Abi

This blog post was written by Abi as part of a series to raise awareness of mental health issues. Abi has anxiety and has suffered from various eating disorders and writes about why we need to start thinking of mental illness as similarly serious as physical ailments. You can find Abi on Instagram

I just want you to take a minute and think about someone you know, a friend or a family member who’s been physically hurt – maybe a broken leg or a sports injury – where you could visually see them in pain. Now imagine being that individual suffering, but suffering in silence – on the outside you may be smiling, but on the inside everything is shutting down.

The reality of mental health vs physical health is that they are just as important as one another. However mental health is overlooked due to the absence of physical symptoms. As a sufferer myself of anxiety, eating disorders and perfectionism, my mental health hit such a low that I couldn’t see a day I would smile again, laugh again or simply be happy in my own skin. Just because I may be smiling on the outside, it doesn’t mean the voices, rules and overpowering anxious thoughts aren’t crippling me from within. Just because I can’t put a plaster on it, or a doctor can’t visibly see my pain, it doesn’t mean I don’t lie in bed at night planning my meals, planning new rules, listening to this so called best friend in my head over-ruling my life, giving me the illusion of control but slowly taking everything, including control, away.

Apart from rambling on and explaining my personal journey – one which I am still travelling through today, the messages I want to get out of this are as follows…
  •  You, yes you, the person reading this. You are worthy. Worthy of help, worthy of happiness and worthy of everything you desire.
  • A problem shared is a problem halved – talking is the best medicine for mental health. You may not be able to put a plaster on it or stitch up the wound – but the more you talk, off-load and express your thoughts, the lighter, more at ease and less anxious you will feel.
  •  I like to describe my journey through anxiety, eating disorders and perfectionism like physiotherapy. It hurts, but the issue will only get better if you are persistent and battle through the pain. Ignore the voices, scrap the rules and ask for help.
  •  Finally, remember. It’s okay not to be okay.
Let’s break the stigma and all call out. Mental health is so important – never be afraid, because one day mental health will be just and important as physical health.
image1

Thank you to Abi for sending me this post. It’s so important to remember that just because your illness isn’t visible, that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Slowly I think the tides are changing, but it takes brave people like Abi talking about their struggles to really make the change. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

MHAW

Sabrine

This blog post was written by Sabrine Elouali as part of a series to raise awareness of mental health issues. Sabrine has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and anorexia and writes about how this has affected her life. You can find Sabrine on Instagram

 

Be honest. Have you ever said you’re “so OCD” about something? Or perhaps that seeing a messy room triggers your OCD? If you stopped and sat down with a piece of paper, could you actually write a description of what OCD is? I can guarantee that pretty much 100% of people, if asked, wouldn’t be able to. In dedication to Mental Health Awareness Week, I am here to share my experience with OCD and how this mental illness has and continues to affect my life.

OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is categorised as an anxiety disorder, so sits amongst Generalised Anxiety and Phobias. The name of the illness itself is quite self explanatory. The sufferer has obsessions, which are patterns of overthinking and worries that can surround a multitude of topics. The most common that are identified when diagnosing OCD are: Contamination (fear of germs/dirt), Harm (fear you are a danger to yourself or others) and Checking (fear of unlikely disaster based on perceived negligence to your surroundings) But there are many other single forms as well, and more often than not, these categories tend to overlap, with individuals experiencing more than one single obsession. The sufferer then also has compulsions. This is a far more broad area of the illness, and is hard to summarise the main compulsions that are participated in. But the majority centre around repetition, so repeating certain behaviours/actions/compulsions in order to relieve anxiety. Some examples include: Repetitive hand washing, Repetitive asking for reassurance and Repetitive locking/unlocking of doors. Again, this is very brief and compulsions can spread to tens if not hundreds of different behaviours that cause the sufferer to become stuck.

