This post was written by Eleanor as part of my #MentallyWealthy series. Elly has bipolar disorder, and writes about how exercise has helped her cope. You can find Elly on Instagram.
Feeling “hyper” is an exciting feeling, right? Your energy is skyrocketing and your thoughts going 100mph. Experiencing a change in mood and energy levels is completely human. But imagine that instead of those hyper periods lasting for an hour or so, it’s two weeks. And then after that the depression comes. It feels like it will never end. Eventually it does, but then the hypomania comes again.
There are two types of Bipolar Disorder, I’m going to talk about type II and how fitness has been the biggest part of my recovery. I’d like people to see that having a mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t choose how you want to live with it, that you can pursue your passions and find your sense of self again.
Since I can remember, I have loved being active. I love the challenge of sport and putting my competitive mindset to good use. I started athletics when I was 9, figure skating at 12, and loved to climb mountains. But alongside this kid that was smiley and happy, I also had mood swings and slept very badly.
At the age of 16, I started experiencing severe depression. I didn’t want to tell people what was going on in my head for fear of being seen as anything other than a happy person, thinking I was imposing negativity on others. I also held onto the false belief that people wouldn’t care anyway.
When I got to college I struggled; sleep was constantly a problem, the workload was more intense and as a result I was even more angry with the world for not letting me sleep. I was in and out of hospital whilst getting support from CAMHS and then the Adult Mental Health service. My identity felt like it was gradually eroding away: I couldn’t maintain my studies, social commitments were impossible to keep and what had previously been my passion in sport, I started to resent and then give up. It felt like a joke to hear “it’ll get better” after years of feeling like I was fighting to get out of a black hole that was invisible to everyone else around me. And I was tired of fighting.
Before university, I was diagnosed as Bipolar Type II. After numerous medications, we thankfully found some that worked for me. It isn’t completely certain what causes individuals to have Bipolar Disorder, but genetic and environmental factors can play a large part.
I started athletics again while I was getting used to this new medication. At the time, for me, it was the perfect way to feel physically tired, focus my mind on learning new skills and for the endorphins that followed. I also started surfing, and it truly felt that exercise was another form of medication supplying my brain with the “happy” chemicals I couldn’t produce myself. It was a way of connecting my mental state with my physical body and it made me feel like myself again.
There are times when exercise doesn’t make you feel instantly better, and maybe you lose a little hope. But doing something that will benefit you in both the short and long-term can seriously help to make low moods pass. On the flip side, it is also a productive way to use any extra energy you have.
In hypomania my brain becomes wired in overdrive; I plan out massive unachievable things, my behavior changes and decisions I make can be risky or even dangerous. But when exercise is introduced, my mind is focused on one thing: whether this is running, lifting weights or surfing. It can be a way to work through a multitude of feelings and get your head space back to a safer place, and it was the biggest part of my recovery.
I still have times when I feel incredibly low or have unusually high levels of energy. Acknowledging these feelings is the first step: know that it is okay to feel down, hyper, happy, fatigued and that all of these feelings eventually pass.
Thanks so much to Elly for sending this in!