Getting ecotherapeutic

My last two posts, as intriguing and fun as they were to write, I feel moved away slightly from the general purpose of my blog, which is to share my outdoor experiences and hope to inspire readers to immerse themselves in it. Writing about mental toughness and comfort zones do apply here but not in the purest sense of the manifesto, feeling more like they were self-help articles. Despite this, they do reflect my own ideas and motivation which encompasses a lot of what I do outdoors, and why I do it. I thought then, for this week’s fat-chewing session, I would cover the general mental well-being that is provided by exercise, and in particular, being outdoors.

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Here in the UK, over 8 million people suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder, and it is rising year-on-year. In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression. The reasons for this are many fold, and open up the possibility of a whole new series of blog posts. I’ve already covered the effect of blue light from devices and its damaging properties, and know only too well how positive exercise in the outdoors is. Now we’re in the grip of winter, many sufferers are probably struggling more. The shorter days, and dark, dreary mornings do nothing to boost a low mood, especially when you have to face a long day travelling or shut up in an office.

I’ve suffered stress before and anxiety too at times for various reasons and in those times, I found myself naturally wanting to get outside, either for a relaxing walk, or an insane stress-burning running session. That’s how I’ve always been, and really it’s how I think I’ll always be – I hope. In the times that I did need to visit my GP, I emerged both times with some magic tablets. I wasn’t overly keen to use them, especially after reading the side-effects, as well as the fact that they supposedly took six weeks to start working fully. I reasoned that in six weeks’ time, whatever it was that was bothering me could be cut down to size naturally anyway and wasn’t worth the risk. So I followed my instincts and made a conscious effort to get out and walk more, run more, and immerse myself more in the outdoors. Whilst I can’t confirm it was a cure, it did take the edge off what I was going through. Although this worked for me, I fully accept that perhaps my issues at that time were mild in comparison to a number of sufferers of anxiety, depression, or insomnia.

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There are many things you can do if you’re experiencing symptoms of stress, anxiety or anything else that’s making you feel low. Some things worth looking at are forest bathing, ecotherapy, mindfulness in nature, green time or the wilderness cure, again, each one fully deserving a blog in its own right. Even in cities, it is possible to find small corners of green solitude. Again, personally, I find urban environments quite relaxing if I stroll about, taking photos and stay out of the hustle and bustle. Just by being in a green, natural environment, you can help combat depression. Working out outdoors instead of a gym reduces anxiety levels and a 90 minute walk in nature lowers activity in the part of the brain linked to negative thinking.

I, for one, have never been winter’s biggest fan, preferring the hope of spring, or the glory of summer. In recent years, I have preferred to stay as active as I can during the darker, colder months, boosting my mood and motivation, and I have learned to enjoy aspects of it. If winter were a pop singer, I still wouldn’t make my way to the front row, screaming like a lunatic, then fling my Y-fronts at it, but I would buy its album.

I have learned that every massive change in my life was the result of many, many small incremental moves, like moving a mountain pebble by pebble. The same goes for improving mental health I feel. In my case, it was trial and error for a while until perseverance and determination led me to a go-to solution that I could apply when things got tough. Making this part of a daily routine, or lifestyle can empower aspects of your life in many ways.

Comfort zones, and why we shouldn’t live within them

Comfort zones. We all have them. The size of that comfort zone varies from person to person. It makes no difference if you’re physically active, or sedentary, comfort zones take many forms.

The definition of a comfort zone is a psychological state in which someone feels in control, relaxed, and in familiar territory with levels of stress and anxiety quite low.

Being a psychological state, it means, I think, that it is subject to change, mostly for the better. In other words, you can increase your comfort zone relatively well. To do this, you first need to know your limits. I imagine, like me, most peoples’ zones are multifaceted. For example, in a physical environment, my comfort zone extends pretty far out, because I enjoy training and do a lot of it. But I can’t do monkey bars, so that is where I would start to feel anxious. In a social setting, I’m chatty and approachable mostly, but small factors could challenge that, like an unfamiliar setting, or people I am wary of crashing the party. So there we have it, two spokes of my comfort zone wheel go as far as monkey bars, and oddballs. Bad term, let’s say, slightly erratic members of our society.

These are just two examples, but maybe you can relate also. You might absolutely smash monkey bars but struggle to run a 5k, and that’s where your anxiety would kick in.