OCD 2

I thought it was important to share what OCD actually is before I shared my story with it. I have with Anorexia and OCD, both of which started fairly close to each other, but my Eating Disorder preceding my OCD by around 3-4 months. To have co-morbid diagnoses like these are common, but not often talked about. I am still struggling with my Mental Health 7 years on from initial identification. It is not an easy thing to treat, and comes with immense challenges and difficulties. I’ve had hospital admissions for both of my illnesses in the past, and I’ve also had community treatment. Currently, I am technically under adult services in my community, but am not receiving therapy due to its ineffectiveness and am waiting on a private OCD specialist hospital referral.

OCD post

So how does OCD affect my life? In all honesty, I think a better question would be how doesn’t it. My OCD consists of intrusive thoughts and images that are focused on a fear I have. This fear is an extremely terrifying and anxiety provoking thing for me and so I don’t feel comfortable sharing what it is. However, I will still try to be as detailed as I can. As well as the constant ruminations in my mind, I exhibit repetitive compulsions. Anything for me can become a ritual/behaviour. Walking up the stairs so steps are repeated up and down, turning a light on and off, touching a door handle and not being able to let go.

These are just a few that I do daily, and so it is easy to see why I am pretty much housebound and cannot go out to do simple routine tasks that would be required in a normal life. Besides the external struggles that my OCD presents me with, we have to remember it’s a mental illness, and my internal mental struggles are just as difficult, if not a lot harder than the outward compulsions people can see. Constantly having thoughts and images flashing and replaying in my head all day of my fears. Like watching a horror movie that just doesn’t end. You watch it again, knowing what to expect, but still end up just as scared as the last time. Unbearable anxiety and living on edge all the time. Fighting to convince yourself of the logic you know is real but being deceived by the irrationality of OCD. Knowing that nothing will happen if you don’t repeat a wash/check etc. but feeling so engulfed in your thoughts and fears that you question what is real.

I suppose the next question would be, if I can’t do normal things, what can I do? Unfortunately I lost a part time job I had for two years that I enjoyed due to my OCD struggles. After a final managers meeting with 2 senior staff members and a gruelling 45 minute waiting time for a decision, it was concluded that “there was nothing more they could do” as it is “a business”. As much as I kind of knew that answer was coming, I cried in front of them as I handed over my locker key and staff discount card. It was a hard day, and was a big catalyst to my illness deteriorating further. As well as that, because my OCD is so severe, I’ve missed out on university. I’ve thought about the possibility of distance learning but the degrees are so limited in choice, and I’d rather not spend energy and time on something I’m not truly passionate about. At this point, I’m not sure what I’ll do career wise. My love of poetry and writing in general has me keen on blogging or journalism of some kind. But my connection to mental health draws me to want to work in services with people like me. I’m hoping I’ll find a way to do a mix of both as that’s where I think my heart lies.

Thank you to Sabrine for sending me this post. It is easy to see how OCD can so drastically affect your life, and talking about it will make people more aware of the realities of living with a mental illness. If you suffer too, know that you are not alone. 

If you’d like to get in touch to write for this series please email florabeverley@gmail.com. Please hashtag #MentallyWealthy in any Instagram/twitter posts and spread the word!

How to survive blue Monday

The third Monday of January, also known as Blue Monday, has been calculated to be the most depressing day of the year. Cheerful right? Factors such as weather, debt, time since Christmas and, surprise surprise, it’s a time most of us have failed our New Year’s resolution by. I don’t know if I buy into it – in reality the whole of the winter is kind of depressing, but good days and bad days come and go, and we move on!

However, if you’re struggling around this time of year, here are some ways to cheer yourself up. There’s no doubt that the holidays can sometimes leave us drained. Changes in routine can leave us sleep deprived and unmotivated, especially when paired with media messages trying to get us to buy into every fad. Why not try these little things to reset your mind and body, and make Blue Monday into a positive day, instead of the miserable day the media wants us to expect.

