Why birdwatching is good for my mental health

One of the good things to come out of my second bout of depression four years ago was the revelation that going birdwatching could help me in my recovery.

It was October 2011 and I had been signed off work. My mood would inevitably worsen if I was alone at home with my thoughts for too long, so I made sure I got out of the house once a day, even if only to walk to the shop and back.

The combination of fresh air, daylight and exercise seemed to do me good. Taking my binoculars – and sometimes my camera – with me gave me an added purpose.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given during my counselling and GP appointments was to make sure I found time to do something I enjoyed, and birding certainly fell into that category.

Now, if I feel stressed or anxious, or if I can feel my mood darkening – even if I just feel stuck in a rut – I make time to get out birding, and it helps to distract me and give me something positive to do. I find it relaxing but also exciting, because the wonder of birding is that you never know what you will see next. That sense of anticipation – something to look forward to and get excited about – is a feeling that can get lost in the spirit-crushing mire of depression.

Later that autumn, the possibility of seeing something new took me to Filey, on the Yorkshire coast, about an hour’s drive from home. I’d wanted to make the trip earlier, as it’s a great spot for autumn migrants, but I hadn’t felt up to it. When I felt I had enough energy, I set off with the intention of walking along Filey Brigg, a rocky outcrop that juts out into the North Sea. That walk alone was worth the trip, as a fellow birder –one armed with a telescope – pointed out a velvet scoter bobbing on the waves with a group of common scoters. It was a first for me.

Better was to come. I called in for some food at the café in the country park on the clifftop, where the local ornithological group kept a record of its sightings. Fresh up on the blackboard was something that quickened my pulse – a glossy ibis had been seen at Filey Dams nature reserve.

Pleasingly, I arrived there just in time for a cracking view of this elegant and rather exotic bird, and enjoyed watching it for five minutes before it flew off. A frustrated group of birders arrived just after it had gone. I felt a small glow of satisfaction that I had been there and seen it for myself.

I should have stopped there but I was on a roll. I carried on to Flamborough, a renowned rarity hotspot further down the coast. There, I saw nothing, my legs started to feel heavy and I was overcome with tiredness. I’d overdone it (see top tips below).

Here are my top tips for how to approach birding if you’re experiencing depression:

  • A good birding trip is a great way to lift your mood, but it can also be too demanding if you’re not feeling well, so don’t try to do too much. I had a heavy cold while off with depression, but one day heard that common gulls (a bogey species at the time) could easily be seen at a site across town. I dragged myself out, got blown about by a strong, cold wind, joylessly saw the common gulls and wheezed all the way home, feeling thoroughly miserable. It really wasn’t worth it.
  • Try to keep your birding trips short until you feel stronger and more able to try travelling further. I enjoyed some very satisfying and rewarding local birding, and my slower pace actually helped me to see more on familiar patches, such as the discovery of yellow wagtails in a field close to home and some lovely views of yellowhammers and golden plovers.
  • While you’re restricted in what you can manage, enjoy what you can see and hear, rather than worrying about what you might be missing or can’t identify – there’s no point adding to your stress levels. You can learn songs, behaviour and subtleties of plumage that you might never have noticed before if you hadn’t stopped and savoured the moment. Taking time to appreciate the colours of a male chaffinch or the song of a dunnock while you’re walking down the road can be as rewarding as something harder earned.
  • Do some of your birding alone and some with other people whose company you enjoy. Complete solitude isn’t always good for you if you’re suffering from depression. A friend took me out birding to one of our favourite local wetland reserves one weekend and an obliging water rail strolled out close to the hide where we were sitting – literally seconds after I’d mentioned that I’d never seen one – before sloping off into the reeds again. If I’d stayed at home and not made the effort to go out, I wouldn’t have this happy memory to recall.
  • Depression doesn’t have to stop you getting out and about. The combination of exercise, fresh air, a change of scenery and doing something you enjoy means birding can be very beneficial. Keep it simple, do what you feel able to do, and quit while you’re ahead.

