Julia Bradbury reveals how she found solace in nature during IVF and miscarriages, her battle with breast cancer and mental health issues and how she harnessed the power of ‘green therapy’: ‘How I walked myself well’
- Presenter Julia Bradbury, from Dublin, says walking is more than just an exercise
- She claims it has ‘curative powers’ and used it to beat the challenges she’s faced
- READ MORE: Julia Bradbury bravely reveals her ‘healing’ mastectomy scar
When people call me an evangelist for nature, I take that as a big compliment.
But I don’t just admire and enjoy the natural world. My real obsession is walking in it, using its healing powers to strengthen my body and soothe my mind.
Walking is one of the simplest and best forms of physical exercise there is — but it is so much more than that.
Quite simply, it has curative powers. It improves sleep, lowers anxiety, boosts brain power and even lengthens life. I used it to help me through the breast cancer that upended my life three years ago, as well as IVF and miscarriages, grief and mental health issues.
During my 30 years of making television shows, walking has taken me to the furthest corners of the world, but it’s still my little garden and the old London plane tree outside my bathroom window that I love the most.
You don’t need big landscapes or seat-of-the-pants travel adventures to benefit from ‘green therapy’.
Walking is one of the simplest and best forms of physical exercise there is — but it is so much more than that
It can be found in short periods of time and the smallest of spaces — what I call ‘nature snacks’: fleeting moments that can revive and nourish.
Looking upwards through the canopy of a tree to catch a glimpse of sky; tuning out life’s loud noises to let your ears and head vibrate with birdsong instead; inhaling great clouds of fresh air.
Here’s how I have used nature to beat the challenges that I’ve faced in my life — and how you can do the same.
WALKING TO CURE YOUR ANXIETY
It was a pivotal moment of my career. In a shift away from presenting Countryfile, I’d been commissioned to make a documentary on one of the world’s most extraordinary walks, through the volcanic highlands of Iceland.
But as I set out on the expedition, it wasn’t this gamble with the Bradbury brand that was making me anxious. What was making me feel sick and scared was a pregnancy test, bought in London and tucked into a pocket of my backpack.
I was 38 and had just undergone keyhole surgery for the endometriosis that had thus far stopped me becoming a mother.
At long last, I had a reason — and perhaps a cure — for my apparent infertility, and this was the month I hoped I might finally have a baby on the way.
Half-way up a volcano, I found a shepherd’s hut. Hiding in the long-drop toilet but still partly exposed to the elements, I peed on the stick.
You don’t need big landscapes or seat-of-the-pants travel adventures to benefit from ‘green therapy’
It felt like the longest 120 seconds of my life, and when the blue line stayed stubbornly single — no baby — I could feel the anxiety seeding inside me. Was I ever going to fall pregnant? Would my body, with all I asked of it, be allowed to do this most natural and wanted of things?
I should say here I understand and respect anyone’s decision to be child-free. But that wasn’t me. We dearly wanted to be parents, and this was devastating.
The drama of the scenery reflected the turmoil inside me. I could not sit still or calm my heart, even with deep breathing. My body was burning with anxious energy.
Over the hours that followed, in the natural craziness of those icy uplands, I hiked my heart out. I let the sheer physicality of the next 20 kilometres exhaust me, devoting those hours of climbing to processing what had just happened.
What followed was the perfect example of how landscapes can reset our personal view of ourselves. I let myself see that I was part of a huge vista of mountains, icy streams and steaming hillsides.
I acknowledged that even this grandeur was just a tiny part of our universe and that I was no more than a speck within it. My problems seemed smaller, more manageable.
You don’t need to go to Iceland to feel the sense of awe in nature that can defeat anxious thoughts. A single tree, the sound of birdsong, a scented rose — all of these can calm us. Studies show that levels of the stress hormone cortisol typically start to drop after 30 minutes of walking in nature.
With each step you take, focus on the feeling of the ground beneath your feet and the air on your face. Tune in to the sound of wind rustling the leaves.
Take time to stop and inhale the fragrance of the plants around you: their chemical constituents can help prime your mood and influence how you feel.
Lavender, for example, can raise levels of the feelgood neurotransmitter serotonin, while the smell of roses can help with stress through reducing levels of adrenaline and prolonging the activity of relaxing endorphins.
