Wellbeing in the Wick

Kevin Hempsted is a born and bred Eastender, and runs White Post Lane therapy and counselling centre A Balanced Life. He talks about how the pandemic has impacted health, and why the local community is so essential to all our wellbeing.

We’re still processing the trauma of the past year…

Lockdown has taken away part of community we all need – that contact with others – and many people have ended up feeling quite isolated and alone. Its tested many of our relationships to new levels, sometimes simply from being in a small space with one other person. Even in a loving and caring relationship, youre probably experiencing the equivalent of three or four years in one. And with a lack of much else going on, the feelings that come up can seem heightened and over-significant. 

Either we can reflect on ourselves and investigate our emotions, or we can push them down and find a coping mechanism to hide from them. Figures show drinking problems have risen, while domestic violence has become more widespread. I think thats because were enduring such an unknown: theres no template of what we should do, or how we should act. 

Weve also changed our relationship to work. Many of us have brought work into the home which was great at first, but its also becoming harder to separate our working and domestic lives. 

Coming out of lockdown won’t be easy either

The sheer magnitude of getting back onto packed tubes and into offices, or remembering how to dress in a different way. Those who have worked on themselves, and maybe come out of this a little better, theyll be able to enjoy the world from a position of strength. For those who have resorted to coping mechanisms, theyll have new unresolved feelings and emotions that theyll have to carry about with them. As youre coming out of lockdown, be mindful of how you navigate it and check in to ensure you stay safe and well. 

Ask yourself: 

What have we really missed? 

What have we seen? 

What will feel quite difficult to change? 

Healing through sensing and breathing

Ive found it important to go for a walk in nature everyday, which is equally beneficial as any antidepressant you could take. I check in with how I’m feeling and watch where the emotions are arising from. It’s not just about walking but completely taking in what you see, smelling what you smell, hearing what you hear. It’s about immersing yourself so that you’re practically swimming in it. When we begin to feel anxiety or fear rising, the first thing we do is to stop breathing properly. Breathing is one of the most natural things for us to do, but many of us only breathe into our chest which isn’t much more than panting. Some people pant their way through life. When we breathe properly into our whole body, it’s intrinsically relaxing and gives us so much more energy. My friend Mark White runs MEUS Practice, which is sort of Spotify for physical and mental health. He’s moving into the space next to me and I’m looking forward to what he’ll add to the wellness community here. He’s a great advocate of breathwork. He also organises something called Run Grateful which brings communities together through running. We worked on one initiative where you run the 

equivalent of a marathon over 24 hours. You initially do 5k, and every hour on the hour you run a mile and find something that you’re grateful for each time. I ended up walking 17 miles of it with people who needed to walk, and got them sharing some of their stories. It was a beautiful and emotional journey for a lot of people. 

Community is medicine

Its been important to keep up as much real-world communication as possible. Even when it was just the coffee shops open for takeaway, being able to have a conversation with that same person serving you felt like such a gift. The coffee shop downstairs from me – HWK – is amazing. Theres such a lovely community where I work. Doh has just moved in opposite which is a wonderful addition. You can watch them bake the bread – its the kind of community I grew up with. Im next door to GRL GYM and had the privilege of getting fit with them just before lockdown. I unfortunately caught Covid quite early on, and think I would have suffered a lot worse had they not improved my fitness. What I really loved is that when I went to train, it gave me the safe space to become vulnerable which was what I needed. Ive previously stayed away from gyms because I felt there were so many expectations of how I should be. But I felt able to flourish, and could really enjoy it. They did push me to my limits. But it was in such a beautiful cathartic way that I really enjoyed it. 

The gym Kasia has built is a wonderful safe space, and theres so much enthusiasm for what they do there. Shes really inspirational. Were now planning quite a few projects together, too. 

The beating heart of Hackney Wick

Theres a real beauty in that given the opportunity, we can all succeed. But a lot of young people in Hackney maybe havent had the opportunity to blossom where they could have. We musnt forget them. This is their home. This is where they were born. This is their roots. I think the key to keeping the spirit of Hackney Wick alive is communication. Letting people know the history here, letting them know what existed before, how we have all survived, and all come together. Its always been multicultural and that identity has been beautiful, and it helps us to grow. Weve always educated each other about our cultures and our religions, the way we eat, and the way we look. We all embraced it together. 

Eat your greens

Science has it: subbing animal- for plant-based proteins makes people live longer. Plants also contain polyphenols and other phytochemicals, such as curcumin (turmeric), quercetin (capers, onions, apples, berries), resveratrol (grapes, peanuts, blueberries) and sulforaphane (cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, rocket, mustard). These trigger all sorts of cool cell-protecting, inflammation-reducing and life- extending processes in our bodies.