Take care of your mind

Too little time to ourselves over Christmas can mean we forget to give ourselves a break. The first thing that goes when we are very busy is time alone and time to rest. Try these to get back some of that peace of mind.

Headspace app: Meditation has shown to help people relieve stress, focus more and sleep better, leaving us better able to cope with everything else in life. The headspace app takes you through meditation. If you’re like me (i.e. hyperactive and constantly distracted), it’s better than an hour’s yoga, because it’s only a few minutes long. Everyone can spare 10 minutes a day!

Dancing: It may sound silly, but putting on some great tracks and having a ridiculously enthusiastic dance around your room can do wonders for your mind. It doesn’t have to be long, just long enough to get your heart rate up and put a smile on your face. We spend so long being serious, this is a nice change of routine.

Colouring in/drawing: Drawing or colouring in relaxes the brain, especially the fear centres of the brain, reducing anxiety and stopping us from focussing on any worries we might have. Grab an adult colouring in book and set aside some time each week to reset your mind to neutral.

Do good: 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 at work.

Get a SAD lamp: One of the major issues in winter in Northern latitudes is that the daylight hours are very short. Too short, in fact, to acquire enough vitamin D during the day. Low levels of vitamin D can contribute to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and this leaves many people feeling low in winter. A SAD lamp has particular frequencies that allows the body to produce more vitamin D. Put it on in the morning to help you wake up, and in early afternoon to reduce afternoon slumps. Check out my post on how to beat the winter blues to learn more. It’s also recommended that everyone in the UK takes vitamin D supplements in winter!

Social media: Unfollow accounts that make you feel inadequate, jealous or any other negative emotions. Sure, it’s good to aspire to things, but following accounts with unrealistic life goals is never going to make you feel better! Cull cull cull and then find pictures of puppies, great food and positive posts to look at instead. Try not to spend too much time on social media – no more than 2h a day across all platforms. Heavy usage is linked to higher rates of depression.

Tidy up: It’s very tempting, when it’s dark outside, to curl up in bed after throwing all your belongings onto your floordrobe and go to sleep. However, having high levels of clutter at home and at work can mess your mind up too. Need inspiration? Read this.

Stop giving a fuck: It’s fairly self-explanatory, but if you need it breaking down, I can thoroughly recommend this book.

Live in the moment: Worrying about the future, the past and the present is understandably exhausting and stressful for the brain. Living in the moment (using some of the techniques from above) can really help lover anxiety and depression. Another book recommendation: The Power of Now.

Take care of your body

Watch what you eat: and by that I don’t mean eat less. I just mean literally be aware of what you are eating. Paying attention to what we eat increases enjoyment and reduces mindless munching on the nearest available snack. In winter we often rely on sugar to power through energy slumps, but this can backfire, leaving us with sugar crashes, lowering both concentration and mood. Be aware of what you’re eating and you might find a pattern to explain your mood throughout the day. Want a holistic guide to nutrition? Check out Rhiannon’s new book!

Take vitamin D: As mentioned above, vitamin D is key to our mental health, but also plays a role in maintaining bone health and immunity. The majority of people in the UK are deficient over winter, so taking some supplements may improve your mood.

Workout: Yes, bed is cosy, and yes, it’s dark so early, but working out in winter is one of the best ways to keep negativity at bay. It gives you routine and a sense of purpose and achievement. If you’re not working out 30 minutes, 3 times a week (at least), this is one of the best things you could do to improve your mind-set. If you’re not a fan of the gym, find a sport you think you’ll enjoy and join a club – the added social interaction gives a double whammy of benefits. However, overdoing it (hello New Year’s resolutions to run 10 miles everyday) may backfire, leaving you exhausted and dreading every workout. Keep a balanced schedule with plenty of rest days so you don’t burn out!

Get plenty of sleep: I’ve gone into this in a bit more detail here, so check it out!

I hope you find this helpful – these are some of the things that have helped me over winter in general, and this time of year can be especially hard on some. This advice is sort of always useful, even if you don’t feel particularly down. Check out my instagram for more health and fitness advice.

