling me that something was terribly wrong, even though I felt like I had no reason to be sad. I was experiencing frequent panic attacks which exhausted and spiraled me into months of depression. After living in this dark place for several months on end, I was finally properly diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression.
"The one thing that has consistently helped me on my mental health healing journey has been to walk outside in nature."
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one in my family struggling deeply with my mental health. On April 7th, 2014, my entire world flipped upside down when my older brother Justin tragically died by suicide. He was only 24 at the time, and the grief of losing my best friend felt unbearable. My brother’s death woke me up to the reality that if I didn’t get help for myself, I was most likely heading down the same path. It was this pivotal moment, when I was in the darkest place of my life, that my healing journey began.
Julia and her brother as kids
I started taking steps to feel better and slowly, I emerged. For the first time in my life, I prioritized my mental health by working with an incredible team of mental health professionals. Months of therapy helped me to not only process my grief but also to learn how to cope with issues that I had been living with for most of my life. I also took steps … literally. Getting outside and going for a walk was my signature go-to when I would start to feel down, and it remains to be a significant part of my mental wellness daily routine. My brother and I loved being outside together from the time we were kids – riding bikes, hiking trails, and playing games like capture the flag. Now, even though he’s gone, I still feel closest to him when I’m out exploring nature.
Walking outside in nature has been proven to reduce stress, improve sleep, and help turn off the ruminating negative thoughts that I was once having on repeat.
The one thing that has consistently helped me on my mental health healing journey has been to walk outside in nature. There is no better feeling than to be trudging through crunchy leaves, or hopping over tree roots on a dirt path, or hugging trees that are wider than my first apartment.
It turns out that it’s not a coincidence that walking outside was always improving my mental health. Walking has been scientifically proven to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. It turns out that walking helps increase blood circulation to the brain, which improves overall mood. Taking it a step further, walking outside in nature, otherwise known as “forest bathing,” has been proven to reduce stress, improve sleep, and help turn off the ruminating negative thoughts that I was once having on repeat.
It was on these walks that I could mindfully process what happened and heal step by step. After some time, I felt deeply compelled to start sharing my brother’s story and my own mental health story with my community. Friends, family, and coworkers approached me and told me that they, too, struggled with some of the same exact things I had been going through. I found my passion: helping others take care of their mental wellness through curated self-care kits called BroglieBox.
Whether or not you have a mental health diagnosis or not, there will be challenging times for everyone because we are all human. This is why it’s critical to start building mental resilience now by practicing self-care every day. Every human is different in their own beautiful way – which also means that unique forms of self-care exist. What works for one person might not work for their best friend. Take this list of suggestions below as a guide and then personalize it to fit your lifestyle and needs.
1. Make a list of 25+ things you love to do (paint, explore a new trail, have dinner with friends, etc). Now pick 2 things: one to do today and one to write into on your calendar or schedule for this week. Refer back to this list weekly to make sure you are doing the things that bring you the most joy!
2. Move your body every day. This doesn’t have to be a full gym workout every day. Simply go for a walk, have a dance party, or do some stretches at your desk.
3. Practice external and internal gratitude. Every day, write down something you’re grateful for in your life and something you are grateful for about yourself. Express gratitude to someone else by sending them a quick text or telling them in person.
4. Prioritize sleep. Dim the lights a few hours before bed, create a cozy environment, get in a routine. Your mind will thank you later for this quality resting time.
5. Set boundaries. As hard as this might seem, it’s okay to say no and put yourself first.
6. Audit your thoughts. You can’t necessarily just stop negative thinking all at once, but you can recognize when those thoughts are becoming intrusive. Awareness is the first step. Then try to counter your negative thought.
7. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
It can feel overwhelming to make too many changes all at once. Your wellness journey is a marathon, not a sprint. Don't be discouraged if the steps you are taking feel small at first. Small steps of positive change are still steps in the right direction. When all else fails, ask yourself this question: What would make my day 1% better? Then go do it.
World Mental Health Day is October 10th, but I like to say that every day is Mental Health Day! Personally, I’ll be celebrating the “official” World Mental Health Day by lacing up my new Wasatch Crest Vent shoes and hitting my favorite hiking trail.
If you’re reading this right now and are feeling down, know that there is hope. I’m living proof that you can go from the lowest of the lows to feeling like yourself again. I know what it is like to hide behind a smile. However, I also know what it is like to emerge from the darkness... to feel free again, feel hopeful again, and feel inner peace again. By reading about my story, I hope that you can find strength knowing that it can and will get better. Always remember, you have made it through 100% of your worst days and without darkness there is no light.
If you are having a mental health crisis or having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to be connected to a crisis counselor 24/7 (United States). All other countries, visit findahelpline.com
Julia (Broglie) Belt is a mental health advocate, speaker, and the co-founder and CEO of BroglieBox, a social impact brand that creates care packages and kits of products, tools, and resources for self-care and mental wellness. She recently shared her story and more about the impact of walking on mental health in our Solve By Walking podcast.