Outdoor activities in Essex for mental wellbeing
Holly Louise Eells tells local experts why the outdoors are vital to our well-being and why Essex is the perfect place to boost your mood
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to appreciate the great outdoors and that connecting with nature welcomes many health benefits. According to The Medium, “Research indicates that spending at least five hours in nature per month contributes to your health and well-being.” Additionally, scientists have found associations between recreational nature and self-reported health. Here in Essex, you don’t have to travel far to immerse yourself in nature. In fact, we are spoiled for choice as this county is renowned for its 350 miles of coastline, unforgettable views and beautiful countryside.
“We know that spending time in nature not only benefits our physical health, but also does wonders for our mental health,” says Lauren Cosson, communications manager at Essex Wildlife Trust, a leading conservation charity committed in the protection of wildlife. “We are proud to look after 87 nature reserves across the county. Each is a place of wonder to visit and enjoy. Whether you’re sitting and watching thousands of birds swoop over reservoirs as the sun shines on the water, walking through ancient forests teeming with hidden wildlife, or booking an event with the whole family to spend the day with wildlife experts, there are many ways to connect with nature. Nature is everywhere; if you can’t visit one of our reserves, you’ll be surprised how much wildlife you can see, even in your area.
As a wildlife charity, it encourages visitors to enjoy the wilderness and invites everyone to enjoy and participate in its various events throughout the year for families, adults and children. schools. One of its special events includes forest bathing and natural mindfulness practice classes led by Ruth Mortimer, founder of Forest Clouds Nature Therapy. “I think a lot of people have found a new or renewed connection to green spaces and nature (where they have access) and realized the importance of these spaces in our lives,” Ruth says.
The forest bathing guide and mindfulness teacher says she feels lucky to have found so many beautiful places to guide in Essex, with organizations such as the Essex Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Council of Essex County, Mind and the NHS.
“Many of my participants were sheltered, struggling with anxiety, had health issues or faced other challenges during this difficult time, but found the forest baths provided a quiet space away from most of that. Also, I’ve had quite a few people who have been frontline workers during this time looking for ways to decompress a bit and find some time for me.
She adds: “There seems to have been something comforting about being outside surrounded by nature rather than the stressful news and daily stresses of living through the pandemic. Some people still feel anxious or uncertain about indoor mixing, so any event that can take place outdoors is a great way to make wellness accessible to everyone.
But you might be wondering, what is forest bathing? “Forest bathing or ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ is the practice of spending time in the forest for better health, happiness, and a sense of calm,” Ruth explains. “It has been preventive medicine since the 1980s, when the Japanese Forest Agency suggested the practice as a way to reconnect with nature and calm stressed city dwellers. This is a slow sensory walk through the forest using mindfulness, meditation, breathing and walking exercises. It literally means bathing in the atmosphere of the forest, immersing your senses in your surroundings. No swimsuit or water is required! There is no goal, just discovery, curiosity, awareness, openness, awe and joy.’
It looks like the UK is embracing this non-medical therapy as a way to support mental health. “Forest bathing and mindfulness exercises are not a substitute or substitute for professional medical help for physical or mental health,” Ruth says. “These are practices that instead offer tactics and skills that can help you while managing your health and well-being, it can provide some space and calm amidst stress and worries.”
She continues, “It’s about relaxing, connecting, energizing, refreshing, immersing and awakening to our natural roots; we are all connected to nature. Come and remember that you are part of something bigger, you are part of the natural world.’
Tracey Johnson, partnerships liaison for VitaMinds, part of the Vita Health group that aims to help improve lives physically and mentally, agrees that we can thrive in nature. “There’s a lot of research to support this, vitamin D, fresh air, activity and neurological pathways that have evolved in our minds. If you can, just grab a cup of tea on your doorstep and enjoy looking outside.
However, now that there are no more restrictions and life seems to be getting back to “normal”, it’s easy for all of us to fall back into bad habits. Being mentally well should be a top priority in our daily lives, so how can we make sure we prioritize it?
“It was not taught in schools and culturally in the UK; we tended to view mental health issues as a sign of weakness,” Tracey explains. “Stigma, busy lives and a lack of understanding have contributed to the neglect of our mental health. Often we don’t know or pay attention to our own stress signals and triggers. It’s much easier to form bad habits than to form new ones and we can help provide you with the skills to do so. Many of us are unaware of mental health, depression and anxiety.
Dave Jago, VitaMinds clinical lead for the service, adds, “Habits can be a helpful way to look at depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are accompanied by many thoughts, emotions and behaviors, often automatic in nature and often triggered by our experiences. Habits, however, can be broken.
So what steps should we take to support and improve our mental health? “Start to get a sense of the issues you’re having,” says Dave. ‘Ask yourself “what are the current problems in my life?” Break them down one by one and focus on one problem you think you can fix or change. Break the problem down step by step, write it down, and when you’re ready, start moving in the direction you want to go. Of course, there are always important environmental factors to consider; be with people who want the best for you, have a healthy lifestyle and diet, rest and engage in your interests.
Dave adds, “Part of therapy is learning new techniques and methods, and anything new should be practiced regularly. Overall, it is important that we frequently mentally check in with ourselves and sometimes listen to feedback from loved ones that can provide warning signs. From now on, why not ask yourself, “What can I do for my mental health today?”
“We often talk about improving or maintaining our physical health, through nutrition and exercise, but we certainly don’t hear and talk enough about what we can do to maintain mental health,” says Ruth.
She continues: “Maybe take five minutes for a time out, a moment of doing nothing, sit in the garden and watch the clouds or maybe take a walk – it doesn’t have to be a long hike, but even a short 10-minute slow walk around the block can give us some head room.These habits may not solve all of our daily challenges or stresses, but they can creating plenty of space in our minds to be in a better position to deal with whatever we need.
Looking for help?
Vita Health Group
Monday to Friday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. 01268 977171
Visit the website to refer yourself: vitahealthgroup.co.uk/nhs-services/nhs-mental-health
Want to try an outdoor lesson?
You might like the Essex Way in Circular Walks: https://www.greatbritishlife.co.uk/things-to-do/walks/the-essex-way-50-year-anniversary-9019610