On 10 June, I attended the inaugural ‘View from the Summit’ event about how the great outdoors can improve our mental well-being, which took place at my place of work, the University of Central Lancashire. Organised by UCLan’s Social Prescribing Unit and UCLan Outdoors, in partnership with the mental health charity, Mind Over Mountains and Earthing Revolution, the View from the Summit conference aimed to bring together people with a shared interest in the benefits of outdoor activity and alleviating mental health conditions. It was predominantly an in-person event, although it was simultaneously livestreamed via Microsoft Teams, the institution’s choice of platform.
Throughout the morning, the timings ran about 15 minutes late, due to fab networking opportunities and it being difficult to start as everyone was networking. It kicked off with a brief mindful activity from UCLan graduate Emily Lake, a qualified psychotherapist and mental health and wellbeing consultant. She was one of those representing Mind Over Mountains. Following this was a welcome by Bryan Jones, Head of Sport and Health Sciences at the university. The most striking thing he said was that this was a day to learn about how to treat a variety of mental health conditions without medication. As someone who has been dependant on medication for a lot of my adult life since the age of 30, this was very interesting indeed. Even recently, I was prescribed more medication again, thinking it was the only thing that would calm me down when I was having some intense panic attacks. Whilst I was not sure at first what ‘Social Prescribing’ meant, it soon became clear throughout the day.
The Social Prescribing Unit at UCLan produced a single sheet handout and gave this out at the event’s central hub, which was in the Foster Building social space on campus. It explained what the unit is, what they do and who is involved. The latest version of this leaflet can be seen below:
Mind Over Mountains
The first of three keynote speakers was 26 year-old Alex Staniforth, who was another person representing Mind Over Mountains. His talk was entitled ‘Restoring Mental Health, naturally’ and, like all the keynotes, was delivered in the large Darwin Lecture theatre on campus. He personalised his reasons for being there and gave a moving testimony. Originally from Chester, he has suffered with a stammer, especially the letters ‘C’ and ‘K’. He has also had anxiety and an eating disorder (Bulimia). He also developed epilepsy. His first walk in the Lake District in 2010 inspired the question ‘Where is Mount Everest?’ When he was 18 he got involved with a mentor called Chris Spray and discovered that being active would be his medication. As anyone would naturally do at that age, he decided to go on a £35,000 expedition to Mount Everest! Of course, this isn’t actually what most 18 year-old would do, not least myself, who at that age was struggling just to get to college in King’s Lynn on a bus! I so was depressed then.
Alex briefly mentioned that Everest has a base camp which is higher than the peak of Kilimanjaro, a mountain I know pretty well, having successfully climbed it in 2007. Then this past weekend, a local Chorley man, Martin Hibbert, who suffered life-threating injures in the Manchester Arena bombing has just reached the top of Africa’s highest peak – in his wheelchair. So I recognise the emotional, mental health and even spiritual benefits of climbing, as long as you can deal with any acclimatisation.
However, disaster struck on Everest. Alex’s first attempt to climb Everest in 2014 ended in disaster with an avalanche which tragically killed sixteen people and cancelled the expedition. When he returned a year later, his team were trapped on the mountain as a huge earthquake struck Nepal and devastated the country, whilst taking the lives of three team-mates at base camp. These events left him to feel guilt and not long after he fell into his own bout of depression. He made a comparison to the loss suffered by many people during the pandemic. The paradox of his depression was that it makes it so much harder to do the things that could benefit you – like outdoor exercise, which can really blow away any cobwebs or mental health issues you might have. Alex has since taken up marathon running and established something called ‘Climb The UK‘ and published a book. In 2017, according to his website, he completed his biggest journey yet and raised over £25,271 for mental health charity Young Minds UK. This involved climbing to the highest point of all the counties in the UK over 72 days, with 48 ceremonial counties in England, 13 historic counties in Wales, 6 in Northern Ireland and 33 historic counties in Scotland. There is an excellent video about this record-breaking challenge. So, Alex is a real ‘king of the mountain’ and total inspiration for others.
