10 things to do when you start running

With today’s announcement of the imminent closure of the UK’s gyms, many people will flock to other forms of exercise, from home workouts to yoga, to running. It might not be for everyone, but with limited alternative options, there’s a strong likelihood more people will be giving it a go.

First off: Do it! In terms of stress-busting ability, a good cardio session is unbeatable. Running is hard, and certainly not always pleasant, but the feeling of achievement afterwards is incredible, and while we’re putting our whole lives on hold, a sense of achievement can be hard to come by. So far, it’s still being allowed (and even recommended) by the government, so long as certain precautions are made.

However, there are some things to think about before getting started, not least because if you injure yourself, seeing a doctor or physio may be harder than usual, and there aren’t many alternative exercises you’ll be able to try instead!

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Running doesn’t have to involve seeing anyone or touching anything, so now is the perfect time to begin (if your government allows!)

  1. Start with a programme

If you’re new to running, don’t jump straight in there. In a moment of extreme motivation (or madness, or stress), it can be tempting to lace up your shoes and try to run 10km. Some people may be able to, but most won’t. Trying a couch to 5k, or if you have some experience already, a 5k to 10k, will ensure you progress at a pace that is less likely to put too much strain on your joints and muscles. It’ll also ensure you get out regularly, which is important for mental health.

2. Wear the right shoes

If you only have metcons because you’re a cross fitter, or converses, please don’t run in these! Your chance of injury will be greatly increased  – Emma Kirk Odunubi has some great information on this, so if you’re not sure, ask her! Usually I would recommend getting a gait analysis to find the right shoes for you, but this is unlikely to be possible right now. Since the postal service is still up and running, buy yourself a pair of running shoes that you think will work (I like Asics, Adidas, Nike and Hoka) and run in those. They might not be perfect, but they’re likely to be better than your lifting shoes!

3. Take rest days

If you’re doing a couch to 5k or similar plan, this will be built into your schedule, but if you’re just taking yourself for runs, make sure to allow yourself time to recover! No matter how fit you are, running places strain on the muscles, ligaments and joints, as well as your body’s energy systems. Allowing at least 2 rest days a week if important for recovery.

4. Don’t always go long

Long distance running is one of the only sports that can temporarily weaken the immune system. While exercise of 30-45 minutes a day is beneficial to your immune system, the energy systems required for long runs, and the amount of cortisol (stress hormone produced) can temporarily reduce your immune defence. Pair this with cold weather and a global pandemic, and long runs might not be in your best interest. Of course, the definition of what a ‘long run’ is varies from person to person, but bear in mind that shorter and faster may be better, at least for now.

5. Intervals

I get asked a lot why, when training for a marathon or half marathon, I include fast paced, short intervals. Intervals may make you a better runner, quicker, but also have the power to make your longer runs feel easier. It’s also just a variant of your normal long runs. Having a varied training schedule means you’re likely to work muscles (and your brain) slightly differently each time, building strength and keeping yourself interested.

6. Cross-train

OK, so the gyms are shut and the average person doesn’t have tonnes of equipment at home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fit in other forms of training. More running doesn’t no necessarily make you a better runner, and fitting in cross training twice a week, with 3 runs a week is a great way to build strength and stave off injury. Try bodyweight exercises and physio exercises (prevention is better than cure!). Here are some great people to follow for online workouts. I also did a vlog with my physio where she talks about ways to avoid injury that’s worth a watch!

7. Eat well

This should go without saying, and most people don’t find it too hard once they start running! However, it’s easy to forget that new exercises (even if you exercised before) can be extremely energetically demanding for the body, and you need to eat to replace lost calories. Ensure your plate has plenty of colour (I don’t mean smarties) and dietary fibre, focussing on vegetables and wholegrains, and don’t forget your healthy fats (olive oil is a staple of my diet)! I don’t frequently take protein powder, but if you feel like you’re really struggling to fit in enough calories, this may be good to look into.

8. Sleep

With the start of any new exercise regime, the body can feel tired and sluggish, thanks to  a combination of having to learn a new skill and using up lots of physical energy. Getting adequate rest is vital for performance, but also your long-term health. You may need to sleep more if you are not used to exercising, so try to get to bed earlier and reduce caffeine intake if possible. Not being able to sleep is a symptom of overtraining, so if you’re feeling exhausted but unable to sleep after throwing yourself headfirst into a new running regime, maybe take a step back for a couple of weeks.

9. Keep away from people

It’s within the governmental guidelines (within the UK at least) that running while avoiding people is absolutely fine – recommended even! The benefits are notable, and will be a great thing to keep most people mentally sound. However, as mentioned above, you’re most vulnerable to getting sick for up to 72 hours after a long, hard run due to elevated cortisol levels. Combined with the inevitable bodily fluids from running, especially in the cold (spittle, sweat, snot – you name it, you’ll have it), it’s a really sensible idea to stay away from people as much as possible on your runs, for your own safety and theirs.

10. Enjoy it! 

Running is a love it or hate it sport, but if you’re in the latter camp, it doesn’t have to be that way forever. I used to HATE running, but I forced myself to do it because it was my alone time (and because I wanted to lose weight). Now, however, I am quite obsessed. I’m not even that good, but the sense of achievement and satisfaction I get after each run is unparalleled. I like to share my runs to Strava (a run tracking app) to get a sense of community spirit, even when I’m not running with others. Even in quarantine, we’re in this together!

