Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
Bear Grylls: There have been a lot of close shaves. Parachute failures and avalanches. Pinned and white water rapids and bitten by snakes and cornered by sharks and crocs and rock falls and you name it.
I mean, I look back on, they have become a blur of things.
Michael: There it is: perhaps the most recognizable voice in the world of adventure and survival entertainment, if not all of television. For 16 years now, Bear Grylls has been showing us how to survive in wild places. And for just as long, people have tried to imitate his accent and his apparent gusto for extreme discomfort.
I’m Michael Roberts, and I’ve known Bear for a long time now, having written several feature stories about him for Outside magazine, and produced an episode for this show about him back in 2018. When I picture Bear now, I still see what most people do: a guy dangling under a helicopter or eating something, really, really disgusting, almost always with a smile. But if you actually step back and look closely at how the TV shows he makes have evolved, you’ll also see someone who truly believes that going through difficult moments in extreme environments is the best way to prepare ourselves for the hard times in our everyday lives.
Bear: If people would say, ‘What’s the outdoors given to you?’
It’s given me healing. It’s just another weapon in my arsenal that’s helped me so much over the years to keep going.
You know, it’s no accident that my mantra has been ‘never give up’ for so long. But how do you do that? Where do you draw that strength from?
You know, healing comes in many forms. Nature wants to heal. The sea heals us. The mountains heal us. Challenging runs, heal us. Long kayaks, healers, you know, all of this stuff.
It brings us together. It opens us up. It creates connections. And that is something that is universally available.
Michael: For today’s episode, producer Paddy O’Connell speaks with Bear about a topic that means a great deal to both of them: our mental health.
Paddy O’Connell: Sitting in front of me right now on my desk, is Bear Grylls’s latest book: Mind Fuel: Simple Ways to Build Mental Resilience Every Day. It is exactly what it sounds like: a year’s-worth of daily, bite-sized prompts to explore your relationship to topics like, uh, let’s see here, joy, trust, and courage. It sounds corny, I know. I was extremely skeptical when I first cracked it open, and I’m someone who is usually open to this kind of stuff, because I’ve faced serious mental health issues.
But as soon as I started reading Mind Fuel, it became clear that this is not a puffy self help guide by a celebrity. His co-author is Will Van Der Hart, an Anglican Priest, executive coach, and the director of the Mind and Soul Foundation. Bear and Will did their homework. They consulted with numerous psychiatrists and psychologists to put together a book that offers a very approachable practice to better mental health.
What really makes Mind Fuel work, though, is the humility of its supposedly always upbeat superstar author.
Bear: Have I had moments where I’ve had to ask for help? You know, how long is a podcast? Because the truth is, it happens every day.
People go, God, are you super positive? It’s like, you gotta be joking. Nobody’s super positive at four 30 in the morning when it’s cold outside. Nobody’s super brave. Nobody’s super determined.
I mean, you get the odd person maybe who is. Generally they’re being insufferable and you’re not gonna want to hang out with them for long. You know the people you want to, you want humanity, You want the real stuff
And, you know, I’ve had many moments where I really struggle with self doubt, struggle with, with confidence. You know, I’ve experienced it many times filming. You know, I’m not a natural person in front of the camera. I really struggle with the cameras. Every time it’s a battle for me to go, ‘Okay, here we go. Come on.’
Paddy: That’s shocking to hear for a guy who has made his career in front of the camera and done as well as you have.
Bear: Well I don’t look at it like that. I look at it that I’ve made a career from adventure and the camera has just been an anxious inducing element to tolerate.
Paddy: Being inherently camera shy is hardly the biggest mental hurdle that Bear has had to overcome. When he was twenty-one years old and serving in the British military, he nearly died in a skydiving accident in Kenya. His parachute failed to open, he slammed to the earth and fractured three vertebrae. Bear was in intense physical therapy for a year and even today still manages pain due to his injuries.
Bear: You know, definitely the months in hospital and rehabilitation were dark times for me. You know, having no, all my physicality taken away and so close to being paralyzed and unable to reach a bathroom without severe pain and, and suddenly, you know, my career and, and all my kind of adventure dreams in front of me were looking pretty bleak.
Paddy: And then there is what Bear describes as a tent pole moment in his life, when he and his wife Shara both lost their fathers.