Adventuring and Trauma
Keynote 2 was on ‘How Adventuring can Support Wellbeing’ with the entertaining Dr Sarita Robinson (UCLan, Head of Psychology and Computer Science). Sarita has spent over 15 years researching people’s psychological responses to disasters. She focuses on trying to work out why some people are more likely to survive than others in emergency situations and how we can improve our chances or survival. She even adopts the moniker ‘Doctor Survival’ for her website. A comparison was made between disaster and the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously this global virus affected everyone and everything. Vaccinations have been a life saving miracle against it. But can we vaccinate ourselves against trauma? she asked.
This woman’s work involves many aspects, which includes the recovery from trauma. She is also interested in how people recover from exposure to life-threatening events. According to her website, “People may be familiar with the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Less well known is the idea of Post Traumatic Growth. This is the idea that some people can experience positive growth as a result of facing life-threatening situations.” I wrote briefly about trauma in my previous post looking at the mental health aspect of the TV show, ‘Stranger Things’. In addition, this past week I also started EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) therapy for treating trauma. This is being provided for free by my employer. Not even my previous employer, a local authority, and certainly not the language schools I’ve worked for, provided this for free, as far as I know. EMDR therapy involves utilising the natural healing ability of your body, through memories and specific questions relating to your past. I am two hours into a potential 8-hour course of treatment. It already feels like something good could come out of it and is probably better for me than mere ‘counselling’. I am so grateful to UCLan for looking after its employees so well and for being part of the Centre for Collaborative Learning, which I will mention again shortly.
Anyway, I have digressed. I thought ‘wow’ – this session by ‘Doctor Survival’ really resonated with me, especially when she quoted Chumbawamba. Co-incidentally, I had listened to ‘Tubthumper’ with its famous refrain, ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again’ – on the morning of the conference, because as well as this being about resilience, the track and the cultural impact of it was also featured on BBC Breakfast the day before. For me, that phrase is about resilience, despite mentioning several types of alcohol. Even the beer-swilling Homer Simpson once sang it! But what if you are not a natural singer or comedian? Well, Sarita performed outside of her comfort zone at the Edinburgh fringe – under a backdrop claiming ‘The Institute for Rare Jokes’ (see first image above) introducing herself as a ‘psychobiologist’ and her own take on ‘experiential learning’, where she was ‘thrown in at the deep end’!
Sarita also included some references to the school of positive psychology and those who write about and take positive steps to wellbeing, which I have presented about myself. I noted she shared a book by Martin Seligman, author of the PERMA+V model, which features wellbeing at work, in one of her slides. She also referred to a book by Edward Bullmore called ‘The Inflamed Mind’. We will come back to tackling the problem of ‘Inflammation’. Sarita also spoke about her son doing conservation work and being ‘dragged’ up Mount Fukufuku in Lesotho, South Africa. The following Wednesday (15 June), Sarita joined the brilliant Centre for Collaborative Learning Connect event in the Harrington Building, to talk about ‘Transgender and non-binary students’ experiences at UK universities: a rapid evidence assessment’. EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion), the Students’ Union and several other departments were also represented, alongside my own Academic Skills Development team. Anyway, back to the ‘VftS’ event. Sarita was followed by Emma Estrela and a review of that session follows.
