A wellbeing ritual favoured by the Victorians might just be the answer to our 21st-century ‘nervous ailments’...
I daydream, sometimes, about the sea. It’s not far from my house, but always feels like it’s somewhere foreign and exhilarating whenever I act on the urge to hear the waves crashing. Just being able to see the horizon, and take in the shifting shades of blue, grey, and green, brings me a calmness. It restores me, even if for just a few moments before the children’s demands for ice cream, chips, or a toilet visit bring me back to reality.
A close friend and I donned every layer we owned and wrapped our young daughters up to collect pebbles on the beach all through last winter. We couldn’t feel our noses or toes in the bitter, salty air, but we breathed it in and came back to our cars with burning cheeks, tired babies, and soaring souls. School and work have kicked in now, and so our trips are sporadic. But we reminisce and talk about why we needed it at that time. As my friend said: “I wanted to be witness to something that was bigger than me – the sea – and to gain perspective after an overwhelming period of our lives.”
The restorative virtues of the seaside have been praised for years, even before the mid-1800s when the first trains trundled from smoky London to the open horizons and pebbly beaches at Brighton. It was a whole century before this that the concept of moving from one place to another for your health had started gaining traction in Europe, where a ‘change of air’ was prescribed for patients suffering from ‘nervous ailments’.
By the Victorian era, the idea was widely accepted, and different locations gained favour for the treatment of different illnesses. These were both physical and mental maladies, including the illnesses collectively called consumption, of which tuberculosis was one of the most deadly. Trips to the Alps, though, for its clean, crisp air would only have been possible for the wealthy few.
There were, however, people trying to open up green spaces for everyone, as understanding deepened about the spread of diseases. Helen Antrobus is the assistant national curator for cultural landscapes at the National Trust. She explains: “It was generally understood that coal and smoke-filled air could be damaging to the lungs, and in the mid-19th century the belief that water-borne diseases, like cholera, were air-borne still prevailed. You can understand, then, why accessing clean air was so important. For the rich, accessing new climates abroad for health benefits was easily attainable, but not so much for those working and living in dire conditions.”
The Public Parks movement – which regulated holidays for workers and cheap railways – as well as the work of Octavia Hill and the other co-founders of the National Trust, gave people access to green spaces, both nearby and beyond. Helen adds that Octavia Hill advocated for pockets of green space, playgrounds for her tenants, and outdoor ‘living rooms’ for the urban poor.
This was a time when factories belched pollution above cramped, cobbled streets, and so a ‘change of air’ for the majority meant seeking out a change of air quality. While I am lucky to live in a house surrounded by fields, the sea air still feels different, and my body reacts to it. For those escaping pollution and disease, though, a ‘change of air’ – a day paddling in the sea – could offer physical respite. They could breathe easier if only just for one day. The health benefits of some locations remain, even today.
A ‘change of air’ isn’t likely to be something a doctor would prescribe today in the same way, but we talk about it all the time, just with different words: “A break from our routine”, “Getting some fresh air”, or “A change of scenery”. We book holidays and weekends away; a lucky few travel for months if not years, but even opening the back door and wandering into the garden has an impact on our brains. This is widely supported by scientific research, and shows how complex we each are.
Geraldine Joaquim is a clinical hypnotherapist, psychotherapist, and wellness coach. She explains that we are hardwired to seek out routine and familiarity. This is an evolutionary throwback to a time when doing something exactly the same way as you had the day before might have meant survival. Straying into the unknown – whether places or actions – could prove fatal. But there is a downside. She says: “When you’re stuck in those routines, you’re not really living in the moment.” We become tunnel-visioned, distracted, and bored. It always amazes me how much I yearn to mindlessly scroll through rubbish on Facebook if I have been sitting at my desk at home for hours by myself. This is because, although we seek routine, we yearn for novelty.
Seeing new things fires our brains. It sets off reactions that result in the release of dopamine – the ‘feel good hormone’. It also exercises our brain’s neuroplasticity. But we don’t need to pack up and fly hundreds of miles to find this. As author and journalist Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian: “Making even tiny, seemingly irrelevant changes to your daily patterns – taking a different route to work or rearranging furniture – can stimulate nerve cells and boost production of neurotrophins, which help brain cells thrive.” He adds: “There’s some suggestion this might even slow the onset of Alzheimer’s.”
Geraldine says you can see the impact of the two contrasting needs of the brain play out in a two-week holiday. The first week will go incredibly quickly as everything is new, but familiarity will settle in by the second week as we learn our environment and put routines in place. What we need is to balance the two. Some routines can be reassuring, stabilising, and productive; but we should analyse our habits and weed out those routines that have become stale. It can be as small a change as taking your lunch outside into your garden, not least because of the well-documented calming impact of nature on the brain.
Michaela Thomas is a clinical psychologist and the host of the ‘Pause Purpose Play’ podcast. She says that even a brief immersion in nature can reset the brain and re-energise. Over longer periods, the impacts can include greater clarity of thought and a better ability to retain information. She runs retreat days and sees a tangible difference in her clients when they work together in a natural setting. She explains: “You form a connection between the experience of a new place and how you felt while there, so that the novelty combined with the emotion makes the experience more memorable. Your new learning is more likely to stick and serve you for longer. You remember the smell of the woods while you were reflecting on how you live your life, or you remember the warmth of the sun on your face while you made a commitment to change something.”
Life, for the majority of us, has become quite sedentary and habit driven. Monumental changes – seeking out a ‘change of air’ in foreign climates as the wealthy Victorians did – aren’t possible for many of us, and certainly aren’t something we can achieve each and every day. However, little changes in routine and small explorations can be so beneficial to both our physical and mental health. Perhaps, instead of daydreaming of the sea, I should just go.
To find out more about wellbeing and hypnotherapy, visit the Hypnotherapy Directory or speak to a qualified therapist.