DSC_0096 2

How to beat the winter blues

It’s inevitable that as the winter draws in and days get darker (thanks clock change) that lots of us will start to feel a little down and start to get the ‘winter blues’. A lot of people in the UK suffer from S.A.D, also known as seasonal affective disorder, a mood disorder that causes otherwise positive people to have symptoms of depression ranging from mild to severe in the winter. Symptoms include excessive sleep, tiredness, lack of motivation, hopelessness and low moods, although the severity can range widely between people and from day to day. Whilst the exact cause isn’t known, it’s though to be to do with low light levels reducing serotonin (the happy hormone) or increasing melatonin (the hormone that allows us to sleep at night). Whatever the cause, it’s an annoying fact of winter for a lot of people, but thankfully it can be managed and reduced. Even for those without SAD, doing some of these management techniques can help with general low mood found around winter.

In my past I suffered from depression, starting in my pre-teens and drawing out for almost 10 years. Over time it diminished, thanks to the support and help of family, friends and professionals. During my late teens and early twenties it manifested as SAD – thankfully sparing me summer months but returning as the weather got colder and days darker. My experience coping with it has allowed me to spend the last two winters in relative peace from the low moods associated with SAD. So here are some of my top tips to keep happy this winter! I hope you find them as useful as I have 🙂

_KJM6551-Edit

Autumn is a beautiful time of year – but for many it just means darker days and feeling blue

Get enough sleep – but don’t overdo it!

In winter all I want to do is sleep sleep sleep – biologically scientists think that’s because there used to be less food around in winter and sleeping more would mean using less energy so you didn’t have to eat as much. But nowadays with tesco just down the road and deliveroo at the other end of a phone, we don’t exactly have any food shortages to worry about! Having a good sleep schedule is important at any time of year, but especially when there is no natural light to wake you up. Set yourself a strict bedtime and wake time and try not to deviate from this. That way you’ll be getting enough sleep without getting too much and feeling lethargic from it. I aim to be in bed by 10pm, asleep by 10:15pm and up by 6:45am everyday. Sleeping more than 9h a night can leave you feeling more tired, and restricting sleep to 8-9h means that when you sleep, you sleep deeper – something we all want and need!

 

Exercise

I cannot stress enough that exercise – although it often feels like the last thing you want to do when you’re down – is some sort of miracle drug when it comes to SAD. Of course, as with everything, this is a balance of getting enough workouts without exhausting yourself. My gage is how much I can manage – I tend to do a similar amount, allowing for 2 rest days a week. I try to workout when it’s dark outside – the pumping music and energetic atmosphere allow me to forget how dark it is and get lost in the endorphins of the workout.

 

Fresh air and LIGHT

With a lack of natural light being one cause of SAD and low moods, it’s not surprising that getting natural light is on my list of ways to improve symptoms. If you work full time you’ll be familiar with the sad reality of arriving at work in the dark and leaving in the dark, leaving you no time for some sunshine or even any light! Artificial light doesn’t have the right wavelengths to suppress melatonin enough so broad spectrum lights and natural light are the only two that will help with moods. I would 100% recommend getting outside for at least 20 minutes at lunchtime to make the most of the natural light and get some fresh air to keep you awake. I also have a sun lamp – a broad spectrum light that helps me to wake up and produce vitamin D in the winter – I turn it on as soon as I wake up and eat breakfast with it shining on me. I swear by it to help keep my body-clock in check when it always seems dark outside. If you really struggle with SAD I would recommend getting one of these and using it for 30 minutes every morning.