The Wim Hof Method
Emma Estrela, who was born In Brazil, is a breathworker and level 3 Wim Hof Method (WHM) Instructor and the best trainer in the UK. This was probably the session, as well as the related afternoon activity, that I was most looking forward to. She spoke about the gratitude and the spiritual journey that becoming a WHM practitioner had brought. The first thing she did was to get us to watch a demo of some breath focused press ups, with fellow WHM colleague, Sebastian, before getting the attendees to do some, too. Breathing is essential. We all know this. But how do you or should you breathe? Well, she guided us through this, finishing with some breath aware push ups in the lecture theatre. To be honest, I got a headache from doing the push-ups, so I’m not sure I did this correctly, or maybe it takes some practice. I don’t have a great deal of upper body strength, either, so this kind of thing can make my head spin. However, there are, of course, physiological reasons why this happens. Anyway, over to her guru and mentor…
Wim Hof has set Guinness World Records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice. He also has held the record for barefoot half marathons, also on snow and ice. He attributes these feats to his method, a combination of frequent cold exposure, breathing techniques, yoga and meditation. He was motivated after tragically losing his wife to suicide. A wide range of claims are made for the method’s health benefits. Earlier this year, ‘Freeze the Fear with Wim Hof’ was shown in the UK on the BBC. It is still, at time of publication, available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK. As he states in the programme, “it’s not about being tough, it’s about taking ownership of the power of your own mind”. Episode 1 is mostly about diving into cold water, while episode 2 focuses on taking cold showers to challenge the cardiovascular system and his breathing techniques, which can potentially unlock trauma – not ‘fix’ it, just make you more at peace with it.
Now the televisual hook – the clichéd trope of using celebrities, including ‘Big Brother’ style chats, how they cope or otherwise, what they had to overcome, whilst underscored with dramatic music – is actually less interesting to me than the techniques of doing guided fear facing activities, such as bungee jumping off a high bridge, for real. I like Lee Mack and think he’s very funny. His cynicism is needed here and his ‘Wimoweh’ joke was particularly good. But he’s essentially there for light relief. I actually want to try this, to feel it for myself. That’s what might give me possible benefits, not because of schadenfreude or watching it all unfold via Gogglebox. I have always thought the title of that well-known Susan Jeffers’ book, ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ was enough without actually having to read it. However, it is important to go deeper, further, to actually do things! Experiential learning, indeed. Of course I have been exposed to the cold and to freezing water or ice many times, but it’s usually unpleasant. I never did the ALS ice bucket challenge – remember that? Nor have I ever received informed instructions by trained practitioners of the Wim Hof method (WHM).. until this event at UCLan.
So in the afternoon, I actually took part in some Cold Therapy in the Sports department of the Darwin Building, with Dr Robert Allan (UCLan, School of Sports and Health Sciences). Emma Estrale and Sebastian were also encouraged to be in attendance, too, by the event organisers. This ‘therapy’ involved sitting in an cold bath in my swimming trunks for around 6 minutes – not icy, just very cold (around 10 degrees Celsius). There was another event attendee to my left. I had Emma behind me reminding of the breathwork she showed us earlier, with Robert (I didn’t have my glasses on so not entirely sure) in front of me guiding me through the initial cardiovascular shock and eventual calm, before I spent 20 seconds in full immersion, much like in the TV programme, but without the safety rope. Afterwards, Sebastian lead us through some WHM ‘moving’ exercises in order to warm up again. This also involved some audible exhalation. Whilst I felt the benefits immediately, mostly from having done it, I realise that it would probably need to be done more regularly to get any real benefits. The research and whether is also mixed on this. But Robert and colleagues have carried out a number of pieces of research and continue to do so.
As this recent, short Guardian article stated recently, regular icy swims on consecutive days, in water of 10-14 Celsius, can transform the way the body responds to stress. Immersion in very cold water induces something called the “cold shock response” – a gasp reflex, constriction of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin as your body tries to conserve heat, raised heart rate and hyperventilation. However, repeated exposures diminish the intensity of this response. You adapt. As I mentioned, Robert Allan has published some journal articles on this topic, and he shared those with us. One of those, published this year, in the European Journal of Applied Psychology is called ‘The use of Post-exercise Cooling as a recovery strategy – Unraveling the Controversies’ and is available online. Another article is called ‘Cold water immersion: kill or cure?’ As with many ideas shared today, no one thing can ‘fix’ everything. However, everything shown and experienced today could help, if done alongside other positive, active choices.