 

I hope you found these tips useful! If you’d like to share them, please tag my Instagram and encourage everyone you know to take this up! Who knows, we could all come out of this epidemic in far better shape (mentally and physically) than when we went in.  

Keeping happy at home

Everyone is talking about COVID-19 right now, and with the global measures ensuring that people stay at home as much as possible, there’s very little to take our mind off it. Not all the emotions and thoughts we have are helpful though – anxiety above and beyond what we can change (e.g. washing hands, social distancing etc.) is only likely to exacerbate any issues, and cause more harm than good.

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Try not to stay in bed all day, tempting though it may be!

Harvard University has released a document with helpful resources designed to help people struggling with anxiety, especially health-related anxiety. They have some really useful advice on there, so please do share it (or this post) around!

Here are some of my favourite ways to cope with anxiety/stress of any variety:

 

Limit time on media of any form

It can be tempting to spend more time on social media and news sites when you’re stressed. Waiting for validation and dopamine hits through social media, and constantly checking up on evolving situations through news sites won’t help your brain switch off. You are allowed to take time away from the news if it is causing anxiety. I prefer to get my news from friends at times like these, because at least that way we are able to discuss in a productive way, rather than sit and dwell.

Focus on problem solving

With any issue, there will be things you can solve, and things you can’t. The feeling of helplessness is one of the worst feelings, so try to separate out concerns into ‘can fix’ and ‘can’t change’. This way you can work towards fixing what you can (washing hands, staying home, eating healthily, sleeping, social distancing/isolation) and accepting what you can’t (global spread, NHS limitations, general rules of biology).

Keep connected

Mental health struggles love isolation. Concerningly, people struggling from depression and anxiety can often feel like time alone is the only time they feel safe. Maintaining social connections, especially in a time when you can’t meet people face to face, is so important. FaceTime/Skype are great alternatives to face-to-face meeting – why not get in touch with people you haven’t had time to speak to in a while? Try to talk about things other than your concerns if you can.

Form a routine

When I struggled with depression, I found getting out of bed incredibly difficult, but staying in bed would give me a feeling of hopelessness, as if I couldn’t leave bed. Try framing your day around key points. Stick to regular mealtimes, wake at a reasonable hour, and try to fit in some form of movement in your day, whether inside or outside.

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Try to form routine, including meal times!

Gratitude journal

One of the main ways I totally changed my mindset when I was younger from ‘everyone hates me and everything is awful’ to a mindset of positivity was by keeping a gratitude journal. At first I hated it as I could barely find anything good to write in it, but slowly my mind switched from seeing the negatives in everything, to seeing the positives, if just to write it in the journal! At the end of each day, write down 5 things you are grateful for, however small.

Find purpose

At the beginning of the day, write a small list of things you want to achieve, and how you’ll go about achieving them. They don’t have to be complicated, but ticking off things from a to-do list can increase feelings of purpose (thought to be the most important factor in enjoyment of work). These can include doing laundry, loading/unloading the dishwasher, handing/rearranging paintings, watering plants, going for a run, applying for jobs, sending an email etc.

Do something selfless

Helping others is an intrinsically rewarding activity, promoting positive emotions in our own brains. It also can add perspective to problems. Doing good also improves optimism, confidence and gives you a feeling of purpose, without which many people struggle. Consider donating to charity, volunteering or simply helping someone out online.

Move!

Whether you are able to leave the house or not, if you are feeling up to it, get moving! Household chores are often enough to build up a sweat, but if that doesn’t do it for you, check out these Instagram and YouTube accounts that provide awesome home workouts without equipment. Even just 20 minutes a day is enough to get the endorphins going. If you can safely get outside, try going for a brisk walk at least once a day, or head out for a run. Remember, long distance running may suppress your immune system, so try intervals, or short-but-fast sessions instead.

Follow good news sites

If you can’t stop thinking about negatives, try unfollowing people who make you feel worse (this is a good thing to do anyway) and follow accounts that make you feel positive. The Happy Broadcast is posting lots about COVID 19, but they’re positive and proactive news stories. It’s one of my favourite accounts right now. The Daily Kitten and The Dodo are up there too.

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Try heading out for a run if you’re able to!

All images taken by my amazing friend Tamsin Louise.  

If you’re looking for more advice, check out this post on How to survive Blue Monday or How to beat the Winter Blues.

Overtraining

Fitness undoubtedly has a myriad of benefits, from the mood-boosting to the life-improving. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and over-training is an issue that can affect even amateur athletes in pursuit of their next PB or particular aesthetic goals.

When I first started training I felt invincible. Increasing my sessions per week left me exhausted but happy and no matter how much I trained, I always had the desire for more. However, long story short, recurring injuries and losing my period aged 17 left me questioning whether I really was helping my body, or whether my intense training regime was actually causing more harm than good.

It wasn’t until later that I discovered RED-S, or Relative Energy Deficiency in sport, previously known as Female Athlete Triad, which is now known to affect both men and women. If not enough food is consumed to cover the energy demands of your workouts, and the rest thereafter, chronic energy deficiency can occur – you basically run out of fuel in your body, and your body does what it can to make it up. This may mean fuelling from fat, muscle, brain and even the heart.