 

Food

Whilst the winter can leave you reaching for the quickest pick-me-up, it’s important to remember that relying on unhealthy foods for energy can leave you feeling even more down after you eat them, often caused by a sugar crash. High carb meals, whilst delicious, should be saved for days of heavy exercise, as they cause the release of melatonin, which is often what makes you feel sleepy after a big meal. Avoid carb-heavy meals at your desk to avoid this, and try not to increase refined sugar intake, as the crash after your blood-sugar spikes can also cause low moods, not helping the situation. I try to avoid coffee in the winter because I know that if I start I will end up relying on it to feel normal, but on tired days I have some just after lunch to get through the afternoon. Research has shown that if you’re not a morning person, having coffee in the morning can mess up your body clock, making you feel weird and anxious, rather than alert.

 

Talk!

If you’re struggling don’t be afraid to talk to family and friends – the chances are that they’ve probably felt the same way too. Research suggests that up to 40% of depression is genetic and that SAD affects 1 in 15 of the UK population. Talking through how you’re feeling (or even just talking about anything) can help alleviate symptoms. Having supportive friends and family around can make the difference between letting SAD ruin your whole winter and managing your low moods and coming out the other side with an even stronger support system. Make the most of them – they’re there because they love you and want to support you. Use that!

 

Self-care

Make time for yourself and don’t ignore your feelings. Run a nice hot bath, light some candles and just sit, enjoying your ‘me’ time. I’m definitely guilty of pretending that I don’t need time alone, and will sometimes go for a week without spending an evening by myself. For many people, all they want is to be alone when down, but for others it’s only too easy to ignore thoughts by keeping too busy. There’s a fine line between keeping busy and ignoring your personal needs. Set aside at least one day/evening a week to pamper yourself to show your body (and mind) some love. Do a little yoga, mediation or just read a good book – it’ll do wonders for your inner energy.

 

I really hope these tips help you manage any winter blues you may be feeling – they’re common, everyone has their days but there are lots of things you can do to help minimise the bad days. For me, rather than being 3 months of feeling horrible, winter now comes with only a few bad days here and there, meaning I am left to enjoy the festive season with family and friends as it is meant to be enjoyed.

DW-FoodFitnessFlora-20170914-IMG_0440

Make sure to eat well and get enough vitamins and minerals to keep you healthy in winter

Social media and mental health

How to enjoy real life (aka get off social media)

 

… from someone who works three jobs in social media.

 

Before I set out, I’d just like to state that I love Instagram and all it has done for me, but am writing this because I think it’s important that we are all aware of the potential impacts it can have on our lives. I hope you enjoy it!

When was the last time you left the house without your phone? Spent a day ignoring all all social media? If you can’t remember and think it might have been some time a century ago, you’re not alone. A recent study showed that 91% of 16-24 year olds use social media, spending an average of over 2h everyday scrolling through feeds of friends, celebrities and others, with well over 3h daily screen time. Spending all this time on our phones has had known impacts on our mental health. In a study that came out recently, instagram was found to severely harm peoples’ mental health, affecting sleep, body image and causing fear of missing out – all things I can vouch for on a personal level. Snapchat, Facebook and twitter followed close behind in terms of damage to mental health, increasing anxiety and feelings of inadequacy in users. The effects of social media use don’t stop there either – last week it became evident that social media was linked to the 68% increase in hospital admission for self-harm. This was the second well-publicised study this year to directly link social media to worsening mental health.

DALoS0vUIAAOKHA

Instagram is the worst social media channel for mental health

When we look through our social media feeds, what do we see? We see carefully curated lives excelling at various things and it’s only natural to compare our real ups and downs to this polished highlight reel. Thankfully, for many, social media is used only recreationally, and reducing usage shouldn’t be too hard. However, for many others, social media is a job – a means of earning money and a way of life. The more time you spend on social media, the more careful you have to be that it’s not negatively impacting you. If you’re reading this, you probably have instagram, and if you have instagram chances are you’re already addicted (sorry).