Further research is being carried out into the influence of acute and chronic cooling on local and systemic markers of bone health and participants are being asked to take part in this, as can be seen below. If you are interested, please contact Dr Robert Allan at email@example.com.
Nature’s Recovery – More Social Prescribing
In the third keynote, ‘Aligning people and Nature’s Recovery,’ Jenny Reddell (Senior Nature and Wellbeing Officer, Lancashire Wildlife Trust) spoke about ecotherapy and nature on prescription. Ecotherapy or Green therapy is a therapeutic treatment that involves doing outdoor activities in nature. It is usually led by trained professionals. The aim is to improve physical and mental well-being, without the need for drug dependency. This ITV News report was shown and it really shows some natural moments of pleasure. It features Brockholes nature reserve, where I walked to last month, as part of my ongoing solo walk around the Guild Wheel cycle route. After this session, I had a deeper understanding of what is meant by Social Prescribing and why the Unit at UCLan has been established. This was, indeed, about prescribing the outdoors as therapy whilst, where possible, rejecting medication.
Following lunch, there was a workshop on Mindfulness with Emily Lake, who is involved with several projects, including her own company, Embrace Sports & Wellbeing. Having started out the day with some mindful activities, this workshop went a bit further with some other things to try. Including the 5-4-3-2-1 senses activity, which I have done before. It was a bit difficult to hear four things as there was only the sound of Emily’s voice and the whirring of some technology in the quiet lecture theatre. She also shared a lovely Irish piece of perception, which can be seen below. I’ve always said that you are not your condition. Don’t be dictated by it or make it an excuse. So rather than say ‘I am sad‘, instead say that ‘sadness is on me‘ as on another day, another emotion, whether it be joy, love and anger, will be on you. Again, it was reiterated that for serious mental health illnesses, mindfulness won’t always work, but those who practice it regularly, can feel the benefit.
Also appearing at this event was Jen Finlay from the event sponsors Earthing Revolution. This session was about discarding those problematic trainers and going barefoot. Walking barefoot in the grass can feel great and connecting to the earth provides you with something greater, namely, electrons! As their websites states:
When you touch the ground, your body absorbs the free electrons and all the amazing benefits they provide. This is called being ‘grounded.’ We live our lives mostly insulated from the earth (wearing rubber-soled shoes, living indoors, driving in our cars, etc). Over time, this causes our bodies to become depleted. Touching the ground replenishes our electron balance and restores our lost connection to the earth’s energy. We’d all like to spend more time in nature in direct contact with the earth, but spending hours in nature every day is impractical for most. That’s where Earthing products come in. They are like extension cords that allow you to connect to the earth when you can’t be out in nature. They allow you to easily incorporate grounding into your everyday life whether you are relaxing, working, or even sleeping.https://www.earthingrevolution.co.uk/
The root of many diseases is inflammation. By grounding ourselves and literally feeling the Earth beneath our feet, it was argued, we can alleviate or even prevent many health problems. It enhances sport performance and recovery, alleviates autoimmune diseases, reduces stress and anxiety, whilst apparently “providing relief from inflammatory diseases, such as fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, whilst improving blood circulation and thyroid function”. My father has Parkinson’s and has gone barefoot whenever possible. He was also a big fan of hill walking, having spent time in Snowdonia and The Lakes. Anyone that knows him knows that his feet have been through a lot. As a child, I could not fathom how he could walk on beaches, full of stones and shells, without suffering some pain. Or maybe he did! In 2018, we did a Walk for Parkinson’s in Norfolk together. We did the same again the following year with other members of the family. Now he struggles to even get to the nearest shop and I wish there was some kind of cure for this disease. Next time I am in the Lakes, I am going to take my shoes off and throw them into one of them.
