Exploring Stress with George Bullard – British Explorer

We talked to George Bullard – world record-breaking explorer, endurance athlete and motivational speaker – about the importance of adversity and bravery in modern mental health. #StressAwarenessMonth2021 What made you become an explorer? It’s clinging on to that childhood curiosity, the childhood wonderments that we…

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We talked to George Bullard – world record-breaking explorer, endurance athlete and motivational speaker – about the importance of adversity and bravery in modern mental health.

#StressAwarenessMonth2021

What made you become an explorer?

It’s clinging on to that childhood curiosity, the childhood wonderments that we all had but at some point through education and growing up, that curiosity is hammered out of us.

We’ve been taught to conform to a series of social and cultural expectations: this is how you should behave as a grown-up and as a grown-up, for example, you’re not allowed to get excited about a puddle. When you’re a kid all you want to do is get in it. When does that become not acceptable?

What really drives me is that childhood curiosity, that wonderment which, still inspires me each and everyday. I wake up and i’m just like, i’m so lucky to have this, what could be in store for me today? Adventures, climbing trees, swimming in rivers – what ridiculous situations can I find myself in? There’s so much excitement to have and I think that that’s probably the biggest part of it

But, then i think there’s another part of why I do what I do . I think for a lot of people they need to have some form of trauma. You quite often hear the story about people having a life-changing experience. Whether that be an illness, something which taught them how vulnerable they are on this planet and how fallible and pathetic we are really? We walk around and we believe and feel that we’re totally in control, but actually one day, it’s gone, your life is over fro whatever reason. And i think for me that’s another driving feature of this – we have roughly 29,000 days on this planet, and i think the underlying question is what are you going to do with yours? My desire isn’t to spend it sitting in front of a computer working. i tried to make my work my passion and therefore i never have to do a day’s work.

Did stress play a role in your life choice?

Well, when you’re a kid, that word stress doesn’t really exist, does it? It’s not a thing. Instead, everyday you wake up and it’s a new day. The sun’s up and if that puddle is there i’m gonna get in it, right? But at some point we get taught to feel stress and to feel anxious.

I still haven’t made a conscious decision to become an Adventurer. I really almost fell into it, because I found that I loved it so much. I love the outdoors, I love the challenge, I love the adventure, I love failing, I love listening to the birds and the smell of the wilderness. It’s the simplest things that keep me coming back.

And when it comes to doing bigger expeditions, it’s about pitting yourself against yourself. Can I make it? Is it possible? And you’re seeing vistas, seeing things that no human has ever seen before and likely will never see again. Just you and your team. It’s an amazing thing and i’ve possibly become a bit addicted to that. Addicted to the simplicity, possibly the lack of stress, the lack of concern and the lack of worry. Because, really the only thing that I was truly worried about was whether my team and myself  were fed, watered and warm, and that is kind of it. And so today when i’m stressed and anxious – of course it happens to all of us and I apologise now if you look at my social media and think otherwise – but behind it all, absolutely there is stress and anxiety, but for me my vent is stepping outside the front door, leaving my phone at home and pulling back to the present. I’m fed, watered, and i’m warm and wow how lucky am I? That change of mindset alters your outlook on life.

Did you have any mentors?

I wouldn’t say there’s one person I look up to really. I think depending on what sort of question you ask me, there’s a different role model for that. Yes of course i’ve looked up to lots of people, and they’re not necessarily famous or mighty in any way, but I’ve looked up to them because these people have found a real meaning.  There were these ladies I met who work in the Serbian Orthodox church – they found a real meaning, a real purpose to their lives and that was incredibly inspiring to me.

In a way I really found a love for the outdoors myself and then I saw how my passion could change how other people felt, and that for me was incredible when they turned around and said ‘George, look, I didn’t know that this would affect me in the way it has done but doing what we’ve just done, in the wilderness has changed my life’ – and that is like wow okay, awesome.

Again, somewhere along our evolution we’ve not only taught ourselves stress, we’ve taught ourselves how to live apart from nature in the wilderness which is kind of my whole mission – to ‘Re-wild Humans’ – and in that we find a whole heap of things.

What’s the most stressful situation you’ve ever been in?

So, very personally i get quite anxious about finances. Mainly because i’m not really good at them. You know, I’m probably the happiest as I’m mid-air, about to jump into a cold lake. And i’m probably at my most stressed when the finances and stuff were just a bit hard for me to understand and get my head around.

Do you feel stressed on expeditions?

No, I see it as something else. When I’m on these trips it’s has an amazing effect on my brain. Everything totally slows down. The idea of us running from meeting to meeting, zoom zoom zoom, it’s completely out of the window. Out there, what am I doing tomorrow? I am probably kayaking across the North Atlantic Ocean, or, i’m walking the longest unsupported journey in history, or whatever it is, in some cold region. And life becomes so simple.

Even when you run out of food. I’ve been in that situation and generally find myself being very calm. Because you know what there’s F**k all you can do about it right now. There’s no point throwing all the toys out of the pram. There’s no point falling down, not doing anything about it, because actually there’s no one who can help you. There’s no one else, only you can help yourselves. And I find that mental state, where we are self-sufficient and totally responsible for our own actions, not only quite alien to our culture today where we’re managed and governed by risk assessments and blame, but also I find it incredibly calming because when we run out of food I know why we’ve run out and I’m like okay well that’s happened, what can we do about it now?

There’s some sort of control aspect in there. Where I can understand what’s happening, see things going on, I might be able to pull it back, save a bit of food each day so that we don’t starve – by the way this happened to me in 2007 on the expedition, which was the longest unsupported polar journey in history on day 104 having walked just under one and a half thousand miles we ran out of food, so this is coming from experience, these stories and this set of emotions.