When you know your comfort zone, if it bothers you, you can take steps to work on making it bigger. I could do more pull ups, then hit the bars in the gym more, making gradual improvements. Or I could just avoid monkey bars forever. That makes me feel unhappy however, like I’m taking the easy way out, like I haven’t tried. By just attempting to push our comfort zones, we are growing as people and challenging ourselves. By facing challenges or difficut situations as often as we can, we can effectively immunise ourselves to those feelings by making them more commonplace. Of course, when we do that, our horizon changes and something bigger will be our nemesis for a while. That is progress.

Pushing comfort zones destroys our fears, cutting them down to size. You can say, “Wow, I DID that”. You faced it, and beat it down to size, taking the wheel of your life’s journey for a while.

Becoming more comfortable and confident in more situations shows others around us how self-assured we are, and they may in turn look up to us as inspiration to go out and face their own limits. When I say self-assured, I’d like to point out that I mean quietly confident, not brash or cocky. I know although some people admire that trait, for me it sets alarm bells ringing and actually undermines their claims to being confident (over compensation).

One of the biggest wins for pushing our comfort zones is the fantastic feeling of achievement. As adults, when our school days are long gone, it’s easy to slip into routine – work, eat, sleep, repeat, die. Making great achievements is a brilliant way of staying fresh and giving us purpose, which also has great benefits to our lives as well as those around us. We would probably feel less envious towards other people, more content and more likely to be supportive perhaps.

If you’re reading this, and can relate, I want you to think back to a time as recent as possible to when you felt out of your comfort zone. When you have, take a piece of paper and write down the feelings you had at that very time, not the next day with hindsight, but in the moment. In another area of the paper, write down words that you would use to describe your feelings now. How different are they? Are you looking at the feelings of two different people? Which feelings do you prefer? I think I can safely assume what your answers might be.

When I am out of my comfort zone, I seem to regress somewhat feelings-wise to the six-year-old lad who hated school and didn’t want to go. I’m not a psychiatrist so I don’t know what that means, but I’m guessing it’s a heightened sense of vulnerability, and I also guess that around the age of six is when I would have experienced that for the first time.

Back in April, I spent some time in the mountains and had a challenging experience in the mist on unfamiliar ground. This was definitely one of the most challenging moments for me in recent years in terms of comfort zones. I was way out of it, and there I was trying to negotiate the conditions with my six-year-old self. Obviously I’m speaking metaphorically and I was dealing with a challenged, threatened version of myself as I am now. But out of those three days, that one was the most rewarding and I will always remember it. It made most training days look like feeding bread to the ducks. That’s another beauty of pushing yourself – with every achievement you look back at times when you struggled to do something smaller. An upgrade of your courage hardware if you like.

All of this combined is what forms my opinion that living inside our comfort zones is a big mistake. We should be pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves. Comfort zones are like muscles, you have to keep working them harder and harder so they keep growing and getting stronger. Untrained muscles atrophy and grow weak, and one day when you need them, they’re not ready. Make it your routine to embrace something that makes you feel uncomfortable. I take cold showers quite often. Go for a run in the snow or rain. Attend dance classes if you’re shy. Conquer these and you’re growing. Shying away is not an option. We all have it in ourselves to be braver still, but we seem afraid to find out how brave. Make a list now of your limits. Then smash them out of orbit.

Looking around me

Nowadays I have the luxury of not having to drive to work, so I get forty minutes at each end of every day to myself (kind of) on the train. This has many advantages, that for the time being, I’m well and truly er, taking advantage of.

The first thing is I can walk to the station so I can listen to some podcasts or music and enjoy being out and about in all the seasons. Not using the car every day and being able to look around me means I can appreciate the seasons changing, and the minute happenings that nature gives, which most of us miss because we’re rushing about mainly. For example, most mornings I see blackbirds and robins. These are notoriously territorial birds, so every one that I see along the way shows the different patches of each bird. Blackbirds’ have an average territory of around 100 square metres, hence why we see so many of them. Autumn is when territories are renewed so there is a lot of activity (and noise).

When I was about ten, I was off school for a few days with an illness. Confined to the house, bored of the daytime TV and before the internet, I looked out of my bedroom window and saw all of the birds flitting about across our garden and the neighbours’ gardens. Being interested in maps (as I still am) I got my writing pad and drew a bird’s eye view of the gardens. I then drew a line in a different colour for each bird that I saw and where it went. Very quickly, a colourful chart appeared. I think techy kids these days would call it a heatmap or something like that. Either way, I learned about territories, as well as nesting preferences for each bird.

The second major advantage to this commute is the amount of reading, writing and sketching I can get done on the train. I try not to absorb myself too much into what I’m doing on public transport, like I try not to walk along gawping at my phone when I’m out and about. Part of it is because I’m far too inquisitive and like to look about me and people watch. The other thing is everyone is glued to their phone! Head down, gawping. An atomic bomb could go off away on the horizon, and they’d miss it, only to see it flash up on their phones a minute or two later. I don’t want to sound morbid, but I can easily see a terrorist attack happening on public transport all too easily in plain view of all the victims, who saw nothing of it coming, only their ‘smart’ devices. Before this turns into a typical rant of mine, I’ll steer course toward something a little more positive. In the mornings, the station where I get on is the end of the line, so it gradually fills up the closer it gets to the city, so I have the pick of most of the seats. I always choose a window seat that looks out across the open countryside. Again, I’m usually the only one looking at it as everyone else is scrolling away like zombies. The low winter sun this time of year casting long shadows over frost covered fields is still one sight I can’t resist gawping at. And it’s not on my phone.

If any of you are reading this blog, ironically, on a train, or bus, or somewhere else that you could be appreciating better, it won’t hurt my feelings if you put the phone away. Well it’s the end of the post anyway!

And now for something completely different…

It’s a tough life being the pillar of society that I am and role model for the next generation (not), so to unwind, aside from my physical activities, I like to do other less demanding outdoor activities. Photography is one, as well as strolling (this is very different to walking. Walking usually means you have somewhere to go or be. Strolling is just sauntering about at a lazy pace, noticing things). Occasionally I do other things. For example, I had a day off work last Friday so I went alpaca trekking!

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If I had to make one criticism of the whole thing, it would be the title. Trekking, to me, consists of something involving either a long distance or arduous terrain. This was neither. Trekking, by the way is a notch up from walking. A couple of notches up from strolling, just to clarify. The ‘trek’ involved leading a rather keen alpaca from its stable, where it looked pretty warm, cosy, well stocked and quite pleased with itself, out into the cold on a lead. It’s not as cruel as I’m making it sound. These animals are from South America and have fleece coats so thick that they can endure Antarctic conditions, so a chilly British October morning is nothing to them. The trek lasted for all of fifteen minutes and went up the farm driveway and back. Not exactly a trek, but fun all the same. My alpaca, Gareth, was fairly chilled out and friendly so he was no trouble. My experience with large animals up to this point only really consisted of horses. The skills weren’t that transferable. These cute little fleeceballs were a bit more like dogs. Still, it was nice to do something outdoors that didn’t involve exertion, mountains, maps or getting lost.

It was a great way to start the weekend, and I followed it up with a stroll (see, a stroll) around a nature reserve nearby in the glorious autumn sunshine.

It was a momentous weekend really, for on Saturday morning at long last, after three-and-a-half years of trying, I got my Park Run personal best, knocking four seconds off the last one. It proves that age isn’t really anything, and nothing is impossible if you work for it and stay focussed.

As my mindset lately has been about keeping fit, mentally and physically, and pushing comfort zones, I realise that this achievement is not the end of something, in fact it’s the start. The real hard work begins now because I can’t help but wonder, what else is possible? How much harder can I push myself? Let’s see.

Mizzly Dick

Feeling fully pumped up following last week’s statement of intent to keep my greying temples above the rising water level of middle age, I rocked up to my local Park Run on Saturday and ran an almost personal-best-equalling time, coming in one second slower. That personal best I should add was set three-and-a-half years ago. It was the sort of performance that would demand a urine test. For now middle age can do one.

Following this effort, came the satisfying glow of achievement. You know, the sort of one you get when you manage not to pee on the bathroom floor. No? Just me then. Usually on Saturday mornings after the Park Run, the time up until midday is spent loafing about the house, uploading results to Strava, making breakfast part two, having some inane crap on TV blaring away in the background. This does feel like wasted time but wasted well. By twelve though, it’s time to mobilise and do something with the afternoon, especially if it’s as mild and sunny as this Saturday just gone was.

