Explorer Ed Stafford has discovered a powerful link between adventure and mental health. He discusses what survival and solitude can teach us about stress and success.
In a lifetime of adventures, Ed Stafford has pushed his mind to breaking point.
The former Army captain endured 860 days of anxiety and self-doubt during his record-breaking trek along the Amazon River in 2008-10, where – among other encounters – he was held at arrow point by local tribes and suffered a dozen scorpion stings.
For his 2013 TV show Naked and Marooned, Stafford survived 60 days of mind-warping solitude on the Pacific island of Olorua. And in his new series of First Man Out – available now on the Discovery Channel – he races the world’s best survivalists through hazardous swamps, caves and mountains.
But over time Stafford has learned how these challenging adventures have shaped – and improved – his mental health.
The 44-year-old adventurer sat down with MF to discuss the psychology of survival and the secrets of his emotional and physical resilience.
Men’s Fitness: Ed, when did you first identify the link between adventure and mental health?
ES: I suppose on Walking the Amazon really. By putting yourself on a big expedition like that, you’ve got a lot of time to yourself.
I would hold my hand up and say in the Amazon I had no strategies: I tied myself up in knots and I had mental battles the whole time. But the first thing it does is highlight a sort of self-awareness.
In everyday life, you’ve got distractions: you might have a beer or eat some chocolate or go on your phone. But expeditions take you outside of things… You get an awareness about how your mind works and how to manage it.
MF: How have your adventures shaped your mindset when you get back home?
ES: Adventure is a massive vessel for self-development. It’s a fantastic thing. You probably don’t have all the answers, but you’ve got to grow, come up with new ideas or win people over.
A lot of the things on expeditions become: can you get along with the tribal chief? Can you weave your way in? They are like life in technicolour.
They are these intense little pockets of challenges that just act as little tools to help you learn how to work through things.
MF: What are the challenges and rewards of extreme isolation?
ES: When I spent 60 days alone I remember being utterly overwhelmed. And unless you’ve been isolated it is quite difficult to explain how weird it is to be utterly responsible for yourself. But the isolation enabled me to be very honest.
It is like you’ve got these onion skin layers of neuroses and you end up shedding different behaviours. Isolation was the catalyst to start deciding who I was.
It sounds ridiculous that I was filming a programme for the Discovery Channel, while writing a list of moral principles. But I was. Because I was falling apart.
Who was I? In my 20s I would do what I could get away with. But I realised I don’t want to be that person. I want to be utterly dependable. You almost have to let go of so much before you can get down to ground zero.
MF: Did the harrowing experience of Naked and Marooned leave a lasting impact?
ES: A year later, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was depressed. Even the thought of packing a bag was overwhelming.
A psychiatrist told me I had similar problems to hostage victims. So I had a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy. The island wasn’t the problem, it was just the trigger.
But that was probably the key thing about isolation: it gave me the undeniably terrifying experience of not knowing who I was, but then the really beautiful concept of just deciding who I wanted to be.
When you get two years down the line, you think: actually, I haven’t lied to anyone and I haven’t cheated. And you end up becoming quite proud of yourself. And because of my brushes with mental health, it has forced me to look after myself more.
MF: What are the other psychological benefits of adventure travel?
ES: On a different level, you get a simple perspective. You can look back on your own life and sort of envisage England and see your life on the outside. Somehow that gives you extra clarity.
You think, when I get home, I am going to do that, start this business, or learn that.
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MF: What is the most important aspect of the psychology of survival?
ES: It’s about having the right mindset and the right approach to things. Knowing how to light a fire is no good if your mind isn’t clear.
Your mind is your survival tool and you need to manage it. It is easy to get confused but that ability to step back is super important.
MF: How do your adventures shape your approach to hard times, like the pandemic?
ES: On a very short-term basis, the concept of change: nothing ever stays the same.
And if something is really bad – if I’m having a bad day on an expedition or just in life – the concept is to just keep going.
Get through today, go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning invariably it’s going to be better.
MF: How does the competitive element of First Man Out influence your mindset?
ES: I didn’t like the concept when it was first pitched to me by Discovery. I thought it was one step too far towards entertainment rather than bushcraft and survival.
But the counter argument was that it’s about stretching yourself and bettering yourself. And it couldn’t have been more true.
The competitive element gave it a sort of electrifying intensity that I hadn’t had since the early days of solo survival stuff.
They [the expeditions] had become more in my comfort zone but that upped the ante and made me feel more vulnerable again.
MF: How do you stay in shape for your expeditions?
ES: For me it is now less about big muscles than it is about being overall healthy.
Food is a big one, because I am quite gluten and wheat intolerant. Every now and again I will eat some pies and have a few beers, but I will suffer for it, so I try to eat cleanly. And I have done loads more exercise since lockdown – consistent exercise.
The best Christmas and birthday present my wife Laura bought me was some parallel bars and a chin-up bar for the garden. I also do a lot of running, which really helps to clear my mind.
MF: What qualities do you strive for as a modern man?
ES: From a moral perspective, my dad always used to say that you’ve got to be true to your word. That is definitely the mark of a good bloke and a decent person.
And if you have that inherent principle, it’s harder to give up on anything.
Words: Mark Bailey