Ruth Allen, PHD, on the the invaluable lessons slowing down can teach us.
I would be lying if I said that the travel restrictions this year haven’t felt difficult to accept at times. The prospect of a rolling loss of spring and summer adventures further afield felt impossible to endure at the start of the year, and old stories reminiscing about a Scottish jaunt here, or an Alpine trip there were never been far from my tongue, as I stomped around avoiding the map shelf.
But something else happened this year. Something unexpected and sort of magical. Forced to stay local, I started – for the first time – to really connect with my local place and nearby nature on my beloved gravel bike, in a way that I had never given myself the chance to do before. Caught up in that very modern, social media fuelled anxiety of needing to go everywhere and do everything, I rarely made quality time to be in my own landscape, exploring what it had to offer. This, a place I had chosen to live but seemed to spend most of my time leaving. For years, I’ve missed Spring and summer, taking the first chance to getaway in restless pursuit of activities in places that take hours to plan, yet alone reach.
And all of this was exactly what I wanted, or so I told myself. Working hard all week, and spending the weekends travelling up and down the country to tick something off my infinite list of things to see or try, was the life I desired for myself. And I suspect I would never have questioned it, had the pandemic not forced a standstill and given me time to reflect on the many ways that I exhaust myself or constantly chase an image of what adventure should look like.
With lengthening days and weekends of short travel, my map of the local area became a feature on the dining table, and previously unexplored lanes, roads, byways, and paths because known and gradually loved. With each week that lockdown continued I started to be glad for it; thankful for the time it gave me to strengthen my attachment to home. Instead of rushing around, I found myself pootling often, stopping for photos, going out just to drink my tea on a bench I discovered the previous week, cycling to the river to swim as often as I could. In short: slowing down, taking my time, doing things for the love of movement again. I realised how much I had bought into the prevailing narrative of what adventure should look like, even when I thought I was doing things differently.
With a forced boundary around how far I could go, the pandemic was an invitation to simplify my needs, and find value in that simplification. Did I really need a constant supply line of different landscapes and routes? Did the complexity really leave me relaxed and mentally well? Or was it, that I barely even had time to notice anymore? Focusing on my local terrain, was not only a valuable bonding experience, it was a lesson in how to feel calm every day, and a bit more grateful. For the abundance I have around me, for sufficient health that allows me to get out and about and move my body during a testing time, for the life unfurling around me in the rest of nature that was reassuringly ever-present.
Genuine and felt gratitude is a huge driver of emotional and psychological wellbeing, and this year I learned how to be actively grateful. As a psychotherapist, I walk alongside people as they work through the choices they might need to make to support their own mental health and wellbeing, and though I wouldn’t have chosen to restrict myself to my local area this year, would I make this choice for myself (even for a short period) in the future having seen the mental health benefits? Yes, I would.