By Tim Porteus

I CAN remember, quite vividly, sitting on the Greenhills by Prestonpans when I was around 10 years old looking out to the sea. I was alone and deep in thought. I cannot remember now exactly what the issue was, but something had happened that seemed to be unfair, and it had made me angry.

It was a windy and cold day. The tide was in and the waves rolling and crashing created a kind of meditative sound. I don’t know how long I sat there, as time seemed to dissolve as I listened to the sea, and smelt the salt air.

Later I walked by the shore, again alone, and I remember how my mood had changed.

My memory of that day fades at this point: I cannot recall what happened as I returned home. But clearly the sea had done its job in calming my emotional state.

Memories are not like books on a shelf which we can take out and look at, and then return. Our memories are really about emotions rather than happenings. We connect to the emotions first, our brain then does a search for the events associated with the emotion. Songs, smell, sounds and places can trigger emotion which then leads to associations with actual events.

So it’s the emotion attached to events which will mark it as significant. That’s why we remember the unusual moments more than the everyday ones. We remember the events when our emotions were aroused, either positively or negatively.

That day I was angry. The sea was pretty much on our doorstep, so it was probably an obvious place to go to be alone, away from my siblings, to rage at the injustice I felt. But it was a good choice, because the sea has a powerful ability to heal.

There seems to be a sense by some that the sea is a place to go only when it’s sunny and warm. In fact, the gifts of the sea are given all year round, and it is winter time, or a time of storm and wind, that the sea becomes a powerful place to find nature’s healing.

How lucky we are to live in a county where we have 40 miles of coastline, much of it close to communities and accessible. Those with a sense of adventure and physical ability to do so can find parts of the coast to themselves, even in busy times.

But as I learnt all those years ago, the sea can speak to us directly. Simply sitting by it, or walking along the shore while sharing our thoughts, can be a powerful form of mental as well as physical healing.

Some take this a step further by bathing in the sea on a regular basis – yes, even in the winter. There are real benefits to swimming in a cold sea, both in terms of mental and physical health. But I think it helps if others do it with you, as an encouragement! The Loony Dooks which take place at North Berwick, Dunbar and elsewhere around the coast should be a weekly event, not a yearly one!

But we don’t need to be in the sea to feel its benefits, just by it and connected to it mentally, and yes, spiritually. This is a serious point. We have an epidemic of mental health issues, and while there is no one simple explanation or solution, we need to understand the significance of our disconnection from nature and its impact on our mental health. Spending time by the sea is a tonic for body and mind.

I think we felt this last week when we headed for the rocks at North Berwick on Boxing Day. It was here that Robert Louis Stevenson played as a boy and discovered a small cave in which he imagined tales of pirates and smugglers. The island of Fidra, said to be his inspiration for Treasure Island, can be seen further along the coast.

The tide was in, so it wasn’t possible to see the cave. But in scrambling over the rocks, discovering other things and sitting by the waves, the sea did its magic for our family and myself. The waves were crashing and if you studied how they hit the rocks you could see how the hand of the sea had carved them in certain ways.

We sat and explored there – not noticing the nippy wind – for a good hour. It was an overcast afternoon and darkness fell soon. But the walk along the beach to the town for a hot chocolate was the final part of the therapy!

Our coastline is a gift for us and we need to use it, and respect it, more. The beaches, coves and cliffs of our county are a true treasure. Try spending more time with them, listening and experiencing the sea, walking or sitting with it.

I promise you, you will feel better, and have a story to tell.

Happy New Year.