A buddy in the battle against depression

Last summer, I took a great big leap out of my comfort zone and did some public speaking at a place in London that I’d never been to before.

I am not a keen public speaker, but on this occasion I had something to say, about something important, so my nerves just had to play second fiddle.

It seemed appropriate that the event in question was taking place in Churchill’s War Rooms, as my talk was about a battle. A very personal battle. It was about depression and self-care – that constant battle to look after yourself when you’re in depression’s cruel grip.

My talk was based on what I’d learned from my own experiences of depression, and was part of an event organised by the Blurt Foundation, an organisation close to my heart.

Blurt supports people with depression, and its brilliant founders, Jayne and Dom Hardy, are always coming up with great ideas to help other people. One such idea was Blurt’s email mentoring scheme, which was a great help to me when I needed to blurt out how I was feeling to someone who would understand, without having to worry my family and friends.

I’ve discovered in recent months that I need a ‘psychological first aid kit’ (as my counsellor put it) – a checklist of things I will do to help myself stay well – self-care, in fact. In my case, that’s things like going walking and birdwatching, watching terrible-quality disaster movies, drawing, writing in my diary and trying to keep up with some meditation to help me relax and live in the present.

The latest great idea from Blurt is partly about self-care and partly about caring for someone else. It’s called BuddyBox.

It’s a simple concept. There’s a box, with things in it that might help you relax or sleep, or could comfort, inspire or surprise you. You can either buy BuddyBoxes as a gift for a friend who’s struggling, to show you’re thinking of them and to give them a small boost, or you can buy them for yourself, to help you gently fight that battle I was talking about earlier.

Now, Blurt will be the first people to tell you that depression cannot be treated with things – but things like those found in a BuddyBox can be a chink of light in an otherwise dark day.

So, what’s in a BuddyBox? Well, the contents are different each month, but I can tell you what was in mine:

  • A box of chamomile tea – perfect timing as I’m cutting down on caffeine at the moment. I’m having a cup as I write this and very nice it is too.
  • Some sleep balm, and a lavender-scented bag, both to aid sleep. I’m not having difficulty sleeping at the moment, but when I was having regular bouts of insomnia I’d have welcomed any new tricks to help me get back to sleep.
  • My favourite thing – a mindfulness colouring book and some colouring pencils. I’ve always loved drawing and colouring things in, and earlier this year I bought myself a colouring book (a grown-up one, of course). The idea is that colouring distracts you and gets you doing something you enjoy – which helps you stay in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or future. Unfortunately, the book I bought brought out the perfectionist in me, as the patterns were intricate, detailed and required great concentration – but the one in my BuddyBox is perfect. There’s a range of different patterns, some that need very little focus and some that I can get more absorbed in.

BuddyBox is available from the Blurt Foundation by subscription. You can choose to subscribe monthly, quarterly, six-monthly or annually. Read what other people thought of their first BuddyBox.

My BuddyBox from the Blurt Foundation.

My BuddyBox from the Blurt Foundation.

What if…?

One morning, as I stood outside my son’s classroom, he said to me: “Daddy, there’s a massive tree in the little playground, and it’s bigger than a giant!”

“Really?” I asked.

“It’s AWESOME!” he said.

For young children, the world is full of possibilities and discoveries and excitement. Everything is, as the Lego song says, awesome.

But as we get older, we often stop daring to believe anything is possible, because we’re scared of failing – understandably a lot of the time. I think the opportunities for awesomeness do start to shrink once you have to earn money and pay bills, and feel the burden of responsibility on your shoulders.

We become ‘what-iffers’, forever worrying about what could go wrong if we take a chance on something. “What if it doesn’t work? What if someone gets hurt? What if they don’t like it? What if it rains?” And our fretting over ‘What if…?” ruins the moment.

In Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, chocolate-making genius Willy Wonka is flying his glass elevator through space, and is proposing to land on the famous Space Hotel USA. His fellow travellers have their doubts…

‘What if they come after us?’ said Mr Bucket, speaking for the first time. ‘What if they capture us?’ said Mrs Bucket. ‘What if they shoot us?’ said Grandma Georgina. ‘What if my beard were made of green spinach?’ cried Mr Wonka. ‘Bunkum and tummyrot! You’ll never get anywhere if you go about what-iffing like that. Would Columbus have discovered America if he’d said “What if I sink on the way over? What if I meet pirates? What if I never come back?” He wouldn’t even have started.’

I’ve often been guilty of what-iffing, especially when the commentator in my head gets the better of me. Self-doubt can hold me back and prevent me from doing things.

We can either let ‘What if…?’ hold us back, ignore it (difficult), or turn it on its head, and imagine the possibilities instead of the worst-case scenario (even more difficult, if that’s not your brain’s default setting). A friend recently showed me this lovely little poem by Erin Hanson:

There is freedom waiting for you,

On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask “What if I fall?”

Oh but my darling,

What if you fly?

It’s four years since I posted my first Dippyman blog and overcame a ‘What if I fall?’ moment of my own. I still hear those ‘What ifs’ in my head every time I post a blog. What if nobody reads it? What if it’s no good? What if someone hates it and starts an argument?

But now, I know I can counter those ‘What ifs’ with a different kind of ‘What if…?’. So what if nobody reads it? What if it’s no good? What if someone hates it and starts an argument? What’s the worst that could happen, really?

It’s not comfortable, and it doesn’t come naturally, but it’s getting easier to think of the right kind of ‘What if…?’

I’ve written loads of times on the scary subject of depression, and nothing terrible has happened to me as a result – quite the opposite. I’ve even written about my faith (only once – I’m not that brave).

Many, many great things would not have happened to me if I’d allowed my what-iffing to stop me writing this blog.

What if I stop what-iffing?

Silencing the commentator in my head

There is a commentator who sits in my head and witters.

He commentates on everything I do and everything that’s happening to me and around me. He’s particularly keen on wittering about things that haven’t happened yet – things in the future that he thinks I could and should be worrying about; things that could cause me stress.

There is a thin line between good planning and excessive fretting. My commentator shows no regard for this. Does something need planning? Well, why not worry about it at times when you can’t actually do anything about it? How about in the middle of the night?

He has his advantages. Sometimes he’ll pipe up with great ideas or witty remarks. But a lot of the time, I wish he would just shut up, because his accelerating rambling feeds my anxiety and prevents me living in the moment and taking one day at a time – something I know I need to do but often find impossible.

Sometimes he prattles on at such speed and volume it’s just a noise – a wall of sound. I can’t bear any other noise and can’t take in what people are saying. The din can prevent me enjoying what I’m doing. His chuntering fills my head, which means anything new trying to get into my headspace feels like an intruder. Sometimes my brain is so full, it overflows and I get forgetful.

If he gets bored of commentating on the present and future, he likes to play action replays. His collection of clips seems to concentrate on moments of stress or injustice, or things I’ve done wrong. Depending on how recent the incidents are, they can lead to futile yet destructive imaginary arguments. If he’s feeling particularly destructive, he conjures up imaginary scenarios to have imaginary arguments about.

These unwelcome tricks are things I’ve been learning to deal with over the past five years, when I first started trying to get to grips with depression. We all worry about stuff sometimes and get nervous about things we have to do. It’s normal. But when it’s the kind of ever-present worrying that leads to anxiety and heightens my risk of a return to depression, as it threatened to do last summer, I know I have to do something about it. I’m getting better at recognising the danger signs, taking action and looking after myself.

I am always keen to try new ways of silencing the gibbering fool in my brain. I’ve been trying to retrain him so he says positive things and replays positive clips. One way I’ve been doing this is to keep a diary of positive things each day, and reading back through what I’ve written to remind myself of things I could easily have forgotten forever. It’s a bit like sending a calming co-commentator into the commentary box, like the classic Formula One commentary team of Murray Walker – breathless, excited, verging on hysterical – and James Hunt, complementing Walker with a more thoughtful, observant style.

I try to find more time to do things I enjoy, like bird watching and watching films.

