The epic expeditions of Levison Wood - an explorer, writer, photographer and former Officer in the British Parachute Regiment – can be physically gruelling but they also deliver a raft of mental health benefits which linger long after he returns home to London.
Wood, 37, has walked 4,250 miles along the River Nile, 1,700 miles across the Himalayas, and 1,800 miles through Central America.
But on his most recent 5,000-mile odyssey around the Arabian Peninsula – chronicled in a new documentary for the Discovery Channel – everything he experienced, from getting shot at by Iraqi snipers to drinking tea with nomads, had profound influences on his mental wellbeing.
Every hardship brought new perspective; every danger sharpened his clarity of thought; and each act of kindness restored his faith in mankind.
The British explorer opens up to RSNG about the hidden value of fear, hardship, camaraderie and new experiences in the everyday quest for mental health.
RSNG What are the mental rewards of taking a break from everyday routine to complete a long hike or outdoor adventure?
LEVISON WOOD, EXPLORER ‘So many people live almost their entire lives in cities. They go to work, the only greenery they see is in a park – and parks are great but it's not like going out to the Highlands of Scotland or going on a proper expedition somewhere in the world.’
‘It is hard to put a tangible benefit to it. But I think what it really does is give you a new sense of perspective. And for me that's what it's all about. It's about having a new perspective by seeing what life is like in other places. A bit of hardship also gives you better take on what matters - and what doesn’t.’
RSNG Do you need camaraderie and company on your expeditions?
LW ‘It's much better to be with people. I can think of nothing worse than rowing across an ocean on my own. I take my hat off to the people who do but I think it takes a certain type of person. That's not my bag at all.’
‘I enjoy being in a small group, being in a team where we go and experience things together and we share those experiences. We talk about them and we laugh about them. And that's what it's all about.’
‘Thinking, “are we going to live or are we going to die?” can strengthen your mind’
RSNG You’ve completed challenging expeditions worldwide and also fought in Afghanistan as a soldier. How does dealing with fear in dangerous environments affect your mental health?
LW ‘I was in Afghanistan for four or five months and you are constantly on the alert and constantly anxious. You never know if you are going to step on an IED (improvised explosive device). I wouldn't call it worry because it depends on your personality type but it can also be very exciting. You're in a heightened state of readiness. That is something that I believe we humans are designed for.’
‘We evolved - when we were apes swinging from the trees - to be worried about where the next meal might come from, or if we would get eaten by a lion. And I think having that, ‘Are we going to live or are we going to die?’ can strengthen your mind.’
‘What’s not healthy is sitting in an office all day worrying about a spreadsheet. So when I have been on an expedition, or when I was out in Afghanistan, I was not scared. My heightened experience enabled me to fulfil my own basic emotional requirements.’
‘That’s not to glorify risk. But I am far more anxious when I'm in London and worried about going to a meeting or paying a bill than I ever am in a desert surrounded by fighters or getting shot at by ISIS.’
Ask any soldier what they did the first time they get shot at and - as long as they don't get hit and everybody is okay – often they say they burst out laughing. It is kind of an emotional release. The first immediate feeling is of total elation.’
RSNG You have worked with charities which help soldiers with PTSD. What is the biggest lesson you have discovered about handling emotional trauma?
LW ‘I think I've been very fortunate in that, by doing what I'm doing now, it almost feels like an extension of the Army. I'm doing similar things, I suppose. My lifestyle is in many ways very similar to how it was. It is almost like being on campaign. You come back from an expedition, you prepare for the next one. And that mentality keeps me going.’
‘I think the real problem a lot of people have – and certainly this is a catalyst for PTSD, but not necessarily the cause – is when you leave that institution, leave that support network, and leave your mates and you go off either on your own or with your family, you have got nobody to share those experiences with. And that's when it kicks off.’
‘A lot of people that might have a traumatic experience, if they stay in the Army – the institution – they’ll be fine because everybody has experienced that. But when you're suddenly in an environment where people just don't get it, that's when the problems start.’
RSNG How would you like to see soldiers supported?
LW ‘It's important that we support people with veterans clubs or societies. After the First World War, people used to go down to their local Royal British Legion and have a pint with their mates and maybe they’d talk about it or maybe they wouldn't. But the point was that they were there with people who had had similar experiences.’
‘It is very difficult for people to do that today. And that's why we have a lot of issues off the back of it. I'm a big supporter of veterans’ charities and I try and do my bit. But I feel very lucky that I’ve come out of it fairly unscathed.’
RSNG Your most recent expedition to Arabia was a very personal journey. What was the inspiration?
LW ‘This journey really has its roots going back 16 years to 2003 when I travelled around the Middle East as a student backpacker. I found myself in Iraq. I did a lot of random backpacking when I was a youngster and my travels these days have often reflected that same spirit of adventure.’
‘I'll go back to places I went as a backpacker and see how they have changed. And that's what this journey was about. It was about seeing how the Middle East has changed. I've had the opportunity to revisit certain places over that time but to go and make a film and write a book and really shine a spotlight on the region was very special.’
‘Seeing how people who have suffered so much can still show such kindness is something that stays with you when you get back home.’
‘I drank so much Fanta and Coke in Africa one of my teeth fell out’
RSNG On which expedition was it hardest to stay healthy?
LW ‘The Nile journey in particular - they don't do bottled water in Africa really because they just drink from a local well or river. I didn't want to get ill in Sudan because there was no way to get any assistance. But what they do have, even in the most remote villages, is a local shop selling Fanta or Coke, so I was pretty much living off bottles and litres of the stuff.’
‘One of my teeth fell out as a result when I crunched on a date. On this trip, though, not really: the food was generally alright - just a bit bland when you're eating lots of rice and goat.’
RSNG Are you already thinking about your next adventure?
LW ‘I've got a few months to write a book and to edit a film and do a speaking tour. It has become quite a cyclical conveyer belt for me: I go away, write, talk, plan then go away again. For the last six years that has been constant. So I'm trying to take a bit of a step back now and take the foot off the gas and just do a few shorter-form journeys - for now.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the explorer do his thing in the trailer for Discovery Channel’s Arabia With Levison Wood, airing at 9pm on Thursdays and on catch up.