Coping With Post-Expedition Blues - Cal Major
In 2018 dryrobe ambassador Cal Major set a world record by stand up paddleboarding from Land’s End to John O’Groats. After two months of almost solid paddling Cal became the first person to SUP the length of Britain, but shortly after completing her record-breaking expedition depression seeped in.
Cal opens up about her post-adventure blues and shares her advice to anyone else going through a similar experience.
I’d just completed an enormous feat of physical and mental endurance - stand up paddleboarding the entire length of the UK. I’d been immersed in the outdoors and all its glorious nature for weeks on end; achieved something nobody had ever done before. And I felt like a complete failure.
The post-adventure blues is really poorly documented. Adventurey-types go and have incredible experiences, find their “true meaning”, realise their potential, learn how to master the endurance mindset, break world records etc etc, but rarely is the enormous come-down after one of these feats talked about openly. Since experiencing it myself, and talking to lots of people about it, it turns out it isn’t that uncommon at all, and in fact a lot of people who set themselves massive challenges experience some degree of depression or feeling lost afterwards.
I had just put my body through two months of solid exertion. I regularly paddled through the night, was sleeping in tents, deficient in certain macro and micro nutrients and absolutely exhausted on a daily basis. I took so much from my body, and I had an enormous debt to pay back. I had expected to need to rest for a week or so, but I was physically exhausted for several.
But for weeks and weeks, I also felt so hopeless, so useless, and there didn't seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I felt like I was a failure, people kept telling me how awesome I must be feeling, but my absolute exhaustion meant I couldn’t physically do anything. I couldn’t concentrate either, so at the time when more than ever I wanted to be getting my message out there (I did the expedition to raise money for charity and talk to people about plastic pollution), I was unable to do so.
It can be so easy to think that this is all in your head, that you’ve somehow lost your mind, or at least that’s how I felt. Although there often is a psychological response to finishing an event - wondering what you’ll do now, the anti-climax of finishing, having to go back to normal life, the stimulation overload coming from wilderness back to a city etc, there’s a great deal of physiological reaction - the body’s response, and the brain acting as an organ within an exhausted body - that takes place too, and that needs to be respected.
There’s also a chemical imbalance that needs to be readjusted.
For 2 months I had been drip-fed endorphins, paddling and exerting myself every day, with a lovely hit of dopamine each time I reached my destination, and a lot of adrenaline circulating to keep me focussed and able to react to danger. That instantly stopped when I completed the challenge. Hormones are a bit like drugs - you get used to them; your receptors up and down-regulate accordingly, and you learn to live with the new levels of chemicals that are circulating.
Depression and the post-event blues are different for everyone. For me it was paralysis and self deprecation, and I felt like I would never be well again. I secreted myself away from people, stopped surfing because it made me upset at how tired and useless at it I had become, and gave up on work. It was by far the hardest, darkest, and most indescribably terrifying few months of my life. I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody. However, I am truly grateful to have experienced it and come through the other side, feeling stronger, more understanding of my body and my needs, and more able to relate to other people who might be feeling something similar.
You will get through this. Take the time to tend to your psychological needs - reflect on your adventure - the good bits and the scary bits - write it all down, and talk about it to people you trust. There’s absolutely no need to rush into the next thing until you’ve taken a good solid minute to reflect on this one and recover fully.
Here are some things that helped me, or that I learned along the way:
Be kind to yourself. Be as unapologetically and consistently kind to yourself as you can possibly muster. You have not failed. You are human, and your body is doing its thing to recover. Give it a break.
Be patient - this stuff takes a lot of time. Remember - you will be well again, even when it feels like you won’t. You just have to ride this one out. But you don’t have to do it alone.
Get help - a counsellor, coach, physio... whoever you can trust to help you through what you’re feeling both physically and emotionally.
See your doctor - this is just like any other illness, except it’s curable. They will be able to advise you whether it might be worth trying some medical intervention (worked for me), based on the duration and severity of symptoms. They can also refer you to therapists - from talking therapy to CBT (cognitive based therapy).
Talk. Don’t ever consider yourself a burden to those you love. Be completely honest and open with those you trust. There will be people who don’t get it and tell you to chin up, that you should be super happy after what you've achieved. Please feel free to steer clear of these people, who mean well but perhaps don’t quite understand, until you’re feeling better.
Plan the recovery period into the expedition. When you first get planning your adventure/event, acknowledge that you’ll need a decent recovery period, and plan this into the timeframe.
Eat well. It’s really, really hard to be disciplined with diet when depressed. Alcohol and large amounts of sugar and caffeine can seem very tempting, but can cause mood changes, particularly alcohol which is in itself a depressant. Have some cake, but also eat as many whole foods as possible.
Gentle exercise. Don’t expect to be able to recreate the days or levels of exertion from your expedition: chances are it was adrenaline that got you to the end. You have a debt to pay back, so take it easy, but indulge in some gentle exercise to get your body moving and to give you a small dose of endorphins. A pool swim, or a walk in nature are both good. Yoga is amazing, but I personally found I couldn’t do any when depressed because I was too distracted by negative thoughts. That’s ok.
Spend time outdoors. Time in nature is scientifically proven to lift your mood and improve wellbeing, and I find it helps me to put things into perspective. Water is particularly powerful at calming the nervous system - you don’t even have to be in it, just around it. So if you’re able to, as hard as it can seem at the time, just get yourself out of the house. It doesn’t have to be physically straining, and it doesn’t have to be somewhere mind-blowing - just a stroll or even sitting in the park, along the canal, or on the beach can be enough to hit the reset button temporarily.
Cold water swimming is an incredible way to feel awesome instantly. I only discovered it when I was feeling down, but haven’t stopped since. Getting into cold water is the best sense of achievement by throwing you way out of your comfort zone while, if you do it with care, still being safe. Unlike surfing or running, you don’t have to be good at it - there’s no judgement; it’s just you and the water. it stops all thoughts momentarily and gives your mind a break from spiralling thoughts. It gives your body an amazing flush of energy which lasts for hours. I rarely have a chilly dip that I’m not giggling about during or afterwards. It doesn’t have to be the sea - even a cold shower can do it.
Professor Greg Whyte on the benefits of getting active outdoors
If you are feeling really down, and don’t know where to turn, please call The Samaritans for free on 116 123, any time of the day or night. They will help you. They helped me.
Thank you for reading this. I feel really fortunate to be able to share this having come out the other side, and hope it helps someone somewhere. If and when you feel able to, I’d really encourage you to share your experience too, so that mental health is no longer stigmatised. We all have mental health - we may not all have mental illness, but we all have our mental health to protect. So often it’s a part of our physical health, and the more we can acknowledge that, the sooner we’ll be able to talk about it without the sense of unease that so often accompanies these discussions.
Listen to Cal talk about her record-breaking SUP and post-adventure blues on the Bad Boy podcast.
Facebook: Cal Major - Paddle Against Plastic
Photos by James Appleton