Recovery, environmental restoration and adjusting to change: Walking the South West Coast Path

Making the links between recovery (mental health and wellbeing) and environmental restoration on the South West Coast Path. Climate change and coastal erosion present the greatest challenges to the maintenance of the South West Coast Path going forwards; and recovery is even more important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I decide to go and walk along a section of the South West Coast Path at Budleigh Salterton – luckily it’s not far from where I live, as I don’t have much time to spare today (and I’m glad to find that it’s a dry but cloudy day in January, not too chilly or windy). In any case Budleigh is one of my favourite spots to walk (and sea swim – providing I remember my wet suit shoes for the pebbles). I have walked (and run) this section many times – with the family, with friends, in summer and winter, picking blackberries, going to the park / beach, helping with the annual litter pick, etc. (This includes a memorable coast path walk with the family nearly three years ago passing through Budleigh en route from Sidmouth to Exmouth – where we arrived as the tide was rising – ending in us wading around the last bit to Orcombe Point in up to our thighs (not recommended for small children – be sure to check the tide times!)).

But there’s another reason why I choose Budleigh this time – it’s the focus of a managed realignment scheme at the Otter estuary (Lower Otter Restoration Project – LORP) – an environmental restoration project that is reconnecting the river Otter with its floodplain in response to the immense forces of climate change and erosion (featured last night on BBC’s Countryfile). The local cricket club has regularly flooded for years, and bits of the coast path here have been eroding – making it extremely tricky and costly to maintain and rebuild. It’s a time of enormous change involving both losses (some of the pre-existing vegetation and terrestrial habitats) and gains (restoring more than 50 hectares of intertidal mudflats, saltmarsh and other valuable estuarine habitats. The estuarine habitats were lost to the valley several hundred years ago when an embankment was built and the land reclaimed for agriculture. The restoration of these habitats will providing feeding grounds for waders such as brent geese, black-tailed godwits and curlews, and even though works have not been completed the site has already attracted the biggest flock of white-fronted geese seen in Devon for many decades). This is a much loved and well-used section of the South West Coast Path (with 250,000+ visitors per year), popular with both local people and visitors from elsewhere. Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, a range of emotional responses have been expressed e.g. in the local press (see e.g. Devon Live) and in social media, as people adjust to these large-scale environmental changes.

This section of the path at Budleigh therefore brings together something I have been thinking about recently and has also come up in the research for this South West Coast Path project – recovery and restoration – both external (relating to the environment) and internal (mental health and wellbeing) – so important in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic and of climate change. I am keen to see how the LORP project works are progressing for myself, so I first dip my hands in the sea and then wander along the path towards White Bridge (while again tuning in to my senses – see previous blog on noticing nature here). The sights – sweeping views, and variety of birds including shelduck and egrets, are as stunning as ever.

Although the path is as accessible and appears on the whole much as it has always been, with the project works I am faced with some limited machinery noise in addition to the usual birdsong and sounds of the sea. However, none of it is half as bad as some of the media accounts would suggest.

Gavin Francis, a GP and writer in Edinburgh who has written about recovery (see also his recent Guardian article here) (and who as it happens I met a few times while I was a student in that inspiring city), highlights the strong links between recovery in a medical sense and the natural environment. It has long been established that patients recovering in a hospital bed both recover more quickly and need less pain-relieving medication if they have a view of nature – out onto something green, growing and alive – and better still if they have physical access to it e.g. via a hospital garden. Francis also highlights the similarities of recovery and healing to the medieval concept of viriditas, or “greening” – being reinvigorated by the same life force that exists in trees as much as in humans (see e.g. Victoria Sweet’s book for more on this). He also reminds us of the historical link between doctors and botany, including the study of medicinal plants.

In addition (as highlighted in previous blogs and 2021 report here) a wealth of research evidence (see e.g. Finding Nature on nature connectedness and Beyond Greenspace) is demonstrating the positive effects that spending time in natural environments can make on our mental health and wellbeing – therefore contributing to recovery. For example, an article in the journal Nature found that people who made long visits to green spaces showed lower rates of depression (and high blood pressure), and those who visited more frequently had greater social cohesion (social wellbeing). People are visiting our natural environments in greater numbers (a silver lining of this pandemic) – figures for footfall on the South West Coast Path in 2021 were between 12% and 26% higher compared to 2019 (corresponding to two different sites), bringing opportunities to connect new and more diverse communities with the environment and to enhance the associated health and wellbeing benefits (see previous report here). This increase in engagement also means there are greater opportunities for natural environments to contribute to human recovery processes.

Catherine Kelly’s recent book Blue Spaces (and earlier Guardian article here) highlights the therapeutic and restorative effects of coastal and aquatic environments, which can aid recovery and promote wellbeing through a range of physical, physiological and psychological mechanisms (some from actually swimming). Research carried out by Sarah Bell and the University of Exeter’s European Centre for Environmental and Human Health (ECEHH) team in 2015 summarises in diagrammatic form the therapeutic coastal interactions and restorative mechanisms arising from spending time at the coast. These mechanisms are categorised as follows:

  • immersive experiences – both restorative (e.g. a sense of space, opportunities to explore, captivating multisensory spaces, relaxation); and inspiring (e.g. appreciating expanse, sense of freedom etc);
  • symbolic experiences e.g. cultural, personal and shared place meanings (including feelings of identity, belonging; memories);
  • social experiences (and providing settings for group activities / hobbies); and
  • achievement experiences – long-term achievements and short-term goals (e.g. physical fitness).