It is possible to be overtraining without all the symptoms of RED-S, and this can lead to a range of problems.

First, it’s important to bear in mind that overtraining is possible by:

a) Doing too much exercise (for your current level of fitness) or

b) not having enough recovery between workouts or

c) chronically underfuelling

It is possible to accidentally overtrain if you increase your training load without increasing food intake, decrease your rest times and/or reduce food intake.

Symptoms:

Decrease in training ‘gains’

We all want to make progress when we workout, but overtraining could hinder exactly that. Overtraining can lead to an increase in recovery times and decrease in performance, meaning that training sessions don’t provide the benefits that they should, so little to no improvement is seen.

Increased risk of injury

While most of us suffer from aches, pains and niggles at some point during a training regime, having recurring issues could be a sign of something more serious. When fatigue accumulates from lack of recovery, small injuries don’t have the chance to heal, and form can suffer, leaving the athlete at a greater chance of acute injuries, too. In addition, lack of food can lead to decreased bone density, especially in women, linked to fractures and osteoporosis, especially in athletes who don’t do weight-bearing exercises.

Insomnia/agitation/low mood

A good intake of food and sufficient rest are both important for our endocrine (hormone) system. When the body is under stress however, the overproduction of cortisol and disruption of other hormones can make it harder to wind down and fall asleep. This in turn can lead to low mood and agitation and, of course, less progress in training.

Recurrent illness

Training puts the body under a lot of stress, which when paired with rest can make it stronger. However, without sufficient food or rest, the body does not have enough energy to warn of viruses and other infections, making illnesses and infections more likely and more frequent.

Loss of period

When women train too hard, hormones can become unbalanced. Paired with a lack of energy availability, the body does not have the energy to support itself, let alone another life. Therefore many athletes lose their periods – whilst this is seen as ‘common’ and perhaps even ‘normal’ within the running community, it could be symptomatic of bigger issues and should never be ignored.

Often, overtraining is the result of a lack of education or an overabundance of enthusiasm for a particular sport. In these cases, recognising and resolving the problem can be quite simple. Eating more, ensuring rest days are adhered to and taking a step back from frequent intense sessions can resolve the above issues relatively quickly.

For some people however, the issues are more psychologically rooted, and may require professional help to deal with.  The paradox with RED-s and over overtraining, is that the result is reduced performance, exactly the opposite of what the athlete is aiming for. If you believe you might be suffering from overtraining, seek help from a health professional – not only will your training suffer if you don’t, but you could be putting your lifelong health at serious risk.

If you are unsure if you are suffering from overtraining, it is possible to measure bone density and hormone levels to ensure everything is in check. First, however, try reducing training intensity and/or increasing food consumption to see if any of the issues resolve themselves. A new PB is not worth the damage done from overtraining.

I hope this helps! I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject 🙂 Come and find me on Instagram and YouTube for more fitness and food content!

Notes on living as a human

What I learned from a night of spirituality

I wrote some Instagram stories about what I learned after a panel discussion with a number of leading life coaches, and thought it might be valuable to write them down here too, since I have received so many messages about how useful they are. If you like them, save this page to refer to when you’re feeling a bit down!

Before I get started I think it’s important to say that spirituality definitely isn’t for everyone – for me certainly I like to have a very ‘fact-based’ view of the world, and I find anything as ‘wishy-washy’ as spirituality quite overwhelming and confusing. If you’ve ever suffered from depression, you probably know what it’s like to sit with seemingly millions of thoughts rushing around your head, trying to make sense of them all and feeling like you might be going a bit crazy. Sometimes sitting with those thoughts is the worst thing you can do, and (at least for me), getting out of my own head was the best way to stop the ‘feeling crazy’ thing. So, if you’re suffering I would really recommend trying CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), which retrains your mind to get out of those thought clouds and into a healthier way of thinking. Either way, I think there’s some really valuable insights below, so here goes! 🙂

On reaching your full potential

There are a lot of things that hold us back from reaching our full potential in life, but most usually stem down to not feeling ‘worthy’ of achieving something, and lots of self-doubt. A great way of reducing those thoughts is to understand your limiting beliefs and question why you feel them- only by understanding the cause of limiting beliefs can we start to question them.

How to challenge beliefs:

  • Understand that a belief is just a thought – a lense through which we view the world. Our beliefs are OUR truths, but they are not necessarily THE truth. Thoughts are not reality and they can be changed.
  • Speak to people – we have a lot of blind spots in our thinking and the echo chambers in which we live don’t help that. Having people who challenge our beliefs (about the world and about ourselves) helps challenge beliefs. This can be from friends, family, a therapist and/or random strangers.
  • Physically challenge beliefs. Often the best way to change the way you view your abilities is to push yourself outside your comfort zones. Many of our beliefs about ourselves are outdated (e.g. failed a presentation at school and therefore unable to present in public in adult life) and need updating. Push outside your comfort zone and view ‘failures’ as learning experiences.