Bear: Losing my dad at a young age when I was in my early twenties, just setting out. You know, was a real, kind of real hard, hard life blow at a, at a vulnerable time. I think when I was just kind of leaving the military. Just, just got married. Shara lost her dad 10 weeks before me.
We were both super young. I’ve definitely felt adrift and pretty ill-equipped for everything in life.
Paddy: That early experience of pain and confusion stuck with Bear, and when he found success as a swashbuckling adventure hero, it compelled him to spread the message that we all go through tough times–and that, often, getting outside can be a powerful tool for change.
You can see this play out in his TV shows. After his breakout hit Man vs. Wild concluded, Bear’s subsequent shows had him guiding other people through wilderness experiences, where they face their fears. In his ongoing Running Wild with Bear Grylls, he does this with celebrities like Kate Winslet and Ben Stiller. In a 10-episode series he made for Facebook in 2018, it was decidedly non-famous people like a military veteran who’d lost his legs that Bear took climbing and a blind woman who Bear encouraged to sprint down the side of a volcano.
Bear: A big driver in my life is to, is to encourage people to be able to open up and share those vulnerabilities.
Everybody has them. Everybody has these struggles. You rarely meet people who just never struggle. And if you do well, it’s like you’re not aiming up very high then, because struggle is part of our DNA. We’re designed for it, we thrive in it, but we’ve gotta not be scared of it.
And I’ve always at heart gravitated to adventure in the outdoors. I think because it’s always felt a natural restorative place, and I love that.
Paddy: Bear is quick to caution that, for many people, getting into nature or taking on a big physical challenge is just one small step in a mental health journey. And it certainly can’t be the place of therapy or other kinds of professional care. But he insists that it’s always worth the effort to get out there.
Bear: It’s about trying to put you on the front foot. You know? We know that if you’re physically fit, it’s not gonna solve everything, but it’s gonna put you on the front foot. It’s gonna give you that best chance. If you eat super healthy and you train well and you sleep well, and you do all of that, you, you stand the best chance of being physically healthy.
And I think it’s the same with mental resilience. Let’s put the good stuff in. Let’s keep you on the front foot. Big journeys start with little steps, simple things that we can do that ultimately can change our life.
You know, the emotional state might say, ‘I don’t want to go out.’ You know, ‘I don’t want to speak to a friend.’ ‘I don’t want to climb this mountain.’ Whatever that Everest is for the day, but we have the ability to override that.
We have the ability to say, I’m gonna set the alarm clock there. I’m gonna try and go to the gym. I’m gonna say no to this drink. I’m gonna try and say, ‘yes, we’re gonna do this.’ Yes to whatever little step it is that’s gonna build positive stuff. And that’s really helped me because many times I don’t feel like it
Paddy: Is there something about physical adventures that strengthens our mental emotional power?
Bear: First of all, struggle develops our strength when I talk about the wild healing. You know, it does all of these amazing things, but it’s not free.
It’s not just gonna give it all to you. It’s not gonna give you that light in your eye, that pride, that confidence. And there is a power to consciously saying, ‘this is hard right now. This storm is brutal. Right now, you know, this is, this is hard, and I’m not, I’m not hard. My muscles haven’t got bigger.’
You know, I still have the same doubts and everything, but I know the power of sometimes gritting my teeth and being dogged and determined, keeping going and refusing to let go.
And also it is okay not to be okay. And the irony is not okay, is okay. You know, so it’s like a backhanded thing, you know? So, you know, not, not, okay, It’s just welcome to life. You know, if, if, you okay is when we’re once one day in heaven, everything’s perfect, but we ain’t there yet. You know, we live in a, in a troubled world. Difficult relationships and the wilds one mother lover of a place sometimes. And it’s not always easy.
Paddy: Bear Grylls spent a year and a half writing his new book, Mind Fuel, and the pages are filled with a lot of what we’ve come to expect from him: heroic stories of survival and his “never give up” mantra. But he also encourages us to believe in the power of asking for help.
This struck an emotional chord with me.