Most of these are applicable to walking on the South West Coast Path. Different people (or the same individual at different times) will focus in on and seek different aspects for their restorative effects.

On a personal level, recovery and adjustment to change is something I have been trying to work out how to do simultaneously on a number of fronts (to adjust to insecurities in employment, extended family bereavement and relationship issues, the effects of peri-menopause, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the ever-shifting challenges of parenting, to name but a few). Recovery is multi-faceted (see e.g. the Gavin Francis article again) and often involves a combination of physical (encompassing medical and exercise-related), emotional aspects and / or combating isolation / building social connection (see e.g. Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections and a related review in the Guardian here). Recovery in both a physical and mental health and wellbeing sense can involve reducing or addressing sources of stress in our lives – as stress tends to exacerbate other factors with a range of detrimental effects on health and wellbeing (see e.g. Dr Mithu Storoni’s evidence-based book Stress-Proof with various strategies on how to reduce stress and a related podcast here).

Emotional recovery can involve engaging with and addressing societal influences including cultivating compassion / self-compassion and overcoming our shame ‘gremlins’ and the unhelpful external messages and beliefs that can hold us back from living our best and most enjoyable lives (e.g. the scarcity myth – overcoming the messages that tell us we aren’t X enough – fill in the gap with your own adjective) – see Brené Brown’s insightful research-based work e.g. the Gifts of Imperfection. In addition, Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong is full of useful insights on how to overcome difficulties and get yourself back on your feet after a setback, as well as when and how to push through when things get tough – applicable to a wide range of work, academic, business and personal (e.g. parenting) contexts, as well as to the concept of recovery.

Recovery and adjusting to change can also be a process of overcoming grief – in its widest sense – including adjusting to the everyday small setbacks and disappointments that we all experience (in addition to the bigger instances e.g. bereavement, or the loss of existing habitats and environmental change on the Otter estuary mentioned above). An approach that I have found extremely helpful for understanding this is Emotional Logic (created by two GPs, Trevor Griffiths and Marian Langsford – see e.g. a relevant academic article here and a more accessible book explaining this lifelong learning approach, related tools and case studies here). The Emotional Logic approach provides a way of understanding and integrating our emotions with our rational thinking and planning brain – including making a realistic action plan. (Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book the Whole-Brain Child, written for the parenting context, also explains the vital importance of integrating the various parts, including the left and right sides of our brain – and how integrating these helps us to make sense of and regulate our emotions). The Emotional Logic approach can help us recognise, untangle and harness the useful purposes of our emotions, even the ones that normally get a bad press such as anger and depression.

A crucial element to the Emotional Logic approach to recovery and adjusting to change is understanding and naming the losses (tangible and intangible) that are driving our grief reactions, as well as recognising how these impact on our relationships and social connections. (The losses represent the things that we value that have been threatened or lost as a result of the setback or disappointment we are experiencing). In effect we reconnect with our values. This approach helps us to negotiate the process of adjusting to change (and its accompanying losses) by enabling us to focus on what we can recover or change constructively and realistically about our situation (accepting or letting go of what we can’t recover), and on strengthening our social connections and relationships.

There are some changes that as individuals we can do little about (e.g. large-scale climate-related impacts) but there is much that can be done to mitigate, restore, recover from and adjust to such changes (and our emotional responses to them). Personally, visiting natural environments (walking / cycling or running) has a hugely restorative effect, and I am lucky enough to live near enough the South West Coast Path that visiting this section today is a viable option even with limited time. What walking on the South West Coast Path at Budleigh also provides is an opportunity to reconnect with the environment and put my own recovery and restoration into the wider context of the larger scale environmental restoration currently being carried out in the Otter estuary.

This also chimes with research by Jo Hamilton on the emotional dimensions of engagement with climate change (see e.g. relevant abstracts for her thesis here and an article here). Through fostering dimensions of relationship within (to inner, emotional worlds), between (to other people) and beyond (to the more-than-human world), ‘emotional methodologies’ can create safe-enough spaces to acknowledge painful emotions, support the processing of emotions (and recovery), and enable constructive, active and sustained engagement with climate change and with environmental and social justice (including environmental restoration).

So I’m beginning to understand that for me recovery is about reconnection and building relationships within (our emotions), between (social connections) and beyond (with the environment). Spending time in natural environments, and particularly the varied coastal environments of the South West Coast Path, present myriad opportunities to do all of these things.

There are a number of local organisations working specifically on the theme of recovery. These include Devon MIND, Recovery Devon and the Devon Recovery Learning Community (DRLC), part of the Devon Partnership NHS Trust (DPT). DRLC and DPT run a range of local courses (from nature walks to Laughter Yoga) to aid recovery from challenges around mental health and wellbeing (and an Emotional Logic course around recovery is planned for later in the year).

Dr Carolyn Petersen is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Rural Policy Research (@CRPRExeter).

She is also a certified Emotional Logic Coach affiliated to the Emotional Logic Centre (@ELCentreUK).

This blog post is part of a research project commissioned by the South West Coast Path Association (@swcoastpath) and funded by Natural England.

All photos are by C.Petersen (not to be reproduced without permission).

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