 

Signs you might be addicted to your phone

  • You check it regularly even without notifications
  • You get ‘phantom buzz’ syndrome (when you swore it vibrated but alas no messages)
  • You feel naked if you leave the house without it
  • You forgot to actually enjoy something because you were too busy recording/photographing it

 

How to track your phone usage

  • Checky (measures how many times you check your phone)
  • Moment (tracks how long you spend on different apps on your phone – you can also do this on iphones in settings > battery > battery usage then clicking the clock top right)

 

Intrinsic v extrinsic self-esteem

Understanding that social media is not real life, however important it is to you, is one of the most important things I’ve done for my happiness in my adult life. I started my instagram over 5 years ago, and I quickly found that many used it as a way of creating a ‘perfect’ life, viewed by others as ‘goals’. But how realistic are these things to upkeep? The chances are, that girl you think has the perfect life, just doesn’t – that’s not to say she’s unhappy, but the chances are that she has problems and fears, just like the rest of us. Just look at the story of Essena O’Neil.

So how can SM be improved? The Royal Society for Public Health’s #statusofmind report suggested various measures instagram could implement to reduce the negative impacts it could have on its 800 million users, such as heavy usage warnings – how often is it that we suddenly find that it’s been 30 minutes since we started scrolling through instagram and felt like 5 minutes. Other suggestions included identifying and signposting help to users showing signs of mental health issues, and highlighting when photos have been digitally edited – it’s one thing having body-envy, and a totally different thing being envious of a literally unachievable photoshopped body, and important to note the difference.

Screen Shot 2017-10-02 at 21.36.31

One of the measures instagram could implement to make it a safer platform 

When I started instagram, I found that many said they started their accounts to help them feel connected to people with similar interests. The irony is that the more time we spend on social, the lonelier we feel – it’s been proven. We are so versatile as humans that we’ve changed in one generation from developing self-acceptance at a young age to looking to likes and follows for validation, and I know how quickly that happens. It’s so easy to get caught up in what’s going on on social media and lose track of our real lives, our real connections and friends. The positive feedback cycle of posting, receiving validation and then posting again to receive more validation is easily formed and not easily undone. It’s altering where we look to for self-validation, changing us from people who are self-assured to people who struggle to accept ourselves without others accepting us first. It’s important to remember that we are all on our own journeys, no one is a finished product and you cannot compare your journey to anyone else’s final destination.

 

Boredom 

The constant distraction from phones means we are rarely, if ever, truly bored. Boredom is the source of a lot of ingenuity, self-reflection and contemplation, and without it we may be reducing the creative capacity of our brains. When you sit on a train, what are you doing? Playing a game? Editing photos? Messaging people? Waking along the street, do you have your phone in your hand in case you need to check it? We hate to be bored, preferring to fill our time with ‘productive’ activities. If pushed, people would literally rather administer electric shocks than sit doing nothing for 15 minutes (look up the study, it’s crazy). A book called ‘bored and brilliant’ set out 6 steps to acing boredom, and surprise surprise, the first two were to do with getting off social and disconnecting from the world on the other side of your phone. It’s so easy to fill time nowadays, but it might not always be good. Boredom has been linked to increased productivity, creativity and pro-social behaviour (being nice to people and doing good deeds). When you’re rushing around all day, there’s no time to think. But when you’re alone, there’s nothing to do BUT think. And all that time to think might just turn you into the creative, brilliant, social butterfly everyone on social media thinks you already are.

 