 

On authenticity:

Authenticity is incredibly hard to come by if you spend your life worrying about what other people think about you. Our ‘true self’ is diluted by trying to bend to the wills of other people. Know that perfection is impossible and chasing perfection is a fools folly. Stop caring so much about what other people think and be true to yourself.

 

Takeaways:

  • When your mind is in the right place and your mindset open to growth and learning, any and every experience in life is an opportunity. From the darkest places grow beautiful things and from the hardest times strength is made.
  • Trust the process
  • Your purpose in life is to be the fullest expression of yourself in everything you do. Fuck what anyone else thinks. As long as you are staying true to your values and remain open to potential other truths, you do you.
  • You are already enough, just the way you are.

Being busy – #goals or self sabotage?

NOTHING….is becoming rare and precious. Everything is hype, noise, desire, desperation, speed and greed. We in the modern world are good at ‘doing,’ but anemic at ‘being.’ Entertainment, busy-ness, texting while walking or even driving…’Efficiency’ is an addictive myth based on our fidgety fear of opening up. We can not ‘do’ properly until we can, first, ‘be’ fully. Practice doing nothing – then – we can accomplish…ANYTHING. — Project Happiness

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I have a habit of being deeply aware of my feelings and questioning why I feel a particular way in any given moment. I think it’s a way of processing emotions constructively, although it also inevitably leads to overthinking from time to time, but that’s another blog post. It occurred to me whilst walking down the road the other day that I was feeling guilty for not working. Despite starting work at 6:30am (as I often do), after finishing at 3pm I immediately felt lazy for not going back to work. The problem has always been present – during holiday at school and university, in my gap year, straight after I finished university – I have always felt the need to be busy. And if not actually busy, to the average onlooker I need to appear busy, because I equate busyness (and often stress) with success. And I’m not alone.

“We think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.” – Harvard Business Review.

As a society we believe that people who are the most busy are also the most important – it’s so ingrained into our psyche that it’s almost inevitable that when you ask a work colleague how they are, the response might be ‘busy, but good’. The ‘busy’ response is a signal – I’m being successful and getting things done. But does busyness equate to success? The research suggests not.

Being busy often instead equates to being stressed, anxious, sleep deprived and less productive, meaning that if that’s your permanent state, you’re unlikely to be as healthy as you could be. The reduction in productivity is because of multiple factors. Being busy often means multitasking, and according to research there is no such thing as a good multitasker.

Since it takes the human brain around 25 minutes to focus on a task at hand, choosing to flit between multiple tasks can mean that we never actually focus properly on anything with a work day or even week. These distractions can come in all sorts of forms, but emails and phones are especially bad, as they disrupt work flow and take up important mental bandwidth. Switching from one task to the next means it takes us around 25% longer to do things i.e. you are not being more productive!

Attempting to pack full your schedule – which, let’s be honest, with work, meetings, work events, social events, workouts and fitting in family time, is not hard – means you are unlikely to be working as efficiently as possible. Back in 1930, the average working week was around 50h, and it was expected that by now, due to technological advances, this would have reduced to around 15h. However, in the UK we work on average around 42.8h per week, which is longer that the averages around Europe, despite the UK being significantly less productive than comparative countries. Is this lack of productivity despite our long hours, or is it because of them?

The issue starts from the top – there is no real limit on the amount of work you are expected to do, and it’s easy to feel like putting in extra hours (and being seen to be doing it) could push you ahead. Since the 2008 financial crisis, UK employees are working longer hours for lower pay, because job security is low and competition is high. Bosses would rather see tired employees sit at their desks and be unproductive than go home, recharge mentally and physically and work harder tomorrow. In the UK (as well as many other countries) there’s no mechanism by which employers start to measure productivity rather than hours, and therein lies the problem. You sit at your desk longer, or rush around looking busy and productive and you’re seen as more important and a better employee, over the person who sticks to their hours and gets more done.

As someone at the beginning of her career, I am concerned by these statistics. I know how to be productive, and the vast majority of the time it doesn’t involve working long hours or sitting at my desk for long periods of time. Being freelance you might think the issue is better and in theory, I do have more freedom to change my hours. However, in the gig economy today, it’s pretty much impossible to stop without feeling like someone else could be taking such needed work that could be yours.

Just remember this: talking about all the things you’re going to do actually makes you less likely to do them. The chat makes you feel good enough about yourself that you actually become less motivated to do what needs to be done. Since so much of being busy is talking about how busy we are, a good step to being productive and taking more time off is to do your work with your head down and stop when you’re done. And stop telling everyone how busy you are, it’s making the problem worse.

When you stop trying to be ‘busy’ all the time, you free up space to become something better than busy. You become more effective, happier, more relaxed and, probably, the envy of all those ‘busy’ people.

Images by Caylee Hankins.

5 health tips for the New Year

I’m not a fan of New Year resolutions – I think everyday is a new beginning, and there’s no better time to start something than the present. However, for many, New Year brings the promise of new beginnings and a fresh start. So whilst I don’t think we need the new year to start going to the gym or eat more healthily, it’s as good a time as any, and starting a health kick alongside so many other people may just help you stick to it.

Here are some of my top tips for living that little bit healthier in 2019. Wellness is about making small decisions everyday that improve your health, not drastic changes that you can only maintain for a month. Why not give these a go – they may just become part of your daily routine!