The only thing that could be done to tick the must haves on my Saturday autumn afternoon list was to go for a country walk. Somewhere olde world, with a bit of charm and seasonally colourful to boot. As luck would have it, many of the villages surrounding the town where I live match this criteria.

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Ever since discovering books about countryside folklore a few years back, and taking an interest in the social aspect of days gone by, I have loved visiting picturesque villages, imagining the people that would have lived there, and the tales that could be told about the village characters. It’s easy to imagine that time to be easier, more carefree. I bet it wasn’t, it was just different. People had problems and worries just like us, they were just different ones. They probably had more at stake, but I guess they had more of a community around them to help out and make everything seem less of a burden whereas today, we are encouraged more to rely upon the state in tough times, being convinced we can go through life alone if we need to. What you think of this depends upon many factors, like upbringing, current situation and general demeanor. I can look at the life of a farm labourer and feel envious of his lifestyle back in 1870, but I wouldn’t have known his concerns. He would probably laugh at mine.

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Passing through villages, past old cottages, pubs, war memorials and farms, I get the sense of community and my mind starts to write stories and poems. One of my favourite pastimes.

The low autumnal sun allowed me to take some interesting pictures due to the abstract long shadows. I love the golden light bouncing off the fading summer colours in an almost sympathetic way, like it’s summer being given one last victory lap before winter takes over properly for a few months. In surreal moments I find myself imagining that it actually could be the last autumn ever and it’s time to be in the present and appreciate fully the colours, the light, the smells, the chill in the air, the ripening of the fruits. I do actually get like that in every season given enough time. In the distance, a flock of large-ish birds was spotted, most likely Fieldfares or Redwings. Maybe Mistle Thrushes. One of the nicknames for the Mistle Thrush is Mizzly Dick and its song is a sure sign that autumn is in full swing and colder weather is just around the corner. Folklore also says they speak seven languages and grow a new set of legs every ten years!

It was one of those gorgeously bright days that will live in the memory for a very long time.

 

Bloody foreigners

A couple of weeks ago, an email popped in to my inbox, entitled ‘Volunteer day’. Curiosity got the better of me and I opened it. It was an invite to a corporate volunteer day at a local nature reserve. This is right up my proverbial autobahn so I registered my interest and as luck would have it, I was accepted. The day was to be spent on an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) reserve, and was not specific about what work we would be doing. I imagined it would be putting up bird nesting boxes, or if I was very lucky, standing in the lake up to my nicky-nacky-noos in rubber waders clearing it of unwanted filth and algae.

A few years back, I really looked into changing career to conservation work. I chatted to a few people in that sector and the general feeling was the same – stay in the job you’re doing and volunteer whenever you can. The reason for this is that in order to be paid a decent wage to do it, you more or less have to be desk-bound, carrying out site surveys and risk assessments, while all of the hands-on, mucky, fun bits get done by volunteers.

When the day arrived, we were all gathered together and given a brief overview of the organisation, the reserve itself and the work required. We were then put to work raking up grass cuttings in the wildflower meadow on the edge of the lake. No waders in sight. The purpose of this raking is so the nitrogen rich grass cuttings don’t lie around enriching the soil. Enriched soil isn’t as good as it sounds. It is a breeding ground for common, more dominant plants like netyles, dock leaves and dandelion. Impoverished soil is the stuff that the more rarer, interesting and diverse flowers love, and they will thrive.

A good example of wildflowers taking over is a hundred years ago. In November 1918 when the armistice was signed, bringing (at that point) a ceasefire on the Western Front in World War 1, the landscape was completely destroyed. Shell holes pocked the farmland, and some villages and roads were completely wiped off the face of the Earth. The four years of shelling, marching and trekking in the mud had churned the ground over and over again. By the following spring, these Flanders Fields were bright red. The red of the poppy. Poppies, you see, love impoverished soil, and the seeds will lay dormant for years waiting for exactly the right moment to germinate. In 1919, the conditions were perfect.