How to be more social, without being on social

  • Put your phone away in your bag whilst walking around. Look around you, enjoy your surroundings and don’t keep checking your phone. You’ll be surprised what you notice when you’re looking up rather than down.
  • Put your phone away when talking to people. This is just common courtesy – you may think that you can text/read messages whilst listening to your friend but you just can’t. I promise you. Don’t leave your phone on the table, put it in your bag or coat pocket to avoid checking it every 5 minutes. Your friends will thank you too.
  • Put your phone away when eating. This is not only good for your mental health, it is also good news for your physical health too. Paying attention to what you are eating increases feelings of satiety and enjoyment of food, meaning you’re less likely to over eat.
  • Listen to podcasts or music instead of playing on your phone when on public transport. Taking out your phone as soon as you sit down is unnecessary. Pay attention to things around you.
  • Turn off notifications – I can’t stress this enough. It’s rare that a notification is so important that it needs to be checked immediately, and looking at your instagram photo every time it gets a new like just isn’t useful.
  • Set time without your phone before bed. Did you know that 90% of 18-29 year olds sleep with their phones under or next to their pillow? The more you use screens before bed, the lighter your sleep, and the longer it takes you to get there. In a world where we are already limiting our sleep to get more done, we need every minute. Put your phone away from the bed, then spend time reading or just thinking before going to sleep. If it’s hard, you know you need to practise more.
  • Set aside social media time and prioritise real life the rest of the time. When I know I can use my phone for 5-10 minutes every hour, I’m much less likely to check it during that hour.
  • Schedule posts. This is especially useful if you work in social media. Twitter apps such as hootsuite and buffer make this really easy, and for instagram drafts can be made all at once and posted later, meaning you’re spending less time thinking of something to post when you’re busy.
  • Delete social apps that you don’t really need. Whether that’s twitter, instagram or facebook. You don’t have to delete your account, but deleting the apps can be a good way to reduce usage.
  • Do other things that you love! If you find that you have time to scroll through SM feeds for hours, you probably have time to do a hell of a lot of other amazing stuff too! Just think of all the things you could get done if you just put down your phone for the day…

 
DSC_0459

Get outside, notice your surroundings and enjoy real life!

The mental health benefits of sport

Exercise has lots of known benefits – improved cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, increased bone density etc., but the mental health benefits are, if not ignored, rarely celebrated as much as the physical – there’s no ‘before and after’ transformation photo, little obvious outwardly change… and yet for me, the mental health benefits of exercise are SO much more important than anything else. Better still than simply exercising, SPORTS can have an even larger positive effect. Initiatives such as England Athletics’ #runandtalk and Sport England’s ‘Get Set to Go‘ have started to open up the conversation about mental health, as well as make social sports more accessible to all.

Countless studies have linked physical activity to lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress, even improving conditions such as ADHD and PTSD – and there’s a particular class of exercise that does it better than any other. Sports – the kind of exercise where there’s a particular goal – has helped me and countless others both physically and mentally.

Throughout my life I have gone through various sports, training consistently, motivated by the daily mental improvements it helped me feel. When I was 15 I got into squash in a big way – it was the antidote to all negative emotions I had been feeling for many years. Constantly exhausted, depressed and feeling powerless, with low self-esteem to boot, I disliked school and struggled everyday, sadly assuming that that was just how I was meant to feel. As a teenager at a top school, I felt pressure to perform in academics whilst excelling in my social life, physical health, looks and home life – an impossible task that left me always feeling like I was running in a hamster wheel just to stay in the same place.

Getting up and doing things wasn’t always on the front of my mind during the time I was depressed. Although I was at boarding school and had little choice in the matter, I would sometimes zombie my way through the days, and sports was initially a real struggle – I hated it until I was 15 because I was bad at everything I had tried. However, school did teach me the discipline of getting up and out even when I didn’t want to. Especially when I didn’t want to. Being semi forced to play a sport 3 times a week was so tough at first, but once I paid attention to how it made me feel, I would start to look forward to the times I could leave the classroom and head to the court, ready to set aside the day’s worries and fall into the rhythm of training. For anyone struggling with depression and/or anxiety, one quick piece of advice is to get out into nature. Walking is good, running is better. Just keep moving forwards – it does wonders for your mind.

AV1I5073E

Vitamin D deficiency is common in the UK and can worsen depression – get outside!