Mother on the canalside offers not only a plant-based menu, but one that’s packed with other anti- inflammatory and mood-boosting ingredients. We recommend the lunchtime Mother Bowl which contains cauliflower, turmeric, garlic and probiotic pickles, or the Mother Kraut burger which has a potent anti-inflammatory combo of red cabbage and wholegrain mustard.

Get into nature

Try volunteering at Hackney Herbal’s garden. Kevin says: “I love the whole ethos of actually growing the herbs yourself – gardening and getting right in there – it’s a great boost for mental health. They’re a real community hub, getting young and old to work together.” Nat Mady from Hackney Herbal says, “there are lots of lovely plants that support our nervous system if we are feeling anxious or stressed, herbs like lemon balm, chamomile and passionflower. These can be combined into a restorative tea that can also help with sleep. Oatstraw (the stalks of the oat plant) is a wonderful herb for supporting our bodies through prolonged periods of stress and burnout.” Try their ‘Immuni-tea’ or ‘Rest and De-stress’ teas.

Creative self-expression

If people shy away from processing and feeling emotions fully during traumatic experiences, it can stop them suffering in the short-term but lead to long-term mental health issues. One way to face trauma is through 15 minutes of expressive writing daily, which helps people understand their feelings to find meaning and resolution.

Kevin recommends Core Arts, an education centre which supports mental health recovery, inclusion and wellbeing through creativity. “The power of the pen cannot be underestimated. In workshops I’ve run for men working through the trauma of childhood abuse, the creative process allowed them to explore and release their feelings.”

Lose yourself in the dance

Anthropologists have long noted the importance of group rituals like festivals and ecstatic dance in improving wellbeing and building cohesive communities. As far back as 100 years ago, Émile Durkheim termed this ‘collective effervescence’, and Radcliffe-Brown in 1922 described it: “As the dancer loses himself in the dance, he reaches a state of elation in which he feels himself filled with an energy beyond his ordinary state…at the same time finding himself in complete and ecstatic harmony with all of the fellow members of his community.”

Hackney Wick has never been short of places for a transcendent dance. We’re particularly excited by the arrival of the Colour Factory, the only black-owned large music venue in East London that’s championing cultural diversity and inclusivity. If exercise is more your thing, synchronise your movement in one of Strong + Bendy’s cheerleading or dancehall fitness classes.

Run, climb, even throw an axe

Many people took up running during lockdown, discovering
the mental clarity that it can bring alongside being a good cardiovascular workout. Victoria Park Harriers and Tower Hamlets Athletics Club meet in a handsome clubhouse on Cadogan Terrace with facilities including showers and gym equipment. All abilities are welcome to join them on their regular group runs in the park or at the track.

Over on Marshgate Lane, the Viewtube Runners are based out of the eponymous cafe, and run in the Olympic Park and beyond on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, or Sunday mornings. They also welcome all to come and join in.

Smaller gyms feel like a great way to ease yourself back into a fitness regimen safely after months at home. Wallis Rd’s Elite Revolution or Groundwork Training in Schwartz Wharf offer the personal touch that’s a world away from the more intimidating large gyms.

Skeeters Axe Range on White Post Lane was featured in a Guardian article last month entitled ‘How Britons are Cutting Stress in Half ‘, all apparently through the act of hurling a sharp tool into a hunk of wood. Skeeters co-founder Luc van Helfteren was interviewed about how the act of throwing

puts us in touch with a very primal human behaviour, and the focus when playing can lead to a kind of zen calmness for participants. It also has a quick learning curve, which is good for building self esteem.

Climbing is another sport where the need to focus can bring mental clarity. Check out Hackney Wick’s very own Boulder Project which offers friendly taster sessions on their indoor wall for beginners.

Yoga has been the mindful physical movement system of choice for thousands of years, so it’s good to see a full programme of classes across many different styles returning to Omega Hub for the summer.

Try communal sweat bathing

The British Sauna Society are currently running a crowdfunder
to bring authentic Finnish sauna and cold plunge to the canalside
in Hackney Wick. The heat shock itself mimics many of the effects of exercise. The anti-ageing pathways it triggers reduces the likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases and dementia. For the short-term, it also has an immediate anti- depressant action that can last up to six weeks, as well as being excellent for helping you get to sleep at night. Pledge your financial support at bit.ly/hackneywicksaunabaths, or visit their Hackney Wick pop up this June to try it for yourself.

The community aspect is important. Social isolation raises chronic inflammation which can lead to disease and depression, but just being around other people lowers it.

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