In April, a work colleague, who attended this event with me, actually tried this ‘grounding’ technique on me. At the time, I was not quite sure what he was doing. But he went barefoot himself and encouraged me to do the same. I didn’t feel much benefit at the time, because I was going through a heightened state of anxiety and unable to calm my monkey mind. However, I now realise that it was the same idea as being presented by the Earthing team. Whilst the team’s demo about the patches and being ‘grounded’ was not entirely clear. However, they stayed around all day to talk to attendees in the Foster social space and show off their different, beneficial products, as well as providing a super raffle prize. I also spent the rest of the day going around, without my shoes on. I definitely felt more connected to the earth doing this and will continue this practice. A few days after this event, came the Centre for Collaborative Learning Connect event, as mentioned earlier. I spent a lot of the day in just my socks. I also took part in some grounding (Earthing) during the lunch break with two colleagues, later being photographed wearing some new ‘Blackboard’ branded socks!
At the end of the event, there was a summary and a prize draw. I didn’t win anything, but I gained a lot of knowledge and a deeper understanding. I also came away feeling very motivated and inspired to do even more outdoor activity than I already do. Ironically for an event about the outdoors, being indoors in a dimly lit lecture theatre just gave me itchy feet! Co-incidentally, the first student I helped on the following Monday was looking at feedback on an essay which included the topic of ‘biophilic design’ and its impact on learning, along with a sentence which exclaimed that ‘nature brings a healing effect to the body and mind’!
In conclusion, it is one of the best one-day events I have ever attended – because it was informative, educational, entertaining and practical. Normally at conferences you hope to receive what used to be called ‘take aways’. Not the consumable kind, but something to take on and adapt in your own life. I did. In fact, the very next day, after ‘a whiskey drink and a lager drink’, I got up very early after only three hours sleep and took a walk. Starting in Avenham, I took a circular route to the top of the city of Preston, namely Fulwood, then all the way to Garstang – 13 miles, mostly along the A6 – so a half-marathon of my own! I was grateful to my UCLan colleague for giving me a lift back home afterwards, where, of course, I had a cold bath. In fact, I’ve only had cold showers since then. As I move forward in my life, I will apply a lot of the principles learned from today as I continue to manage my own condition, without being so reliant on medication.
Finally, the event was partly recorded on Teams and later shared here.
Note: Thanks to Sam Pywell (co-ordinator of the Social Prescribing Unit at UCLan) for correcting an earlier version of this post on 16 June. If anyone else who was at this event feels that they have been misrepresented in any way, please email me privately or make a comment below. You can also contact me via my work email or via a DM message on Twitter. I will then promptly make any changes necessary.
Further Note: On the same day as this event, Kate Bush reached the dizzy heights of no.2 in the UK singles chart with her appropriately named 1985 track, ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ as it has been widely featured in Stranger Things – season 4. This coming Friday 17th, she will probably reach the summit! (update: she did!!) It is currently the most streamed track in the world! In addition, you might have noticed that I have deliberately integrated (or smuggled in) a few other Kate Bush song titles into this post, but I wonder if you spotted them all? There’s around 20 in total; some are obvious, some are sneakily hidden away. You might want to scan it again to find them! I unsuccessfully tried to shoe-horn the word ‘faloop’njoompoola‘ into this post. It is apparently one of ’50 words for Snow’, even though the Eskimo thing is a myth, so I wrote it here instead to make that further connection. I have shared a video of her appearance on TV in 1985 (above), the title track from her 2011 album below, as well as another, relevant new song by Tom Walker, called ‘Serotonin’.
Grainger, Dr A FBASES., Malone, Dr J., Costello, Dr J., Bleakley Dr C.M., and Allan, Dr R (2021). The BASES Expert Statement on the use of cooling therapies for post exercise recovery. The Sport and Exercise Scientist. (70), Winter 2021. Available at: http://www.bases.org.uk @BASESUK
Hall, H (2021). Wim Hof, The Iceman. Science-based Medicine. Available at: https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/wim-hof-the-iceman/
Other references and videos are available via the links included. In addition, the organisers later shared more links to those involved. If you are interested in finding out more about some of the day’s workshop presenters and their work, please use the links below: