I have been reflecting on the amazing feedback I have been getting recently and feeling really proud. Proud in one way, and sad in another. These levels of confidence, self esteem and happiness should be available to all kids. The use of emotion coaching and non-violent communication, should I have come across them 10 years ago, could have saved me so much pain. The ability for all women recovering from addiction, to be able to access free at point of access nature based therapy, should be wide spread and common place. But we are one small team.
My new experiment/ mission, is to offer what we have learnt to others. To other inspired, outdoor educators and educational establishments to have meaningful and insightful and practical training which can be used at a grass root level to improve outcomes and enhance their provision. In this combined approach, we have the potential to offer what we do to a greater audience. And who knows? Perhaps the stuff I bang on about all day long will be so common place, I will do myself out of a job? One can only dream…..
Since I have started working in Nature connection and woodland therapy, I have had to get used to the fact that people often cry on me. In fact, I don’t think I ever go a full week without tears. This is not because we are uncovering some deep hidden trauma within them, because I am not a counsellor, but it seems the act of being in nature creates some kind of mental release.
What does crying signal? It can mean frustration, it can mean sorrow, it can mean grief. But it signals some kind of end. “I am at the end of what I can tolerate.” It should be a big social que to those around that says “I need help and support to do this thing.”
When I take someone on an adventure day (nature therapy day), it will involve me looking after all aspects of the day. I facilitate all the food, I plan the walk, I pick them up and drive them there. They can completely turn their brains off and relax. From the outset, conversation normally revolves around what is going on in life at the moment. As we drive further away from Bristol, phone signal goes off. There is now no internet. No social media. They put their phones away and look out the window. They start to wake up from digital coma and suddenly see the world around them. They understand that they are no longer “on call” to anyone.
When planning an adventure day, I will spend time asking what aspects of the outdoors inspires them: Mountains? Forest? the sea? raging rivers? breath taking views? I will build a bespoke day based on what makes their heart sing. Why? It makes you breath. You know, when you drive up a long steep hill and suddenly see for miles and miles? What do you do? You take a huge, deep inbreath. This is the thing that flips a switch in your brain and screams “I am alive”.
And why do people feel better after an adventure day? It is not about problem solving your issues. It is not about me offering advice or solutions. Most humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they actually don’t feel heard. Some humans are at the end of what they can tolerate because they don’t understand the emotions behind what they are feeling. People, especially women, are so accustomed to fulfilling everyone else’s emotional needs that they have actually turned off their ability to hear their own. This can lead to massive feelings of frustration and anger, without fully understanding why. And often we think this is down to the practical and physical indicators rather than the emotions that are actually underneath them.
“I am mighty pissed off at continuously picking up my families socks. I have asked them over and over to, but they still don’t. If I see another sock I am going to scream! I don’t want to do this any more. (sobbing). I am crying about fucking socks!”
Me: “What I am hearing is that you feel like your family undervalue you. The sock is a symbol. What do you think it may represent?”
“That I am worthless. That I am not good for anything other than touching their disgusting, smelly socks. I have a joint honours degree for God sake!”
Me: “I am hearing you maybe don’t feel entirely fulfilled?”
“I put my career on hold for my husband to chase his dream of becoming a partner. I have done all the kids stuff and now they are reaching secondary age. I feel like he is never here. He said early on he had to do this to “prove” himself, but then when he achieved his goal, it got even worse. I feel like a have been a single mother the whole time while wearing a wedding ring.”
We reach the beach. We both just stand and watch the waves coming in across the sand.
“I am going to talk to all three of them. I am not able to go on feeling like I am there to serve them. We are all in this family and we will all participate. “
Me: “I think that sounds really reasonable.”
Three hours later.
“I think I am going to do a PHd. “
I love the life epiphanies people get while out in the wild. It never happens when you are in Tesco. You don’t suddenly find peace in the middle of the work day. You need a change of scene, to be somewhere that feels truly awesome and you need to be completely relaxed.
Strangely, I don’t cry. It was a mental mechanism that was turned off in me as a child and I do remember the moment it happened. Someone close to me when I eventually broke down said to me “Good. I am glad you are crying” and from that day, I have never really cried. I think that this has caused me a lot of problems in life because we all know in the fabric of our soul that crying means being broken. I have reached the most I can tolerate of this. And so I have always been described as “Strong” or “Brave” or a “warrior”. No one can be those things. Well, maybe sometimes. But it would be to deny our beautiful human existence, to not feel at the end of sorrow, grief or frustration. And so we are all having emotional journeys from which we are all trying to heal and grow from. Mine is to work on crying. Sounds totally weird, doesn’t it? Almost uncomfortable. We are told for most of our lives to supress our emotions. They make people uncomfortable. But we all reach an age eventually that actually, making people uncomfortable is the only way to move through the distress or pain they are causing us.