No matter what challenges you face, I promise there is a walk to lift your mood, even if it’s just around your local park.
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR SLEEPING
In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. Three years after Iceland, at the age of 41, I finally conceived my son naturally. One miscarriage and four years of IVF treatment after that, my twin daughters arrived.
Newborn babies spell sleep deprivation, of course. But air travel, work, the IVF treatment itself and breast cancer have all taken their toll on my sleep.
Indeed, it’s only since my cancer diagnosis that I’ve begun to take sleep as seriously as I should have done all along. Not getting enough can affect everything — from immunity against colds to all manner of serious illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart problems.
No matter what challenges you face, I promise there is a walk to lift your mood, even if it’s just around your local park
Counter-intuitively, the nature snack I’ve found has the best effect on sleep is taken first thing in the morning, almost immediately after waking. Put simply, I’ve learned to worship Morning Light. I’m giving it capitals because it deserves That Much Respect.
Morning Light is crucial because it readies our bodies for the 24 hours to come. New scientific discoveries in the past decade or so have shown how a photoreceptor in the eye interacts with the so-called ‘master clock’ in the brain — the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) — forming a direct link between light, brain and body. This is what regulates our cyclical, circadian rhythms and allows us to sleep at night.
Since natural light contains a rainbow of colours that vary as the sun rises and falls, it’s hugely important that we get this Morning Light to trigger the process.
Which explains why I stick my head out of the bathroom window as soon as I wake up. Everyone needs morning light; you don’t even have to get dressed and go outside. I choose the bathroom window because it’s where I get the best view of the trees on my street — the London plane and a glorious horse chestnut.
Rain or shine, I do it. Only this morning, I pulled on my waterproofs over my PJs and sat, yogi-like in the window, to catch my quota, listening to the meditative tap of raindrops on Gore-Tex.
In the summer, I do only ten minutes of pre-breakfast light bathing, but in the winter, when the light is lower, I’ll up it to 15 or 20 minutes.
Even on days when I’m tired and feeling lazy, I do my Morning Light routine and then, if I want to go back to bed for weekend cuddles with my children, or to read, or watch a movie — I do. The key, as with everything else, is routine. Try it!
NATURAL BEAUTY THAT HELPED ME TO HEAL
It was while I was away filming in Costa Rica, in the early months of 2020, that I first felt a lump in my left breast. At a clinic back in the UK, I heaved a huge sigh of relief when I was told the mass I’d found was just a benign group of microcysts.
‘Keep an eye on it and come back in a year,’ I was instructed.
I strolled out of the surgery and got on with my life. And in July 2021, I strolled back in for a routine check-up . . .
The consultant and I were chatting about summer holidays when he suddenly paused and exhaled, and in that second, I knew he’d found something. It was just a tiny, dark pinprick on his screen, but it was enough to make the world as I knew it fall away.
Cancer saved my life. That may seem a strange thing to say, but it opened my eyes to what I was doing to myself. Before diagnosis, everything I did was at breakneck speed
A phone call a week later, after a biopsy, confirmed it: those benign microcysts turned out to be a 6cm cancerous tumour — a large, high-grade tumour that could be difficult to treat.
The grief began almost immediately: grief for my health lost in an instant; grief for my life as I’d known it; grief for that naive belief that I was invincible and everything would always be all right.
I thought of my three young children, and my eyes welled with tears. I wanted to see them grow up.
Five days after my mastectomy, in October 2021, my partner and sister helped me downstairs from my bed. I was wrapped in a blanket, unsteady on my feet and woozy with painkillers.
But the pull of the garden outside was strong; I could feel it through the big glass doors at the end of my kitchen. Tentatively, I made my way through them into a glorious autumn day of crunchy leaves and scudding skies and mellow sun.
I sank down on to my wooden bench and felt the full wattage of Mother Nature. I half-wondered if I’d conjured the feeling of peace it gave me, because I wanted and needed it so badly. There was light in my eyes, birdsong in my ears and sunshine on my face.
We all deal with trauma in different ways, but I think one of the most important things you can do is to accept it as best you can
Sitting at our garden table, which is a large fallen tree trunk propped up on steel legs, I admired the grain with my fingertips and the tough rigidity of the wood.
Every day thereafter, even at my most wobbly and grim, I insisted on a shuffle around outside, even if it was only for a few minutes.