Through daily squash training I was able to see myself improving, getting stronger, fitter and faster whilst spending time with a community that was entirely focussed on enjoyment and improvement. There’s nothing better for your self-esteem than working hard to reach a goal and your hard work paying off. If it’s possible to get addicted to exercise I did, training up to 7h a week on top of other sports. The intensity at which I worked meant that over the following 2 years I became good enough to compete in the national schools championships as the number 1 player for my school. But it wasn’t the winning I cared about – the best thing about it was the way it made me feel. It was that high that I was chasing. When you feel totally out of control with your life, having that one thing that you can control is a godsend.

I also started horse riding in a serious way at this point. The unique thing with horse riding is that horses are terrifyingly good at mirroring emotions. It is impossible to feel stressed or distracted whilst jumping around a ring if you actually want to get very far. So every time I headed to the stables I learned to leave my fears and worries at the stable door and spend an hour without focussing on anything but me and the 17hh (huge) muscle machine beneath me.

230314_1618319232290_3315813_n

Nothing beats the feeling of horse riding

After I left school I wasn’t able to play squash or ride so much – frequent travel before heading to university meant that it was impossible to find a routine, but the discipline training taught me translated well into other areas of my life. I still revelled in playing squash when I got the chance and picked it up any time I had the opportunity. Being good isn’t the point – it’s all the other benefits that are there regardless of your standard. My year away from the stresses of education tempered my obsession with exercising, allowing me to enjoy it for what it was every time I played. I learned balance and the importance of working on all aspects of health and happiness, including taking care of my body, resting and fuelling it properly. No more 10h training weeks and hello rest days.

Once I arrived at university I picked up running and whilst I loved it, it didn’t hold the same mind-clearing properties that squash and riding had before. I spent university mixing up weights in the gym and running, but I was missing that little extra something you get when you really ‘click’ with a sport. Leaving university led me to boxing, which I now practise weekly. I’m not the first person to talk about the benefits of boxing for mental health – Prince Harry alerted the nation of the power of boxing for coping with mental stress back in April. Multiple professional boxers have done the same, despite the history of corruption in some areas of the sport. Ellie Goulding, too, voiced almost exactly my sentiments about the sport:

“It wasn’t about any change in my outward appearance; it was about seeing and feeling myself get better and stronger. It carried over into other areas of my life, and now I truly feel that exercise – however you like to work out – is good for the soul,”

14732385_10205996831514288_6097808422050997227_n

The university athletics club kept me busy and fit

What all of the above sports have in common, I have now realised, is that they don’t allow any space or time for outside emotions and negativity to join. Focussing your attention on your goal – the next shot, the perfect line into a jump, the rhythm of your punches – leads to a sense of power and achievement at the end of a session that isn’t found anywhere else. It’s a kind of enforced mindfulness not found in all forms of exercise, banishing dark thoughts whilst simultaneously releasing endorphins and shifting your focus from the future in the outside world to the now in your personal world.

Above are three sports that have helped me more than I can tell you. The combination of the physical, mental and emotional benefits beat any pill or any diet, and now that I feel I have achieved the perfect balance of exercise, nutrition and rest, I have never been so happy.

Everyone’s go-to sport for relaxation will be different – some will find this with weights, others with running (runners high is a real thing) and still others walking round a park. The trick is to find what does it for you and do that.

I really hope you have found this article useful – I feel so lucky to have been able to find so many sports that I love throughout my life, and now want to spend time spreading the word about the benefits of sport and exercise. You don’t have to be depressed or have a diagnosed conditions to feel the benefits. They’re there for all of us. What does exercise do for you?

5DS_1119

Further reading:

If you struggle with depression this is pretty helpful (it’s the little steps that make all the difference!)

This goes into some depth about benefits for sufferers of OCD

See infographic below for some more benefits for everyone!

“Studies conducted on mice have shown that exercising on a running wheel helps them sprout new connections between neurons in their brains. Exercise may cause the release of “growth factors,” which trigger neurons to make new connections. These new connections may help to reduce symptoms of OCD. Exercise also promotes the release of endorphins, “feel good” neurochemicals, boosting mood and fending off stress.”

exercise_physiology_mental_health_chart_inspire_fitness_essa