And, as I said before, I’m trying to live more in the present, so I’ve started going to something called Mind Calm, which is teaching me some basics about meditation. The principles make great sense – it’s about not being ruled by your thoughts, and being aware of what is happening in the moment – but my biggest challenge is to find time to practise regularly enough to make a difference. I’ve tried a couple of apps and books on mindfulness, but haven’t made those work for me so far.

My commentator has worked hard over the years. I think he would welcome the chance to put his feet up and take it easy. This stage of my recovery is about helping him to do just that.

Throwing the book at depression

About five years ago my doctor told me I had depression.

On hindsight, the symptoms painted a pretty obvious picture. My head hurt every day. I’d been stressed out for months and was permanently tense and irritable. I was susceptible to every minor illness that was doing the rounds. I had no energy or enthusiasm, and had trouble sleeping. I couldn’t look forward to anything – instead, everything made me anxious and worried. My confidence and self-esteem seeped away, as did my memory.

From there came the antidepressants, the counselling and the realisation that many, many other people go through this same thing. I’ve learned a lot from depression, and have become wise to its tricks and traps. Recovery isn’t about being miraculously cured and leaping with joy every moment of every day. It’s about feeling better, staying well and finding ways to cope if I feel depression’s malevolent presence  – and, ideally, heading it off before it manages to get a hold.

All kinds of things can help in some small way, but one thing I’ve stuck with ever since my first round of counselling is my book. You could call it a ‘positivity diary’ if you like. To me it’s just ‘my book’. It’s a notebook that I write positive things in every day (or most days – the odd one gets missed out and I don’t berate myself for that, otherwise my perfectionist gremlins might come out and bash me over the head).

I use the book to keep a record of good things that happen to me – things I’ve enjoyed, kind words people have said to me or about me, small successes… When I started it, I believed I wasn’t good enough and was finding little pleasure in anything. The idea of the book was to tackle those two perspectives one day at a time.

If you can find something positive in each day, however small, it starts a positive cycle. It gradually builds up so that you’re encouraged and reminded to keep looking – and when times are particularly hard, the stuff you’ve written down is your evidence against the accusing voice telling you you’re not good enough and that nothing good ever happens. It also helps you to appreciate and savour good things as they’re happening to you. It can be incredibly easy to forget them all. Even if writing in the book doesn’t seem to make any difference at the time, it might be just what you need some time in the future.

Remembering to read the diary from time to time is an important part of making it work for you. I was feeling a bit battered and low on confidence recently so decided to read through my diaries, right from the very start (not all in one go – there are five full books to get through).

I’m finding it a genuinely uplifting and humbling experience, reliving forgotten moments and recalling achievements and happy times, whether I was on great form at the time or just trying to find a gap in the clouds.

I used to also keep a record of things I’d found difficult or stressful, to try and learn from them, and I wrote those down in the back of my books. It’s been interesting to look back on those too, but they can also take me back to things I don’t want to remember. Writing them down served a purpose at the time, but I’m glad I stopped doing so. I’ve learned just as much by refreshing my memory about good things I’ve done.

My first diary pre-dated my first foray into blogging, so I’ve also been following the history of Dippyman from its origins to the present day. If you’ve ever read, liked, shared or commented on one of my blog posts, thank you – you’ve played a part in my book and, in turn, in my recovery.

Why positive thinking needs a makeover

When I hear about ‘positive thinking’, my immediate reaction is to screw up my face and shudder with revulsion. This year I’m aiming to change that, for my own good, and in my own way. I’ll tell you why in just a moment.

First, though, I do need to have a quick rant about positive thinking, just to get it out of my system.

The phrase ‘positive thinking’ conjures up images of excessively cheery people, bounding around with ceaseless, inexplicable joy, squirting out irritating, glib catchphrases like “There are no problems, only opportunities”.