So imbedded in our culture is the drive to mask our emotions, that most of us don’t even have the vocabulary. I asked three children (age 9 and 11) to write down all the emotion words they could think of between them. They could come up with 7, only two of which were positive. This totally shocked me! Shouldn’t we be teaching this in schools? My kids have a weekly spelling test. When I last asked my son how he did, he said “Great. I got 9 out of 10”. I looked at the list for the week. I asked him “Do you know what ‘disenfranchised’ means?” The answer was no to 7 out of the 9 words.
The work I do is based on two practices, Emotion coaching (by John Gottman Ph.D) and Non-violent communication (Marshall B Rosenberg).
Most of the sessions are not about crying. Mostly it is laughter, talking, stories, me being a nature nerd and showing you medicinal plants and fungi, and magical sea weed to boost your immune system and invigorate your metabolism. Most of all the session is about fun. It could involve wild swimming, fire pit cooking, milk bottle fishing, paddle boarding or body boarding. A long hike or a walk through a local park.
Adventure days can be 1:1 or small group. Each session is bespoke to your particular interests and time constraints and include food and transport. Prices from £20 per hour. Available during the week or weekends.
Today feels Autumnal. I love the changing seasons as each day brings surprises. It can be hot and sunny one day, lashing with rain the next.
Because I have always worked in education, September feels a little like New Year’s eve: Full of hope and optimism and rebirth. This year I will be sooo much more organised. This year I will not wait till the eleventh hour to meet a deadline. This year I will not get stressed and we will totally eat health nutritious food and I will definitely NOT rely on Deliveroo for grocery shopping.
This September has an added layer of anxiety and change. My oldest son is starting secondary school. Holy shit sauce, where did the last ten years go??? I feel like I have only just started secondary school. And I don’t know if this is a lesson in being present, or a lesson in how fleeting our time on this spinning dirt ball is? So I decided to write a letter to Teddy. At the moment, he does not seem phased by his transition to big school, but I know that at some point a wobble is coming, so maybe this will help….
A letter to my boy…
Be yourself. Be honest. Do things that make your heart sing and your eyes wide with awe. Live a life you are envious of.
Cut out people who hurt you or don’t appreciate you, be it at school, friends or family. Cherish the good times. Be present. Keep healthy boundaries, especially with yourself.
Your opinion is always valid. The opinion of others about you is not. Live your best life. Show up for good people. Tell them you value them.
If something feels wrong, it is. If people say they live without regrets, they just haven’t worked out what went wrong yet.
Doing your best is ok. It’s the most you can do. Everything in life is temporary. The pain does end. Joy is always round the corner.
Take every opportunity. It may not come a second time. Money comes and goes. Don’t let it dictate decisions. Don’t wait for retirement. It may never come.
Be brave. We don’t get to opt out of doing hard things sadly, but we do get to choose which hard thing to do.
And if your path demands that you walk through hell, walk as though you own the place and love the life you lived.
I think I have read about 20 articles with this title in the last week. Here’s one with a difference.
Don’t start baking banana bread. Don’t learn something new. Do NOT decide to start running marathons. Screw zoom family quizzes. That shit is bad for you.
Sitting around with too much time on your hands can lead you down the road of the big three: Fear, guilt and shame. The big three will lead to depression and anxiety. They will shred your self esteem and rob you of joy. They will wreck your sleep and disrupt your relationships. The big three are the single most destructive emotions and can very quickly overwhelm you. They are the overarching umbrella under which will dwell many hundreds more of other negative emotions which effect your general wellbeing.
So how do we quell fear, guilt and shame? Let me take you on a journey of discovery….. I love neuro science. I am entirely unqualified to talk about it but because of my mother’s brain tumour and my son’s autism, I spent countless hours reading about it.
Your brain is currently playing tricks on you. We are social creatures. We are meant to live in communities who help each other and work together and even the most introvert among us needs the company of others for our own wellbeing. But western culture has spent decades trying to slowly erode the social aspects of the fabric of our society. When we choose to go to a big supermarket, rather than go to the local shop, we don’t ask the checkout assistant how their kids are by name. When we work in an “open plan” office but don’t even know the name of the person who sits 1m away, something has gone wrong. Most of us do not know our neighbours. A huge proportion of society live hours away from their family. The concept of “community” or tribe has blown away in the wind over the last 30 years. And now we have been told to STAY AT HOME.