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Spending more time in nature can improve mental health considerably

Walk more

I’ve left this very generic, because there are so many ways to fit more walking into your life, and what works for one person might not work for another. Whether it’s walking to the gym instead of driving, taking a 20 minute walk on your work lunch break or simply just using a loo further away from your office, walking more day to day can improve your health considerably. Going to the gym is great, but it’s what you do the other 23 hours of the day that can really impact your health, and moving more is one of the best ways you can help!

Eat more types of veg

When asked her top tip for living healthier, Dr Megan Rossicalled for more variety in the plant based food we eat. We all know about eating our 5 a day, but more important is eating a wide variety of plant based foods every week. The diversity helps our gut health, which is directly linked to our mental health. So, rather than trying to cut out foods this New Year, why not add a bunch instead?

Take time out in nature

Physical health and mental health are inextricably linked, and we should all be taking time to improve both to get the most out of the other. With our hectic lives, it’s sometimes incredibly difficult to learn how to stop and take time out, but spending time in nature has been shown to markedly reduce stress and anxiety levels. Since stress affects our mental performance and physical health, taking time out could really improve productivity, mental andphysical health, so it’s really a no-brainer!

Cut out/down on red meat

In the West, red meat has become a main-stay of our diet. No longer reserved for the rich or for special occasions, the average UK citizen eats more than the recommended maximum of 70g of red meat per day. Since multiple studies have found that red and processed meats increase the risk of colorectal cancer, cutting out these items can have a positive impact on your health. Paired with the negative environmental effects that red meat production has, giving it up (as many UK citizens are starting to do) can do wonders not only for your body but also for the world we live in.

Find a sport you love

Too many people put a vague ‘go to the gym more’ as their New Year resolution. What frustrates me is that so often these people don’t wantto go to the gym, and find no pleasure in doing so, so slog away 5 times a week, hating every second for about 3 weeks before giving up. Whilst it’s true that you can definitely learn to love it even if you don’t initially, choosing to partake in a sport instead can have a multitude of benefits that gymming doesn’t have. Finding a sport you enjoy means you’re more likely to stick to it, leading to longer term results and a more positive mental attitude towards fitness. See why I think everyone should train like an athlete. So your challenge this year (if you think you don’t enjoy exercise) is to find something you dolove – there’s something for everyone!

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Boxing is my sport of choice! Flora Beverley vs Sophie Grace Holmes at charity boxing match The Rumble hosted by The Lady Garden Foundation, on November 17, 2018 in London.

I hope this post was useful for you! These are all changes that I have made in my life that have seriously positively impacted both my mental and physical health, and studies suggest they can help you too. If you give any a go don’t forget to let me know so I can support you! 🙂

Anon I

Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder in the United States, and yet due to its secretive nature, we so rarely talk about it. As part of my #MentallyWealthy series I wanted to include a variety of mental health issues, which is why I am sharing this story with you. Thank you so much to A for sending this in, I hope it helps someone in need 🙂 

 

I first started binge eating in 2013, around 5 years ago now. At the time I was 16 years old, had just left high school to study ballet full time, attend auditions, compete, and focus on pursuing my dancing career. Being in the ballet industry, I was highly aware of my appearance, and I worked hard to maintain a very lean physique to adhere to what companies wanted.

The first couple of months went well; I trained hard and progressed to the upper stages in my competitions. I would spend half the day at home doing online studies, then train until the late evening. But as time went on, I started to snack on less-nutritious food, and this lead to a small amount of weight gain. It eventually drew the attention of certain people around me and they felt the need to comment on it. I was happy at the time, but drawing attention to what was wrong with my body made me think I wasn’t good enough, and that I needed to “be better” by eating less and losing weight. This line of thinking back-fired and the restriction lead me to start sneaking the foods that I really wanted to eat in private when I was at home alone.

Cue the restrict-binge cycle. I would frantically raid the kitchen for things I deemed “unhealthy” that I could take without my family noticing. It didn’t even have to taste that good; if it was in abundance and a “forbidden” food, I would eat it. After the frenzy of collecting this food, I would take it up to my room where I was in a safe space – no one would discover me there as long as I kept the food hidden. My heart would be racing, palms sweating, my stomach would have a weird butterfly feeling, and I would almost feel high off “not being caught”. I would then begin to feel relaxed – the thought of consuming all this food that I had “forbidden” myself for so long was enticing, a huge release from my self-imposed restriction. During the binge I would feel happy, content and detached from my feelings, because I was finally allowing myself to be “free”. I’d keep eating to the point of feeling sick and my stomach couldn’t stretch anymore. When I couldn’t physically eat another thing, I would wake up out of the “dream-like” state I had been in and feel embarrassed, ashamed, and extremely disappointed within myself over my “lack” of self-discipline. Then I would binge again to make myself feel better. It was a vicious cycle.