At 29 years old, childhood trauma, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and alcoholism and drug addiction very nearly killed me. It was the lowest point in my life and I know I would not be alive today if not for the intervention of friends and family. I’ve been in recovery since May of 2013, because of my community and in-patient treatment, sober living, therapy, and daily recovery tools and practices. Chief among them is talking about what is really going on inside my head and heart.
When I shared this with Bear, he told me that this was the kind of story that inspired him to write Mind Fuel.
Bear: As you know, you’re not alone. You’re not alone. There are many people out there, you know, And look at you, Paddy, you’re a, you’re a rock star of a guy. You know, you’re a strong guy with an incredible mustache.
You know, I’ve never met a strong person who has an easy past. It’s why I wrote this book. You know, I wanted to be able to reach out to the regular people who kind of have been involved in some battles in life and they’re clawing and fighting their way through it.
And as you know, sometimes that’s a journey. It’s rarely in a straight line. Sometimes it goes up and down a bit. But above all I know that together we’re stronger. And, um, the outdoors and outside and adventure community is incredible, as you know. But it’s a powerful community of many fallen warriors. You know, and together we are stronger together, we need each other.
Paddy: Bear has his own stories of leaning on others, including one that propelled his career. In 1998, just 18 months after the skydiving accident that nearly paralyzed him, Bear summited Mount Everest. He was only 23 years old, which at the time made him one of the youngest people to reach the top of the world, earning notoriety that would soon land him his first TV gig. But as he tells it now, the big lesson that he took away from the climb was that relying on people close to you is a good thing.
Bear: I look back to my time on Everest, three and a half months on that mountain, basically pretty well roped to my best buddy 24 hours a day. You know, Mick and me were rarely off a rope together, you know, whether in a sleeping intense way. You know, we were always connected.
And I would never have climbed that mountain, and many other mountains since, on my own. Some people can, some people want to. I, I don’t think I can, and I don’t think I want to.
You know, for me, those connections are the, are the raw strength. You have a best brother or sister alongside you in a true battle of survival , it’s not one plus one equals two. You know, you have an exponential power and strength in terms, not just in terms of physicality and, and what you can build and what you can do, but in terms of what you can think and what you can plan and what you can imagine, what you can create. The bright light of hope that can keep you going.
But it all is rooted in vulnerability. You know, you’ve got to be able to be vulnerable because the more vulnerable you are, the thicker that chord, that rope, that connection is.
Paddy: All this friendship and connection stuff sure can sound contradictory coming from a guy who made his name with a television show about him getting through gnarly wilderness scenarios on his own. But according to Bear, he’s been preaching community all along.
Bear: from my day one of filming from those early Man Vs. Wild days. I’ve been super aware of the link between survival and adventure and life and keeping going,
I was never saying, ‘Look at me. I’m, I’m, you know, it’s, uh, it’s one man’s quest against the world.’ Because that’s a, first of all, it’s an empty quest, and it’s a lonely mountain.
And I’m much more proud of a joint quest, a shared endeavor, and a crowded summit. You know, because getting to the top on your own in life, in our career, or whatever it is, is, is a lonely place.You know, the power and the wealth in our life is always in relationships and vulnerability and shared connections.
You can do it on a therapist’s couch and that’s wonderful, there’s also a raw healing power to sit around a campfire with a good friend and talk about the real stuff. Connection, friendship, humility, respect, helping each other. Being honest. You know, these, these, these are root core qualities of survival, survivalists. They’re core qualities, whether you’re into kayaking or running or whatever.
And they’re core qualities for life.
Paddy: Of course, as anyone who’s struggled with their mental health knows, simply having a supportive friend group won’t magically pull you out of a dark place. Those voices in our heads that torment us are persuasive, and they can talk us out of everything we want to accomplish.
For me, this is why I love big adventures outside, like long runs and full days of skiing. They put me toe to toe with the voice in my head that tells me no, don’t go, stop, quit.
When we spoke about this, Bear and I both agree that if you work through that regularly, it can transform you.
Bear: People go, Are you positive all the time? No, but I, I’ve, I’ve now developed such a habit in my life of trying to tackle the day with positivity and enthusiasm for me, it’s like putting on a t-shirt. Today’s gonna be hard. It’s gonna have battles. I’m not always gonna feel in the mood, but I’m putting on this t-shirt that, that is of positivity. I’m putting on a pair of pants of enthusiasm. A, a pair of socks of never give up. And I think if we do the positive stuff long enough, it becomes us.