So let us understand how this affects our brains, the single most important organ in the body. The brain is the central processing unit of the whole body. It is an amazingly complex and incredible entity and if the brain is not healthy, everything else starts to be affected. The brain is in control of your hormones. Hormones are the signals for all the other organs to perform. Hormones are the conductor of the great orchestra of your body. The hormones govern your sleep, your appetite, your fertility, your mood, everything. When the brain is not 100% healthy, the hormones go out of sync and the music of your body goes out of rhythm. Your brain has three functioning states: Conscious, semi conscious and unconscious. It fluctuates between these realms and tries to communicate in a physical way, if something is not right. We are only just starting to understand the tip of the iceberg on how the brain functions.
But let me illustrate this in a practical way. For 5 years I have suffered with insomnia. I go to sleep fine, but I wake up at 3 am. I have tried literally everything anyone has suggested to try to remedy this, but nothing works. In the end I accepted that it was my age and my hormones. This was how it would be now. I have also had this strange eczema on my foot. It has been there for so long that it was just who I was. I had horrid feet and that was who I am. Thirdly, when I wash my hair, it comes out in massive handfuls. I had thought it was an afro hair thing because I remember my mother having the same thing. So imagine my surprise, when over the last 6 months, all three of these things vanished. Here is my hypothesis….
Dopamine is the brains reward chemical. You get these by eating food, completing a task and doing self care activities. I recently started eating breakfast. This is something I have not really done for 10 years. After making three breakfasts for the kids (EACH!!) I just could not face making myself some. It was with hindsight a form of self punishment. I think subconsciously, I did not feel I deserved any. Santa gave me a stocking this year. In it were lovely hand creams, hair products and lots of really nice quality chocolate. I have been having long baths and doing face masks and shit. I have been doing this without guilt.
Serotonin is the brain’s mood stabilizer. You get this bad boy by exercising, walking in nature and with sun exposure. This last year I have changed my world of work from being in an underground building to being outdoors all day. I now have a physically active job doing forest school and nature connection. I absolutely am living my dream life and my work makes me so happy. Lockdown has meant that our opportunities for being able to produce serotonin have been limited to 1 hour a day, and now it is winter, that is probably being diminished.
Endorphin is the pain killer. All of us most likely have some physical ailment which lurks like a shadow in our lives, coming to the fore in times of stress. For me I get back ache. When it is overwhelming, I take a pain killer, but for the most part, I know the triggers and have a range of other remedies I can use the manage it. Endorphin is produced when you laugh, during strenuous exercise and when you get pleasure from eating chocolate (smaller but still significant). Again, lockdown is going to have an impact on your brain’s ability to produce this important hormone.
And lastly, but most importantly: Oxytocin, aka the love hormone. This little nugget of hormonal joy is released by holding someone’s hand, giving your dad a hug, playing with a baby niece. Oxytocin is by far the most sensational of the hormones. I had found myself watching endless romcoms during the previous lockdown trying to remember what it felt like to be in love. After a while I thought “How much of this shite cinema is it going to take?” Then when I finally did feel love, it was like fireworks exploding in my brain. I felt 12 again. It was as though the wold had been sugar coated and everything was golden sunshine yellow. Hello stranger!!
But then Boris has made it illegal to hug your Nan! You have to feel guilty if you break a rule from time to time. You have to feel ashamed if your walk to get chocolate and wine because “Is it an essential journey?”. We are being made to fear everything and everyone by the media. The big three is currently crushing our souls.
So here’s my advice. Be hedonistic and forgive yourself. What goes on in lockdown, stays in lockdown. I went for a walk with a friend yesterday and she has been a bit down this week. At one point I stopped and asked her “What brings you joy?” and she found it very difficult to answer. Most of us spend so much time trying to make others happy, we don’t even know what makes us happy anymore. In the end she concluded it was dancing. “When was the last time you went out dancing?” I asked. About 1992 was the answer.
Lockdown is messing with your head. Drink the wine. Lie on the sofa and watch your best films. Play with your children. Let the house go to shit. Cook your favourite food. Talk to your neighbours. Walk through a forest. This is not the time to make big life decisions. Don’t try and make massive plans. We can’t bloody plan anything at the moment. You have to find the joy in now and not feel ashamed, guilty or fearful.
I made this film on Saturday before we went into total lock down in the UK. But I thought it was still worth sharing on the basis that you could hide them around your house, or garden and use them as a tool to engage kids in a dialogue about language, narrative, creative thought and problem solving.
Please share photos of things you make to me and I will add them to the digital art gallery.
The advice from UK government at time of publishing was that we should all keep exercising, but just avoid large groups of people.