We heard the phrase a lot through lockdown of being able to ‘control the uncontrollable’ and not to worry about other things that are outside of your control, like for example in my situation worrying about the weather.

 

Is bravery important in what you do?

I think you stumbled across something really interesting here. I love giving talks, standing up in front of people and telling my story and pulling out lots of different sort of learning aspects, because it’s quite unique and there’s a lot which I’m still  learning about today. And one of the things i always say towards the end of a talk is, I don’t care whether you forget everything about me, everything about what i’ve done, my name, my story, I just don’t care – but one thing I want you to remember is this: my ABC of life.

“A” stands for ambition, everyone’s got one, a dream, a passion. I don’t know, maybe it’s to play football for your country, or get the next promotion, or get a pay rise, whatever it is, big or small.

“B” stands for bravery. I think you have got to find a little bit of bravery inside you to step off the treadmill, step off the tube where everyone’s following that same line into London, into the office. Say to yourself, this is actually my passion, this is actually my dream and i’m gonna do everything I can to make it a reality.

“C” stands for ‘carpe diem’ – seize the day.

I think yes bravery is required because quite often in following your dreams, managing stress and your own mental wellness takes bravery. It takes bravery to pull out and find the present moment, and to talk about your dreams with yourself seriously. It takes bravery to really look inwardly and analyse what things you’re feeling and why you’re feeling them. That’s bravery too. I don’t mean climbing a rock face and smashing through all of your fears that’s another type of bravery, but having courage to not only follow your dreams, but to face your own anxieties and stress is really important.

What do we risk by avoiding adversity?

I speak a lot about risk, because everyone’s perception of risk is different, right? Everyone has a different risk profile – what they’re happy doing and what they’re not. There’s a great quote by T.S Eliot: ‘Success is the ability to go from failure to failure, without losing your enthusiasm’. I think that he summed it up beautifully here, because as we mentioned earlier we’re all shrouded by health and safety, minimising and mitigating risks and wanting to point the finger of blame at someone else (who maybe rightly or wrongly got us into this situation

and didn’t manage the risks properly), but I think as the T.S Eliot said that I think we never find out exactly what we’re capable of doing if we’re constantly afraid of risking too much. Of course at some point we’re going to risk too much and maybe fail, and maybe it won’t go the way we planned, and maybe our dreams and our ambitions won’t turn out how we expected them to, but I think the fact that you’ve tried, and tried your hardest is something which will put you at ease.

When it comes to the the adversity side, I wouldn’t say we should always set out to be ‘adverse’ or contrary. ‘Do one thing every day that scares you’, I think that’s a great thing to do. For example, the last time I was in london – I’m a bit scared of singing in public, so i joined a busker for an hour, just sang with him. I was rubbish but it was great fun.  People were sort of standing around and some applauded, some people threw tomatoes but at the end of it I felt like I’d faced one of my own fears, in the smallest possible way.

 

What does returning home from an expedition feel like?

It’s a mixture of feelings. I think these are things which i’ve genuinely grown to manage, because some of those feelings are good and some of them are bad.

Let’s start with the good. Of course sometimes some of these trips I look back and I think, gosh I wish they will  never end. What a phenomenal thing to have done, to have seen that. Things I probably will never see again in my life and that many other humans may not see at all. What an incredible thing. I don’t want to leave. But on the flip side i’m also exceptionally excited about seeing my friends, my family, my girlfriend, people who I hold close to me.

I’ve got a song in my head from a trip in 2011 when I was coming back from a really really tough trip in Svalbard, where one of the kids, which I was indirectly responsible for, got killed by a Polar Bear. It was a really emotional time for me and this song: ‘tell the world that i’m coming home’, I always play when I get on the plane and think gosh, I’m coming home. Because in my walk of life, people in my life have had to trust me to go out and do these dangerous things, where I might not necessarily return alive. My biggest commitment is to them, so every time I do come home, i’m sort of welling up inside with passion and gratefulness for what I’ve just done.

On the flip side, it’s incredibly isolating too, coming home from one of these trips, because nobody apart from the people who are there with you will ever understand truly what it was like to be there. However long you spend on Zoom calls, however many pictures or videos you show them, they will never quite understand what it’s like to be there and experience what we have just experienced – and that is it’s just the most isolating thing. But, I really have grown into that. These experiences on adventures with people, they’ve bonded us together as friends for life. But other people just never can quite enter into this place and so there’s this mixture of emotions on returning from a trip.

What are your tips for dealing with daily stress?

I think it’s important to say that obviously stress appears in many different ways, and it shows itself as a result of many different things. But, I think there are a few really simple things which I love doing (and I’ll be honest sometimes i forget to do them):

1) I have a curfew on my telephone: at 8pm my telephone goes into ‘the telephone hotel’ (and of course sometimes it might be 9 o’clock or whatever, depending on what day  or what’s happening). I think the problem is the most important thing that we can do as humans is sleep. Sleep has ramifications  across all of our health, not just mental health but physical health. Everything is affected by how well we sleep and it’s so important. I’m a big convert of the book ‘Why We Sleep’ by Mathew Walker – if you get the chance to listen to the book or read it you’ll find out some amazing facts about why for some time for 6-8 hours of the day we are unconscious and how evolutionarily speaking that was a good thing to do. It’s a fascinating book and I passionately believe in sleep as a remedy for many things, including stress.

2) Another simple thing that that – with my mission to ‘Re-wild Humans’ – I would love people to do more is spend time outside. I think we can do that with and without our mobile phones. But spending time outside, even if it’s simply having your lunch break outside rather than sitting in the office under fluorescent lights, in between the right angles and straight lines of your office walls.

Want to hear more from George?

In between expeditions, George has co-founded @igoadventures, a commercial adventure company and maintains an active role with other projects including @bullardsgin and @citycamping. Follow George’s instagram here.