I associate ‘positive thinking’ with the kind of grating, false positivity that’s often touted in a supposedly motivational way. I was once at a conference, eating my dinner and chatting to the people I was sitting with, when a motivational speaker popped up and began to address us. The one thing I remember from his talk was his method for dealing with people who weren’t positive. If someone objected, complained, or appeared disgruntled, however justifiably, he would shout ‘FANTASTIC!’ in their faces. As a motivator, he was actually very effective – a number of people felt highly motivated to leave the company soon after that conference.

It’s not that I’m a ‘the glass is half empty’ sort of person. I’m not really a ‘glass half full’ person either. I’m more of a ‘there’s some water in the glass’ person. I’d class myself as a realist, rather than an optimist or a pessimist.

I have to admit, though, that when I think about something, I tend to think through the difficulties or problems before I get to the good bits. When it comes to managing difficult projects, which is something I do quite a lot, identifying problems is actually quite a useful skill, and part of making sure the project is successful.

But it’s less useful when it comes to most other things. The more problems you can foresee, the more difficult something appears. And the more difficult something appears, the less likely you are to do it. And the less likely you are to do something, the less likely you are to get anywhere. So you stop trying to get anywhere, then you get frustrated at yourself for not getting anywhere. That kind of thinking is a dream killer of the highest order. It stops you thinking ‘What if?’ and drives you down the road of ‘You can’t’.

I recognise that pattern of negative thinking from my experience of depression. It’s my default setting – imagine the worst first. Even now I’m feeling better, all it takes is tiredness, hunger or a difficult day, and the negative-thinking demons start dancing a gleeful jig in my brain, dragging me down.

I decided at the end of last year that I would try to be more positive this year. However, I started writing this in December and only now, at the end of February, am I posting it – because I didn’t feel positive enough.

I’ve come to realise that what I need is not just an unthinking dollop of positive thinking, but just to try and see the positive side of something first, before the negative jumps in. It’s hard. It involves changing years of habitually doing the opposite. But I don’t want those dancing demons to get the upper hand again, so it’s got to be worth a shot.

Five reasons why I keep talking about depression

Even if you haven’t experienced a mental health problem yourself, you’ll know someone who has. And chances are they haven’t told you about it.

This Thursday, Time to Change is encouraging people to take five minutes to talk about mental health.

Here are five reasons why I keep talking about depression – and why I would urge you to do the same, whatever your mental health problem:

  • Talking makes a difference. The more I’ve talked about my experiences of depression, the more I’ve realised I’m not alone. Countless others have similar experiences and we can all learn from each other. It might seem daunting, but I have benefited enormously from taking the plunge and sharing my experiences four years ago. While medication and time off can play a vital part in coping with depression, I believe that talking therapies – as well as talking to friends, relatives, colleagues and other people who are happy to share their experiences – offer the best chance of finding a long-term way of managing and overcoming it. Counselling has been a huge help to me in the last few years.
  • Mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of. They are not your fault. But we act like they are, and we often believe they are. As a society, we need to recognise these facts, talk openly about them and remove the stigma.
  • People still get in a muddle over the difference between feeling depressed (a passing mood) and depression (a mental health problem). This confusion is betrayed by phrases like “What’s he got to be depressed about?” when people are discussing depression. We’re not talking about a lifestyle choice here, people. Would you ask me what I’ve got to be asthmatic about? Would you advise me to snap out of my hayfever? It’s easy to make these throwaway judgements and suggestions until you’ve experienced depression yourself – then you know that depression is a cruel condition that dictates your life and affects you in all kinds of hideous mental and physical ways. Attitudes are easier to change, so let’s snap out of our ignorance.
  • If people with mental health problems don’t get the help and support they need, it can make their problems worse, reduce their chances of coping and feeling better, and can be very dangerous. There are several reasons for this, and not all can be solved by talking about our problems (waiting times for therapy, for example), but we can all make it feel more socially acceptable for people to talk openly about their mental health.
  • Depression thrives on secrecy. It is a shadowy menace, like Harry Potter’s nemesis, Voldemort – an enemy so terrifying that people don’t speak his name. Do we want the bad guy to win, or are we going to rise up against him and banish him forever?


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