It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and I’m just back from the GP with another year’s worth of anti-depressants so I thought I would restart this column by telling you how my dog saved my mental health.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but new readers need to know I suffer with depression and anxiety. The drugs are helpful, they stop me sinking into a black hole, but I’m sure it’s exercising in the outdoors that allows me to lead a (mostly) positive life.
I was enjoying the delights of Middleton Park yesterday morning – sunshine, bluebells and birdsong – and I thought ‘this is so calming and refreshing, why doesn’t everyone do this?’
And then I realised that I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t for my dog. I had a load of things to do, I should have been stuck on my laptop indoors all day catching up with work. But the dog needs a walk, in fact she’s a Border Collie, so she needs lots of walks. It’s the discipline of making sure she gets her exercise that gives me my exercise. I find it much easier to look after someone else than look after myself.
There’s nothing abstract about dog walking improving mental health. Scientific studies have shown a number of beneficial effects, not specifically of dog walking, but of related activities.
It is beneficial to get full daylight into your eyes every day. Our eyes and brains are so clever that we don’t notice it, but there is a huge difference between the full spectrum of natural sunlight (even when it’s cloudy) and monochrome artificial electric light. Just being outdoors is good for you, even if it’s just a walk to the corner shop.
Being in touch with nature is good for you. You don’t have to become a gardener, although I find the annual process of seeds turning into plants very uplifting even though I’ve done very little to help the process. But seeing green grass, trees, the passing of the seasons is good for you – so take a turn around your local park, even if you haven’t got a dog.
Exercise is good for you. Go to the gym if you want to, but walking will still release endorphins in your brain and make you feel better. These are the hormones that give you a sense of wellbeing. Opioids like morphine and heroin mimic them and runners are said to experience the ‘runner’s high’ after exercise. I’ve never experienced a high myself, but I feel better after a run.
And finally dogs are good for you, unless like my mother you suffer from hay fever and animal hair allergies. Studies show the calming effects a pet can have. Dogs are increasingly being used in care homes and I spoke to the headteacher of the new Elements primary school, setting up in Middleton which amongst other innovations will have a school dog (a chocolate Labrador if you’re wondering).
I’m not usually very good at multi-tasking (being male), but I do like to kill two birds with one stone to coin a phrase. So dog ownership ticks all the boxes for me. She calms me down, she gets me out of the house, into the natural daylight, where I can see the natural world and take some regular exercise.
And yes, I do pick up her poo and bin it, because despite my state of mental health I know there is no Dog Poo Fairy.
I’ll be on back soon with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.