Being outdoors is essential for our mental health, and Essex is the perfect place to boost your mood

Senior couple are hiking through woodlands

The benefits of nature on our health cannot be understated - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Holly Louise Eells talks to local experts about why the outdoors is essential for our wellbeing 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 says that spending at least five hours in nature a month helps with your health and wellbeing. In addition, scientists 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 spoilt for choice because 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 does wonders for our mental health too,’ says Lauren Cosson, communications officer at Essex Wildlife Trust, a leading conservation charity committed to protecting wildlife. ‘We are proud to look after 87 nature reserves across the county. Each one is a place of wonder for people to visit and enjoy. Whether you sit and watch thousands of birds swooping over reservoirs as the sun gleams across the water, you stroll through ancient woodlands teeming with hidden wildlife or book on to an event with all the family to spend the day with wildlife experts, there are many ways to get connected with nature. Nature is everywhere; if you can’t visit one of our reserves, you’ll be surprised at how much wildlife you can spot even in your local area.’ 

Kingfisher sitting on a branch

Spot kingfishers at Essex Wildlife Trust reserves - Credit: Will Green

 As a wildlife charity, it encourages visitors to take advantage of the wild outdoors and it welcomes everyone to enjoy and participate in its various events across the year for families, adults and schools. One of its special events includes forest bathing and natural mindfulness practice courses hosted by Ruth Mortimer, founder of Forest Clouds Nature Therapy. ‘I think a lot of people have found a new or renewed connection with green spaces and nature (where they have access) and realised the importance of these spaces in our lives,’ says Ruth.  

The forest bathing guide and mindfulness teacher says she feels fortunate to have found so many beautiful places to guide in Essex, with organisations including Essex Wildlife Trust, The National Trust, Essex County Council, Mind and the NHS. 

Howlands Marsh at Essex Wildlife Trust

Howlands Marsh, Essex Wildlife Trust - Credit: Mark Draper

‘Many of my participants have been shielding, struggling with anxiety, have health concerns or faced other challenges during this difficult time, but found forest bathing offered a quiet space away from most of that. Also, I had quite a few people who have been frontline workers during this period and were looking for ways to decompress a little and find some rare me-time.’ 

She adds, ‘There seems to have been something comforting about being outdoors surrounded by nature rather than the stressful news and day-to-day stresses of living through the pandemic. Some people are still feeling anxious or unsure about indoor mixing, so any event that can take place outside is a great way to make wellbeing accessible to all.’ 

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But you may ask, 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,’ says Ruth. ‘It’s been a preventative medicine since the 1980s, when the Japanese Forest Agency suggested the practice as a way to reconnect with nature and calm stressed-out city-dwellers. It’s a slow sensory walk through the forest using mindfulness, meditation, breathing and walking exercises. It literally means to bathe in the atmosphere of the forest, immersing your senses in your surroundings. No swimsuits or water is required! There is no goal, just discovery, curiosity, awareness, openness, awe and joy.’ 

Ruth, Forest Clouds Nature Therapy sitting with a tree

Ruth, Forest Clouds Nature Therapy - Credit: Marc Outten 

It does seem like the UK is catching on to this non-medical therapy as a way to support mental health. ‘Forest bathing and mindfulness exercises are not replacements or alternatives to professional medical help for physical or mental health,’ says Ruth. ‘They are practices that instead offer tactics and skills that may help you whilst managing your health and wellness, it may provide some space and calm amongst the stress and worries.’ 

She continues: ‘It is about relaxing, connecting, stimulating, refreshing, immersing and awakening to our natural roots; we are all connected to nature. Come to remind yourself you are part of something bigger, you are part of the natural world.’ 

Tracey Johnson, partnership liaison officer for VitaMinds, part of 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, from Vitamin D, fresh air, activity and neurological pathways that have evolved within our minds. If you can, just have a cup of tea in your doorway and enjoy looking outside.’ 

Nevertheless, now there are no restrictions, and life seems to be going back to ‘normal’, it is easy for us all to slip back into bad habits. Being mentally well should be a top priority in our everyday life, so how can we make sure we prioritise this? 

'It has not been taught in schools and culturally in the UK; we have tended to consider mental health difficulties as a sign of weakness,’ says Tracey. ‘Stigma, busy lives and lack of understanding has contributed to the neglect of our mental health. Often, we’re not knowing or paying attention to our own cues and triggers to stress. Slipping into bad habits is much easier than keeping up with new ones and we can help to provide the skills to do that. Many of us are unaware of mental health, depression and anxiety.’ 

Dave Jago, VitaMinds clinical lead for the service adds, ‘Habits can be a useful way to look at depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety comes with lots of thoughts, emotions and behaviours, often automatic in nature and often triggered by our experiences. Habits, however, can be broken.’ 

 So, what steps should we be taking to support and improve our mental health? ‘Start to get a picture of what problems you are experiencing,’ 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 tackle or change. Break the problem down step-by-step, write it down, and when you are ready, start moving forward in the direction you want to go. Of course, there are always important environmental factors to consider; be with people that want the best for you, have a healthy lifestyle and diet, rest and engage in your interests.’ 

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Vita Health Group aims to improve lives physically and mentally - Credit: Getty Images / Canva

Dave adds, ‘Part of therapy is learning new techniques and methods, and anything new needs to be practised regularly. Overall, it is important that we frequently check-in mentally with ourselves and sometimes listen to feedback from our loved ones who can provide early warning signs.’ Starting now, why not question 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 speak enough on what we can do to maintain mental health,’ says Ruth.  

She continues, ‘Perhaps taking five minutes for a time out, a moment of doing nothing, sit in the garden and observe the clouds or maybe going for 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 a bit of headspace. These habits may not solve all our daily challenges or stresses, but they can create a lot of space in our minds to be in a better position to tackle whatever we need to.’ 


Looking for Help?  

samaritans.org 

mnessexmind.org 


Vita Health Group  

Monday to Friday 8am- 8pm Saturday 9am -12.30pm 01268 977171 

Visit the website to self-refer: vitahealthgroup.co.uk/nhs-services/nhs-mental-health 

  

Want to try an outdoor class? 

forestcloudsnaturetherapy.co.uk  

essexwt.org.uk 


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