Well, we raked up all the grass cuttings until mid-afternoon while someone got on and burned them. We then moved on to the next task in hand. Between the meadow and the lake, there is an area usually called a scrape which is where the wading birds can potter about and is usually quite shallow. At low water, it was fairly evident that all was not right. What was usually muddy with occasional vegetation, but it looked more like a lawn out there. It turns out it is a plant from New Zealand, called Crassula, or New Zealand pygmy weed. Like most invasive species, it found its way over here because some idiotic explorer thought it looked ‘pretty’ and wanted to spruce his rockery up. A century later and it’s everywhere because firstly, it doesn’t belong here and secondly, it has no predators or parasites here to control it. This carpet of foreign trouble was in the process of being scraped up and destroyed while we were there, using a digger. All equipment used, including boots, tyres, buckets etc needs to be jetwashed immediately after use so none of the plant can spread elsewhere. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

We were put to work cutting down willow trees that have gone beserk and taken over on the fringes of the water. We all looked like beavers, scurrying across the scrape dragging huge branches behind us that were three times the height of us. These all went on the fire, that I swear some people were becoming obsessed/enchanted by, almost a primeval urge, a calling from our ancestors. Man’s obsession with fire still reigns despite the new age of smart devices, money and fast cars.

Crassula is only one offender on the unwanted (and costly) foreign invaders list. Here is a list, in no order, of what we are facing in the UK. To any international readers, it would be great to hear your lists too!

  • Signal crayfish (no, it doesn’t improve 4g reception)
  • Himalayan balsam
  • Rhododendron
  • Japanese knotweed
  • Pirri-pirri burr
  • Floating pennywort
  • Brown rat
  • Mink
  • Grey Squirrel

There are countless others that belong on this list, which can be covered on another post. Whilst some of these are nice to look at, it is at the expense of our own flaura and fauna, and ultimately, our ecosystem, which is already at crisis point as well as practically every country on the planet. Restoring a natural ecosystem should be high on every environmental agency’s list. I just hope it’s not too late.

Thanks Benny

I feel sometimes in the developed world we take a lot of things for granted. Sure, everyday things like running water, sanitation and a largely accessible health service are probably what spring to mind first. Some things are the result of an individual’s idea, a war, or a similar struggle somewhere and can easily be forgotten as generations come and go or not even questioned as to why we have certain privileges. I think that global events like the two world wars will not be forgotten in a hurry although the sacrifices made by millions on either side, as well as civilians, all in the name of the freedom, it can be argued, could be seen as taken for granted nowadays. A prime example is the right to vote. The percentage turnouts for recent general elections have been low, yet a hundred years ago, women were willing to die or go to prison for that privilege.

All of these are massive, world-changing events, but there are seemingly smaller things in our lives that we owe to people who have sacrificed something, or stood up and fought for something not just for them but for everyone. I bet you’re wondering firstly, where this is going, and secondly, what the hell it has to do with the outdoors. Worry not, I’m getting back on track.

If you’re reading this blog because you’re an outdoors lover, or nature enthusiast then you’ll surely be (if you’re in the UK) able to access green, open countryside where you can escape and enjoy your interests at will. You can do this most of the year and even enjoy a picnic in the hills, or by a mountain lake. But a hundred years ago, you would have ran into big trouble attempting it. That all changed, and here’s how.

On 24th April 1932, three groups of walkers (one group as large as 400) set out to walk across open countyside on Kinder Scout, the highest peak in England’s Peak District. They were led by Benny Rothman, a Socialist, and Conservationist. A man after my own heart. Today, this very same route is walked each weekend in the summer by walkers in their drives, however the 1932 excursion was in order to highlight the fact that walkers weren’t allowed to do it. The three groups walked Kinder Scout and along the way were involved in a few altercations, mainly with gamekeepers. On the return journey, a handful were arrested, not for the act of trespassing, but for the violent nature of the altercations, and some served jail terms.

What followed was a constant campaign, spearheaded by the Ramblers’ Association. It paved the way for the National Parks Access and Countryside Act of 1949, which addressed the access issue, as well as essentially setting up National Parks in England. Eventually, in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was set up, defining open access land and rights of way for everybody. If you’ve ever heard of the ‘right to roam’ in England and Wales, this is it. We all have the right to access open land (defined on a map) and remain as long as we wish in the pursuit of leisure, as long as respect for both the land and other users is adhered to.

Because of this, we are pretty lucky in the UK to have this in place. When compared to other countries, we are privileged. For a mountain lover like me, I am indebted to the campaigns that have gone before me to give me, essentially, an escape, a way of life, a reason to think beyond the realms of capitalism and gadgets. So thanks Benny Rothman, we all owe you one.