Richard Lewis is a writer, journalist and broadcaster and the creator of 30walks.com
His work has appeared in New Statesman, The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The Times and many professional and specialist journals.
Richard is the author of three books and numerous television scripts. He wrote and produced a series for Channel Four Radio and has appeared on BBC Radio Four’s Loose Ends, Excess Baggage and many others.
More importantly, his experience listening to users of the 30 Walks project led him to begin training as a professional counsellor.
How I discovered the solution to anxiety — by going for a walk.
In the cartoon series The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, the heiress is pursued by her conniving guardian Sylvester Sneakly, disguised as villain The Hooded Claw. His determination to end her and take her inheritance knows no bounds. No matter how many times the Claw is defeated by Penelope, Sneakly regroups and returns with an even more dastardly plot to destroy her.
Such is my relationship with anxiety.
In my teens, when it first manifested as panic attacks, I bested it by managing my breathing. But as I then swanned off into my twenties, blithely confident that Anxiety was banished, my nemesis was playing a long game. Hunkered down in the basement, the Claw was working on something nasty.
As I approached he third decade’s major life decisions, I found myself caught in persistent thought patterns of terrifying negativity. What if … ?
The thoughts were seductive but the more I cogitated and tried to describe the cause of this vague yet debilitating fear, the more the terror grew.
Like the black hole at the centre of a galaxy, whole days were pulled into it, whole nights were lost to it.
I forget now what broke the cycle, it’s not important what other train of thought distracted me. It’s only important that at some point some bigger “yes” inside me lured me away from thinking about all those “no”s. And that’s when I saw it …
I understood something important then: that my thinking was driving my feelings. The more I thought about bad stuff, the worse I felt. Duh. It followed that to feel better, I could intervene and simply reject ideas proposed by the Hooded Claw.
The whole thing was nothing but a new mind game played on me by my own Hooded Claw. Two cartoon doors had been drawn, one marked “Boiling oil and snakes” and the other marked “pillows and feathers”. Suddenly I realised that I could choose which door to walk through — which train of thought to follow.
This new knowledge that cognition was something I did and not something that happened to me, blew my mind. Like unplugging from the Matrix, the world turned the right way up and with a lurch of vertigo I realised I’d been living upside down my whole life.
Anxiety thus trounced once more, I skipped into my thirties, bossed my life and generally crushed it until suddenly at the close of the decade I had a major heart attack.
To be clear, as the ambulance hurtled towards a Paris hospital, the electrodes attached to my body all told the ECG machine that my heart was perfectly healthy.
But it sure fooled me and the emergency team. This new guerrilla warfare from the Hooded Claw was really below the belt.
Psychosomatic it may have been, but the event was nonetheless physically debilitating: a total shut-down.
It was tempting to give in at this point, just lie catatonic and let life happen to others. But people were counting on me not to do that.
I realised that single-strategy coping was not enough to defeat a shape-shifting villain. You batten down one hatch and The Claw morphs and slips under the door. I needed something more comprehensive.
I went out for a walk, hoping the fresh air might present a solution. When I came home, half an hour later, I was feeling completely re-energised. The solution had indeed bubbled up.
It turns out, walking was the solution. It got my blood flowing and improved my mood, it pulled me back into the present and shut off negative cognition presenting me with a live stream of birds, trees, architecture and people to marvel at: all free sources of joy. It controlled my breathing without effort. Best of all, it promoted the “flow state” — unconscious cognition — where your brain solves problems for you in the background.
Thought control is hard. But when our feelings threaten us, we can intervene with a behaviour that influences our thinking which in turn shapes our feelings. I choose walking and I launched the 30 Walks project to show you how I do it.