After 6 months of training full-time, I travelled to the U.S. for a 2 month elite summer school at a well-known ballet company. I was advised to take this opportunity to “lean out”, and I was determined to take on this advice to stop my bingeing for good. Upon arriving there, a lot of factors worked against me. I was the only Australian in my level and despite attempts to make friends, I was scared to put myself out there socially. My roommate and I didn’t particularly get along, making me feel even more alone. This feeling of isolation was not a good combination for my eating habits. Everyone would go out to enjoy some ice-cream a couple of times a week and have a cookie after dinner, but because I’d restricted myself I felt like I couldn’t engage in these activities with them. Instead, I would hide in my room and binge on the foods I’d bought from the supermarket, giving me a sense of comfort from the foreign environment I was in.

At the end of the two months, I was desperately missing home and very lonely. I hadn’t lost the weight I’d wanted to, and felt like a failure going back, despite the fact I’d been chosen to perform in many lead roles and gained the interest of the company directors. I saw myself as not good enough because of this. Upon arriving home I tried to use extreme methods of restriction to lose the weight. Of course, it didn’t work – I would feel so deprived I would binge even worse than before. This continued to the end of the year – the pursuit of a dancing career was becoming too much for me and after my experience in the U.S. I decided to go back to school.

Since then, my relationship with food has been up and down – my weight has yo-yoed many times and I still struggle with bingeing to this day. It took a hit a couple of years ago when an immediate family member was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The stress of the situation was a lot to bear at the time, and having the responsibility of looking after her during treatment took a great toll on my mental health.

A big change happened at this point. I had to take her place on a trekking trip the following year and in order to do that I needed to get fit. I started walking long distances to get my endurance up, and then train with a heavy pack to prepare myself for the altitude. This didn’t end my bingeing habits for good, but it gave me something positive to focus on that didn’t require good aesthetics, helping to clear my mind and improve my mental state. What has changed for me since then is my relationship with myself. While I go through phases of not having good self-esteem, the “illness” has taught me how strong I can be and that my appearance does not define who I am as a person and what I can achieve. If I could go back to my 16-year-old self and tell her anything, it would be to stop being so mean to herself and just be content with the way she is! She doesn’t need to adhere to unnatural body standards to be great at something, because she is so much more than that.

In terms of how it’s affected my relationships, the urge to binge previously overruled my desire to see my friends – I would cancel plans to then binge at home because it felt comfortable. I lost a lot of friends because of this, and I will be the first to say that the binges weren’t worth all the good times I missed out on. My family has had to cope with my bad moods, anxiety and depressive tendencies surrounding the binge-eating cycle, with me constantly hiding in my room not wanting to talk to anyone. And to my partner, while I don’t seem to worry about what he thinks of my weight, I still fret over whether he will think I simply lack self-discipline, or that I have too much “emotional baggage” to deal with. I’m trying my best to overcome these thoughts, but some days it’s easier said than done.

So while I am still struggling with this, it’s made me stronger and more empathetic towards other people and whatever they may be going through behind the scenes. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and I know what kind of person I want to be in the future. There’s nothing else to do now except keep chipping away at the “recovery” stone and focus on getting better!
To all of you who are suffering from binge eating and feelings of guilt – you are not alone. 

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Katie

This post is a little different to the others, as Katie herself has not herself suffered from a mental health disorder. Many of you reading this are probably the same – 75% of you do not have a mental health disorder. But with 25% of people experiencing mental health problems each year, it is likely that you will live with/know/date/be friends with someone who experiences these issues. Katie explains what it was like growing up with a mother with serious depression. You can find Katie on Instagram

Depression isn’t something that occurs for a month or two. It is a constant feeling of sadness with no hope of getting better. Some people suffer from depression for many years or maybe most of their life. At times, when you live with someone with a mental illness, it leaves you feeling lonely, angry, insecure and upset.

My mom has had a mental illness for my entire life (and I’m 23). Living with a parent with mental illness is hard, challenging, discouraging and lonely.  A parent with depression is hard to explain to someone that hasn’t lived with them. It’s not something my family has really talked about but it’s like there is an elephant in the room but no one wants to go near it.

When I was younger, it was almost as if my mother wasn’t around. She slept a lot, missed out on my swim meets, practices, and getting to know me. There were times where I wouldn’t see my mom for a week because she was sleeping in her bedroom, away from the house and the world. This left me angry and hurt for many years. Little details about my life she didn’t know and it appeared she didn’t care. I would tell her either about my practices or my friends and it would go in one ear and out the other with no retention. Imagine being a 12-year-old and thinking your mother hated you and wanted nothing to do with you. I blamed myself for a while, maybe it was something I did or am doing. Or maybe it’s just me in general. I would see my other friends interact with their mothers and wish I had that. I wish I had someone to talk about my crushes with or have someone to teach me about makeup. Don’t get me wrong, my mom was there sometimes, but not all the time.

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It wasn’t until I was doing my undergrad that I started to gain more knowledge about depression. It was then that I decided to let go of the past and actively learn more about her illness. As I learned more I realised it wasn’t because she hated me or was embarrassed by me, it had nothing to do with me in fact. All those years of guilt, the need to be careful of what I said, and the hatred had been let go. I know that I will never fully understand what is occurring in her mind but I now have more patience and time for the illness. I’m not so quick to have an argument or get mad. However, this has also led me to distance myself from her. As she still has a mental illness, some of the issues I had when I was younger are still occurring. Little details in my life she doesn’t know and sometimes when I talk to her she chooses not to listen. The truth is, I have grown and learned from the experiences that occurred when I was younger. I do feel, however, the feeling of not being good enough will never go away. I was lucky though, I have a father that is my best friend and I can talk to. The only part I wish I could change is the fact my parents didn’t sit sat me down and explained depression to me.