Foraging can be a really fun way to get the kids really looking at plants and investigating the natural kingdom. The wild garlic is out in full force at the moment and is a wonderful nutritious food, but do make sure you help kids to identify it correctly and check all leaves before you eat them. I filled out sink and washed them in a “bath” and was surprised how much sad and dirt came out, so highly recommended. The smell is an obvious indicator that you have the correct plant, but remember: If in doubt, go without! Cuckoo’s pint/ lords and ladies is the only plant really worth worrying about. The flowers, leaves and berries are all poisonous.
Wild garlic pesto is great with pasta, risotto, with baked fish, or on hot toasted bead.
“In my day, everyone was not diagnosed with something. There is a label for everyone now. “
“In my day, you were just stupid. We didn’t call it dyslexia.”
Me: In your day, school was a very different place because in your day, there was no OFSTED and no league tables. Kids were not tested every week. We did not get assigned reading levels. We were not told we were failing all the time. We did not have homework from the age of 4. There was no literacy hour nor numeracy hour. We learned through projects. We were left to our own devices a lot. We had unstructured play and a lot of time was spent outdoors. We were not pacified with screens and we mostly had our mum’s at home, to drop us in school and pick us up. Mum’s now have to work just to pay the obscene mortgages we have hanging round our necks. Kids are spending 10 hours a day at school.
In our day, we were not bombarded with adverts and pop ups and billboards selling us messages of a lifestyle we would never have. Adverts, by their very nature are designed to make you feel sad. If you liked yourself, you would not need the face cream, perfume, or holiday abroad. But by being told you are ugly, smelly and depressed, you spend money.
This generation are guinea pigs for how phones, tablets, laptops and 24/7 TV can change brain architecture. These are tools for which often kids have no respite. And we constantly wonder why young people are in an absolute mental health crisis.
This picture is of my son before he started school. He looks very different now. Today I went to see a prospective secondary school. They showed me the isolation room. They explained the detention system. DETENTION, a word we use for prisoners.
I went for a coffee with a lovely friend afterwards. “What changed a few years ago, Sy? Why are all these kids suddenly not coping?”
We started trying to solve a behaviour without asking what the reason was for the behaviour. In simple terms: we stopped listening.
It can be really hard to convince people that they should go outside in February. But this week I have been reminded that if you ever need to rediscover your Joie de Vivre, see the world either through a small child, or through someone on holiday.
I am very lucky in that I have always worked with young people. To them the world is full of wonder and magic and they are full of joy and optimism. Rachel from ‘Wild wood adventures’ who I work with every Thursday, really blows me away with the range and planning of activities for Bristol Stenier school. But every week I am struck with how much pleasure they derive, just from stroking some grass, or climbing a tree or lighting the fire. As adults we stop taking the time to experience the world in a sensory way and get sucked into “getting things done.”
Last Saturday I was booked to take three lovely Aussies on a trip of the Welsh waterfalls. I don’t mind saying that I was slightly worried. These guys were coming from the height of summer in Aus, to our bleak, cold, grey and wet February. The treeless valley has lost it’s sparkle. The river is probably about 3 degrees and the idea of sitting out to have a picnic, would be mad even by British standards.
But the 5 mile able along to the local pub was slow as they took in the wonder of being in an exotic location. My assistant Jem and I had a giggle when they were taking photos of moss. They had endless questions about the rocks and the lichens and the birds. I explained that we were walking through wild raspberries and hazelnut trees and if you came back in the summer, you could fill your pockets with treasures. We looked at the indicators of ancient woodlands such as the heart tongue fern, and they were intrigued about the remains of the very old railway from the quarrying days.
As we sat and ate the lobster and other local foods I had brought, they asked me what these little mounds of earth were around us. “Oh, they are mole hills.” I replied. “There will be a whole network of tunnels underneath our feet connecting them.” And I went on the explain what they ate, what they looked and felt like and answered questions about if they damaged the tress. “All of nature lives in a symbiotic relationship. I mused. And then we talked about the mycelium network with which the trees communicate with each other.”
To this family, it was the most exotic and beautiful Safari tree in a magical green fairy landscape. They loved the clean air and the refreshing swim in the waterfall lagoon (yes! They went in). And building a fire at the end as the sun set was a lovely bonding experience.
This experience was a reminder that the work I do now, is absolutely essential. Every Wednesday, I watch a group of women come home transformed for a few hours in nature. I am not a councillor, nor a trained therapist. Nature is the therapy. I am just here to point out some magical things you may not have noticed. I am here to answer questions. I am here to remind you of a truth that you already knew. You don’t always need £500 worth of therapy. Sometimes you just need to have space and calm and feel listened to.