Every day, it made me stronger.
HOW MUCH WALKING?
Two minutes of walking: You begin to off-set the harmful effects of sitting at your desk for an hour. Do two minutes of walking for every 30 minutes you have been sitting.
Three minutes: Your cardio-respiratory system activity increases, along with your heart rate. This increases the supply of blood to the brain.
Five minutes: you’ve helped to re-set your circadian rhythm and improved your mood.
Ten minutes: You are now increasing (good) stress in your body, which will trigger an overall anti-inflammatory response. Your creative thinking starts to improve.
Fifteen minutes: Sugary cravings will be reduced — making you less likely to reach for high-calorie snacks. One study showed that participants ate 50 per cent less chocolate after a walk!
Twenty minutes: Your immune function has been boosted with proven benefits in the cold and flu season.
Sixty minutes: Your blood glucose is better controlled, helping with weight loss and staving off diabetes.
Ninety minutes: Your risk of all-cause mortality is now reduced — the catch is that you have to do it every day to get the maximum benefit!
What I found the hardest —impossible, for a while — was looking at myself so horribly damaged. It was nearly Christmas, eight weeks post-mastectomy, when I finally plucked up the courage to look at my reflection in a full-length mirror.
My nipple had been saved and my left breast had been reconstructed with a silicone prosthetic, but it was still scarred, swollen and angry.
We all deal with trauma in different ways, but I think one of the most important things you can do is to accept it as best you can. Own it. Figure out a way to go on. And make sure you ask other people to help you
The other crucial thing is to remember that Mother Nature will be both your guardian and your guide. Nature models resilience and regeneration to us in the toughest of times.
I see both of those things when I look at my lovely London plane tree. Creamy young bark underneath. Tougher, old, olive-coloured camo bark on top.
Those thick, leathery leaves, vivid green in spring, a rich orange in autumn, carving their patterns on to the city skyline.
That tree reminds me we can all regenerate, no matter how hostile our environment.
It is strong and beautiful, and it heals itself again and again.
FIND AWE OUTDOORS FOR A LONGER LIFE
Cancer saved my life. That may seem a strange thing to say, but it opened my eyes to what I was doing to myself. Before diagnosis, everything I did was at breakneck speed. I wanted it all, and pushed myself emotionally and physically to reach impossible goals.
They say: ‘Time is free, but it’s priceless.’ Looking back, I didn’t value it at all.
I shoved at the edges of it to manipulate hours and whole weeks to suit my agenda. And I didn’t recognise what I was doing, so I wasn’t nourishing any other parts of me that might compensate or add some balance.
What the past couple of years have taught me is that since you are a finite person in a world with almost infinite choices and possibilities, you’d be wise to prioritise those choices that serve your health and make you happy.
For me that is walking in nature.
As little as ten minutes of brisk walking a day is associated with longer life expectancy.
As Professor Dacher Keltner of the University of California (Berkeley), puts it: ‘It is hard to imagine a single thing you can do that is better for your body and mind than finding awe outdoors.
I hope you also have special places where you walk with those you love. And if you don’t, perhaps reading this will be the nudge you need to find some soon
As little as ten minutes of brisk walking a day is associated with longer life expectancy
‘Doing so leads to the reduced likelihood of cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety and cancer. It leads to reduction in everyday aches and pains, allergies, vertigo and eczema.’
Once I’d recovered from my mastectomy, my whole family and I — children, parents, sister — took a hike up Mam Tor in the Peak District. It’s where I started walking as a child, and one of the most special places in the world to me.
When we reached the top, the sun was shining and the sky was the brightest blue. The eight of us took each other’s hands and held them high in the air.
We sounded a cry of achievement into the valley below. We’d made it. I’d made it. Tears rolled down my cheeks, impossible to hide.
Climbing Mam Tor with the people I love most in the world felt like a profound restatement of faith in my future.
I needed to do it, not just to give thanks, but to overwrite the despair and desolation that cancer had brought into my life.
I hope you also have special places where you walk with those you love. And if you don’t, perhaps reading this will be the nudge you need to find some soon.
- Walk Yourself Happy: Find Your Path To Health And Healing In Nature, by Julia Bradbury (Little, Brown Book Group, £20) to be published on September 14 . © Julia Bradbury 2023. To order for £18 (offer valid to 4/9/2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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