Ed Stafford is a former British Army captain who in 2010 completed a record-breaking 4,000-mile walk along the Amazon River in South America. During his 860 days in the rainforest, he was held at arrow point by indigenous tribes, forced to dodge piranhas, jaguars and flesh-eating bugs, and endured severe malnutrition.
But emboldened by his world-first expedition, the 43-year-old has since starred in a host of extreme survival television shows, such as ‘Naked and Marooned’, ‘Into The Unknown’, ‘Left For Dead’ and ‘First Man Out’, in which he has to navigate hazardous terrain, forage for food to stay alive, or navigate his way to safety.
He tells RSNG how a lifetime spent in the jaws of danger has fortified his psychological mindset and mental health.
RSNG How do you steel your mind before a big adventure like your 4000-mile Amazon trek?
ED STAFFORD, ADVENTURER ‘I remember flying over the Amazon for the first time on the way into the start of it with Luke (Collyer), my original walking partner, and we were shit scared. We were looking out of the window thinking: what the fuck have we done?’
‘There were just endless horizons of rainforest. Is this even possible? The way that I dealt with that situation is the way I now deal with anything overwhelming, which is to say: which one day is impossible to walk?’
‘And the obvious answer to that is that none of them are impossible. I can walk 7km that day. And 7km the next day. So bolt them all together and we can do it.’
‘At the beginning we didn’t like thinking about it in its entirety because it was overwhelming. And the reason I got such acclaim at the end was because of that: if anybody thinks of walking the length of the Amazon, they automatically laugh and think it is impossible.’
‘But I knew the nuts and bolts and the stepping stones along the way. I knew I needed a lot of luck and I would come across all kinds of hurdles. But I didn’t think it was impossible.’
RSNG What kind of self-talk strategies do you use in extreme survival situations?
ES ‘If something is scary, I have the ability – partly through mindfulness and regular meditation – to be able to step back and recognise: okay, I am shit scared now. Fear often comes from things you wouldn’t think. I also do a lot of public speaking and I feel the nerves kicking in.’
‘But before I did all this stuff, that feeling would have sent me into a spiral when I would need a biscuit or a fag. Now I can clock it, have a bit of space from it, and say: “It is natural to be nervous.”’
‘If you do that, you can coach yourself through. So you can say: “Mate, if you weren’t nervous, you’d give a flat talk. But this means there will be some energy behind it.” So, you turn it into a positive.’
‘I think nerves and excitement are very similar feelings so it is just about slightly relabelling things.’
‘There’s a cliché bandied around on Instagram: It’s not a breakdown, it’s a breakthrough – it was a bit like that’
RSNG What have your adventures taught you about mental health?
ES ‘A year after my survival show Naked and Marooned, when I was alone on an island for 60 days, I was about to fly to Thailand to film a show but I couldn’t get out of bed. I was crying. Even the concept of packing a bag was overwhelming.’
‘My partner called up a psychiatrist and he came round to the house. It wasn’t the island that had caused the problem, it was just the catalyst: if you do a period of extreme isolation and you have any shit going on, it is going to bubble up.’
‘So I did three months of psychotherapy and one of the things on offer to me was antidepressant drugs but I went down the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy route. The therapist said there was a meditation app called Headspace. That was the turning point for me.’
‘I use it three times a week now but at times I have used it every day. It changed my view of mental health, just having that knowledge that you are not your thoughts and your emotions. That was the biggest revelation, simply learning to recognise: this is an emotion, this is a thought.’
‘So the island might have been the thing that caused the wheels to fall off. But there is a cliché that keeps being bandied around on Instagram: it is not a breakdown, it is a breakthrough. It was a bit like that. In order to evolve, sometimes you need to fall apart.’
RSNG What frightens you the most and how do you control your emotions?
ES ‘I have done a lot of survival things now so I know, okay, I have got to find water, I have got to light a fire. But there is a huge confidence in the fact I have done it so many times before. That’s how you build your confidence and skills: by doing more of it.’
‘So funnily enough I get more nervous about things like dinner parties or important phone calls with a TV commissioner. Social things or financial stresses end up testing you more than going into the middle of a wood and lighting a fire.’
‘That is part of the reason why in one of my latest shows First Man Out I have a competitor to race me through the jungles or mountains to up the ante. And I spent a month surviving on a desert island with my wife Laura and little boy Ran for a new show called Man Woman Child Wild. People know I can survive on my own. Well done. It needed to evolve and this was another level.’
‘If you go into situations when you have nothing, everything is possible’
RSNG How did having your family on the desert island change your survival mindset?
ES ‘I was so exhausted, not just because it was physically demanding but because of the worry of taking a minor into this environment. I had to provide for him, and to a lesser extent Laura because she is very capable herself, but I think the underlying fear that something might happen to him didn’t allow me to relax.’
‘The survival priorities are water, food, fire and shelter but before any of those applied to me there was Ran’s comfort. It completely usurped me even having a drink before him.’
‘Things which I thought were irrelevant in those situations, like comfort and happiness, became important. I could lie on the floor and put up with it all but with him I had a completely different parenting head on.’
‘But one man on his own in a survival situation is not that realistic. You would probably have dependents or minors too.’
RSNG What is the worst thing you have eaten in survival situations?
ES ‘In episode two of this phase of First Man Out in China, there was some weird and wonderful food. Where I was staying, I thought there was an antique on the wall, but I realised three days later that it was actually an old pig’s leg hanging on the wall which was covered in mould, and the meat we had been eating had just been carved off the back of it.’
‘Eventually I saw that the antique was getting smaller each day. And I was like: oh, that is where the meat is coming from…’
RSNG What would you pack in your urban bug out bag ready for the apocalypse?
ES ‘I have done 180 days of naked survival for Discovery Channel, aside from all the other shows, with just me and my bare hands. So in terms of a survival bag, everyone would assume you need a lighter and a knife, but now I am comfortable picking up a rock off the floor, smashing it against something, getting a sharp edge and cutting stuff that way.’
‘And I have had to learn every type of fire by friction under the sun. So I feel like that bag doesn’t have to exist.’
‘Actually, it is quite freeing not to be dependent on kit. You don’t think: “Oh no, I haven’t got that lighter so I can’t do this.” If you go into situations when you have nothing, everything is possible.’
‘It is all about applying different skills and working things out. You realise you are not reliant on physical things. If you can only navigate with GPS, you will get in trouble. If you can also navigate with a compass, you are safer. But if you can also navigate with the sun or prevailing winds and different things, you are in a much better survival position.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Ed Stafford fishing for mud crabs in the dense mangrove swamps of Madagascar.
Ed Stafford: Man Woman Child Wild is on Discovery Channel or on catch-up via Sky, Virgin, BT TV and Amazon Video.
Ed’s new book, ‘Expeditions Unpacked: What the Great Explorers Took into the Unknown’, is out now.