Today, so many people speak up about their mental health issues but not many talk about the immediate impact of a loved one’s mental health on their family or friends. I think it’s important to realise mental illness affects more people than we know, not only those suffering personally.

My mom is not mean or hateful, but her mental illness makes me think at times she can be cold and unaware. I still wish my mom was my best friend but I wouldn’t be the strong independent person I am today if she didn’t have a mental illness. There are always going to be the good days and the bad days. I am trying to enjoy as many good days as I can. No one is perfect and life isn’t perfect. Everyone has their own insecurities and their own issues. It’s how we react or handle these is what matters. I hope one day she overcomes her mental health issues and can do everything she wants to without hesitation. Until then, I will keep being the supportive daughter that loves her mother very much. Through all the ups and downs she is my mother and I love her.

It can be hard knowing someone with mental health issues, and at times it can seem like they don’t care about you at all. When that person is very close to you it can really hurt when they push you away. Talking about mental health issues will help increase awareness so that those struggling feel more able to talk about their problem, hopefully leading to a more open and accepting society. 

Beth

I love this piece by Beth, which explains her experience of inpatient treatment for PTSD and depression. It’s so well written and I think a must read for anyone who fears seeking help for whatever reason, or has a friend who is the same. You can find Beth on Instagram

I spent the majority of 2011 in a psychiatric hospital. Eventually, I was discharged on my fifteenth birthday. The cook made me flapjack and I ate it with my mum in the communal food hall. Happy birthday and goodbye!

Seven years after, the surreal experience is still clouded by shame and ugliness. The recent discourse about mental health is that we need to be open and talk more.  Yet, it’s not an experience I know when, how or why I’d bring up. Now seems like a good time.

Before my admission, the depth of my knowledge of hospital was second-hand accounts and a grisly watching of Girl, Interrupted. Hospital, however, was much less Girl, Interrupted and more boarding school with mentally ill teenagers (this is paraphrased from another patient, but it’s the best description). If I had known this before, I probably wouldn’t have hidden in my room on the first night.

I was initially diagnosed at thirteen with depression, and later post-traumatic stress disorder. My triggers were easy to trace, but felt hard to talk about or treat: the death of my father and being sexually assaulted. I had a mix of relatively helpful to completely useless talking therapies, CBT, art therapy and medications. My advice now: say when therapies aren’t working. Don’t waste your time and health when there are different options.

My admission followed a half-hearted suicide attempt (it’s easier to ask for help) and a week stay in a general hospital. To be admitted, I was interviewed by nurses in the hospital and then transferred to the psychiatric ward. There, more interviews. Psychiatrists, doctor, nurses and occupational therapists. It was intimidating, exhausting and I’d told multiple people various traumatic events over and over. I felt terrified, and alone. They told me, you are here voluntary. But if you want to leave, we will section you. Plus, this is a locked unit.

After being admitted, my mum had to leave. I’d never been away from home before. I curled up in fluffy owl pyjamas and cried. My first night’s cry was interrupted by other inpatients game of knock, knock ginger. Like, I said, hospital is not like Girl, Interrupted.

Hospital was bizarre, amusing and embarrassing. On a day out with occupational therapy kayaking, I nearly capsized and drowned another patient, I had an endless collection (to this day) of stickers for daily ‘arts and crafts’, my care team confiscated pencils sharpeners for being a ‘risk’ (colouring is hard with blunt pencils). Hospital, for me, provided a safe space for me to be ill. It provided me with access to care. I was with other patients and I didn’t have to pretend. Hospital can help you if you need it.

Hospital was hard and lonely. Observation initially included fifteen minutes, arduous checks. Yes, I’m okay. I never said anything else. Struggling to get up for morning breakfast, drowsy with meds. Nurses checking your tongue to see you aren’t spitting meds out. Missing family, school, and friends. I longed for visiting hours. My mum would take me to a Costa nearby. A Tiffin and a hot chocolate was an essential part of my care plan.

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The treatment was intense. I had weekly meetings with a psychiatrist who would assess me (somewhat brutally and painfully, I used to believe) and a doctor for medication. I had intensive trauma therapy; three, long sessions a week. Family therapy, too, which makes my toes curl now. Recovery and treatment is hard, but you’re health is worth the hard work.

Now, I have a supportive, loving relationship, I’m achieving at university, and I live independently in my flat and am surrounded by beautiful people. This is not to say I don’t struggle. I rely on my anxiety medication, I feel debilitated by self-doubt and I’m constantly pushing to be kinder to myself, to let go, and to counter the constant negativity. Hospital was valuable in finding better coping strategies. This advice is out there already: but for me, hospital confirmed it and I hope it’s helpful.

Ground yourself:  Self-care can definitely ground you. However, hospital had more on this. At the time, this was the worst advice I’d ever heard and I scoffed and took it personally. In group therapy, we were told that when we had low moods, read the news, current affairs. I thought the sentiment was “some people have it worse”. It wasn’t, and no one needs to hear that. But mental illness can isolate you and take up your whole focus. Looking outside of that reminded me that pain is an experience humans share. I wasn’t alone. It enabled me to understand pain as a normal experience of being human.  