Paddy: One of the bewildering things about mental health struggles is this idea that we are terminally unique, that no one could ever understand what we are feeling or thinking you know, there have been times in my life where I was in such a dark place that I felt like I could not share what was going on.
It was an impossibility, it felt like to me. The phone felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Uh, talking to someone face to face felt, you know, harder than running through a, like a brick wall.
What advice do you have for folks who are thinking and feeling like that?
Bear: First of all, your journey’s a particularly intense, hard one, you know? But look at you. You know, look at you now. It’s based from small steps.
And I think why this sort of conversation is so important for people is to know that you’re no different. That the great lie is that yours is deeper and harder and darker than anything. It’s a great lie.
Paddy: Yeah. It is. Yeah.
You know, everybody, everybody faces struggles. It might not be as darker a mountain or darker valley, but everybody faces struggles and the more we can share it, however strong you think people are, you know, often the people we think are the most strong, are the most struggling.
You know, if you just work from the premise, everybody you encounter all day, every day is facing monster battles, it’s an incredibly kind of empowering thing cuz it. We’re in this together, and therefore I can show you my stuff if, if you share yours. And I think you, are you talking about all of that stuff is, it’s beautiful and it’s powerful because many people will relate to that. They go, you know what might, might, it might not be as intense but, but I get it. I get it. Sometimes just speaking to a friend or seeing a friend is incredibly hard and many of us hide behind stuff. You know, We hide behind what we’re good at. You know, we hide in our jobs. We avoid the confrontation because. struggle is difficult. That’s why it’s called struggle. It’s difficult. It’s hard. But when we do it, you, you embrace a struggle and you try and put a tiny little positive step. and, uh, and start to pick the tiny little fruit from those positive steps, you know? And if, I suppose, if I was beside you, right in that moment when you’re going just to see a friend is incredibly hard. You know, maybe, maybe it’s like, Well, I, I’m with you now.
It’s like, let’s just keep it simple. Let’s just keep it small. Like maybe, maybe face to face is too hard. Maybe just, maybe a text, you know, that I’ve got you, You’re amazing. You know, let’s, let’s, let’s plan something. Let’s maybe meet later in the week, you know, however, baby these steps are. We build strength.
Paddy: Bear Grylls can walk across a desert with no supplies and be okay. He can eat super gross stuff and be okay. And he can trudge the path of positive mental health with tiny steps of doing the next right thing. But what I find most interesting about him, is that he is absolutely convinced that the rest of us are just as capable of doing all these things.
Bear: Please know that I’m not nearly as mentally or physically or emotionally strong as you might imagine. I am very average. In fact, I’m probably below average. And I don’t just say that sort of with a sort of, you know, this is not false modesty speaking. This is, this is truly what I feel.
You know, every day I meet better climbers, better survivalists, better skydivers, better this, better TV hosts. You know, the TV makes everything look great, the music’s great. They edit out the trips, the falls, mistakes, the failures. But I can tell you my life, my heart is riddled with them and I don’t apologize for them. I’ve got many scars, marks, wrinkles, inside and out. But the beautiful thing is those very things are our stories and they are our connection.
And they are also our strength.
Michael: That was Bear Grylls, speaking with producer Paddy O’Connell. Bear’s new book is Mind Fuel: Simple Ways to Build Mental Resilience Every Day.
Paddy produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver.
This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by the Golden Isles, a destination off the coast of Georgia that’s one of the best adventure getaways in the country. Learn more at goldenisles.com. That’s golden-I-S-L-E-S dot com.
This episode was made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn about all the benefits of membership, like free access to the premium Gaia GPS app at outsideonline.com/podplus. Right now, we’re offering a 50% discount to new members.
Paddy: Well, thanks so much for taking the time today. Good luck with the rest of your interviews on the book tour and also good luck growing a more robust mustache.
Bear: It is not particularly robust now. We’re back in on Running Wild in a couple of days and the crew are going, ‘Bear, you gonna shave the mustache?’
I’m saying, ‘Go fuck yourself a stay.’
Paddy: You know what? I bet it’s the most viewed episode you have your entire career, sir.