Be kind: This is, of course, something we hear a lot. Be kinder to yourself. In hospital, I gained four stone (it was primarily an eating disorder unit and I was happy to keep up with the meal and snack times). I ignored family and friends. I was horrible to my mum. I was so hard on myself for this. It’s not necessary, recovery is difficult and takes a lot. Be kind, focus on getting better.

Shame has no place in your life: Get it out, get rid of it. No thank you. Tell people you’re down. Overshare. For such a long time, it felt easier to pretend it wasn’t happening. Yes, I’m okay. Mental health is nothing to be ashamed of, your scars are nothing to be ashamed of.

You don’t need a justification: The recurrent themes of my observation notes were ‘lacks confidence and self-belief’.  I remember thinking, so? Doesn’t everyone? I felt wholly inadequate, never ill enough, to be there. How ridiculous is it that I couldn’t see the blinding contradiction – even in hospital, a botched suicide later, I thought I’m not good enough to be here. You deserve treatment, you deserve help, and you deserve love. You don’t need to justify your mental illness, you don’t need to find a reason, and you need to know you deserve to feel better.

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This has to be one of my favourite pieces written for this series, as it so eloquently describes Beth’s experiences of hospital and the many thoughts of people with mental health issues. Mental health can be funny sometimes – when you’re at your lowest point that’s sometimes when you see things without a filter, and there can be a sort of dark humour in those moments. Thank you Beth for writing this!

Hazel

This post was written by Hazel, who bravely sent it to me to shed light on a rare condition called selective mutism. There are so many mental health conditions out there, and I think it’s so important to understand that although these are ‘invisible illnesses’, anyone could have them. You can find Hazel on Instagram

 

Imagine being back in school, in a group of your classmates. Now imagine that every time you want to speak, you go over it hundreds of times in your head. Imagine worrying about what you’re about to say every time you speak. Imagine knowing that you want to speak making you physically shake and feel sick, your heart beat so fast you can hear it, and the conversation goes on without you. As you’ve nearly got the courage to speak, you realise the conversation has moved on and it’s too late. You realise you’ve not spoken that day at school, maybe even that week. Every lesson you sit there terrified the teacher will pick on you. Even saying yes to the register is something you think about constantly, not being able to concentrate until it’s over. No one wants to sit with you because you don’t speak – you’re at best ‘boring’ and at worst ‘weird’. You’re too scared to eat in front of others and leave your packed lunch untouched, even though your stomach is rumbling, and wolfing it down once you’re alone on the bus home. That was my experience for my 5 years at secondary school, every single day. It’s not that I refused to speak; I literally couldn’t. And it was only more recently that I learnt it was an actual, rare psychiatric condition – Selective Mutism.

I was always a quiet child, and teachers always claimed I’d ‘grow out of it’. Now, anyone with social anxiety knows that isn’t true. As I got older the severity lessened to the point I would talk to a small group of friends and started to go to parties etc by sixth form. But I’d still stand outside classrooms feeling sick if I had to walk in late, knowing people would look at me. I’d still sometimes be too scared to go and sit with my friends, thinking they didn’t like me or I wasn’t fun enough. Any group conversation I had I’d still rehearse; my voice would go shaky and I’d feel a massive adrenaline rush afterwards. So much so that I’d often be so deep in my thoughts I’d lose track of the conversation entirely. Social anxiety is arguably a very selfish mental illness as in you think about yourself a lot – how you act, feel, are perceived by others. I often cancel plans last minute because I’ve spent hours crying about having to go outside.

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Moving to university was something I knew I had to do – to remove myself from my very safe feeling home environment and try to conquer my fears and finally make proper friends. I went out a lot and met a lot of new people. I loved my housemates. I started feeling like I was ‘over it’. This came crashing down in my second year when I felt unable to go to lectures, spent hours alone in my room crying and even began to cut my arm with a razor in a bid to shock myself out of particularly bad panic attacks. Pain was the only way to get out of my own head. I claimed this was a burn, a cut, and being clumsy no one ever questioned it. I’d go out and drink far too much, feeling too awkward unless I was blackout drunk. I ended up in hospital three times, and it could have been much, much worse. The embarrassment combined with the depressant effect of alcohol just made my anxiety worse, which was such a vicious cycle. I spent hours and hours crying to my boyfriend at the time, hating the way I looked, and the slightest thing could set me off. I wouldn’t meet his friends or go out when it’s be more people than just us. Feeling so self-conscious and low I knew I had to get help or lose him.

Having CBT and starting to take anti-anxiety medication was how I began to fight social anxiety, after suffering for over 10 years. I still sometimes shut down and want to be alone – being around groups of people or even close friends/housemates can be exhausting. But getting hep was the best thing I ever did, and I’m not sure I’d be about to graduate without it. I always saw people who turned to medication as weak, which is a stigma which needs to end. Mental health is something we need to speak about, and as the first time I’ve shared this to anyone, this is me saying that I refuse to feel embarrassed about my mental health.

Thanks so much to Hazel for sending this in! Sending all my love xx