Do exercise, they say. It’ll be good for you, they say.
We are entire beings. We are mental, physical, and spiritual beings- all three parts that make up to a whole. So if you’re healthy physically, it’s going to give you a better chance of being healthy mentally too. And this is is basically what it comes down to when you hear talk about physical exercise as being as effective as medication to treating mental health conditions. There are plenty of statistics and articles out there if you’re interested in learning more, but when you’re in the thick of it, and are really suffering with mental health problems, what does doing exercise actually feel like? And what often gets forgotten?
Disclaimer alert, I am an exercise fan. While I was at University, running was my meditation. A way of letting off steam. As you’ll know if you’re a runner, there is nothing better to clear the mind of chatter and the body of tension than a good old run to some d’n’b.
But when I developed severe depression and crippling anxiety, I was faced with a bit of a problem… I basically couldn’t exercise without setting off a panic attack.
For me, my anxiety was (and still pretty much is) closely linked with my heart rate, adrenalin levels, and my breathing. When any of those got even a little out of control… BAM! Anxiety attack. And then, like an over-sensitive smoke detector, once activated, my anxiety never quite calmed down before the next shock rolled in. A car alarm goes off outside and BAM! A knock on the front door and BAM! Someone shuts the fridge downstairs a little too hard and BAM! I sneeze unexpectedly and BAM! It was a little lot ridiculous. For weeks, about 50% of the time anxiety had me trapped indoors, unable to face the overstimulating world of outside. And the other 50% was taken up by an exhaustive and all encompassing depression. As you can see, anxiety and depression, as the two opposite end of extremes, are quite the team.
But still, do some exercise, they say. It’ll be really good for you, they say.
Let me tell you, whatever they say, doing exercise when you are struggling with anxiety is not a productive way to spend your time.
I did actually attempt to run, quite a few times. But you can just imagine… heart pounding, heavy breathing, rapid motion, and the outside world? It didn’t end well.
After that, I stopped leaving the house altogether, and basically didn’t leave bed for a few months, either because I was too exhausted, unmotivated, or too wound up and terrified by every tiny thing. It got to the point where I couldn’t watch films, because anything too exciting or surprising would set me off, and let me tell you, there isn’t much of a market for the unexciting but feel-good films out there. Even wildlife documentaries got a bit much at times. Those giraffes can be savage.
After a few months, I began to slowly venture out. Normally at night so it was nice and quiet, and with Rich by my side. By this time the medication had begun to take the edge off, and I had been to a few therapy sessions (which I definitely spent the first few sessions just crying uncontrollably at). But with the therapy, the medication, and a gentle self-meditation practise, I was finally able to leave the house. And the first thing I did was to go with my housemate and signed up for the local gym.
At first, I have to say it didn’t go too great. I kept having to stop on the treadmill or bike after a couple of minutes minutes because the rhythmic pounding or my heart beat got too much. And then there were all the television screens everywhere, screaming excitement, and advertisements for Exciting! new protein shakes, and the constant yet somehow still unexpected sound of heavy weights being dropped. Even worse, I might run into someone who knew me, which resulted in me running in the opposite direction because I basically just couldn’t hack the excitement/nerves that got set off by social interaction.
But the gym also offered group exercise classes, and although the sound of Body Pump or Abz Attack sent me into a cold sweat just saying their names aloud, there was also a Gentle Pilates and Yoga class advertised.
I went along, not really knowing what to expect but hoping at least that I wasn’t going to get yelled at by a spandex wearing muscle man, grinning manically, and bouncing the equivalent of a humpback whale in weights above his head to some pounding club bangers.
From the moment I sat down, looking around a little unsure, cross legged on the mat, I felt like I could finally let my guard down. It helped massively of course that everyone else in the room had their eyes shut (including the teacher). The music was soft and lulling, the lights were down low so I felt safe and hidden, and I was even comfortable being in my baggy pyjama t-shirt (I hadn’t quite managed to find the motivation to get fully dressed that morning). I felt safe on the island of my mat. No-one was looking at me, or comparing themselves to me, and there was no demand for forced energy or hyper excitement. It was calm, serene, with no sudden movements. Slow and steady. I can’t remember much from that first session, but what I do remember there was a lot of deep deep breathing like I had never done before (even in my singing days) and there was just this warm wash of calm inside like I had not felt in about six months. Like something warm and furry was hugging me from head to toe and whispering in my ear that I was safe, that it was ok. There was lots of sighing from the mats on each side of me, so I knew I wasn’t alone.
Sure enough, over the next few months, I slowly became friends with the people who took the class with me and around me. This was the first social contact outside of mine and Rich’s housemates that I had been able to have in about half a year. We would smile, and ask how each other were in the changing rooms, but always with a quiet calm and a feeling of acceptance. I was no longer a slave to the tunnel vision of my anxiety, now I was connecting again with other real human beings. Yoga was gently, but slowly, opening me back up, in the most calming and understanding way you can imagine.
Yoga was something I could do without a pounding heart rate, without getting elevated breathing, and without my adrenals going into overdrive. I was moving again, and I was getting stronger, and more balanced, and in control, and healthy by the day. I would wake up in the morning and stretch in bed before I did anything, just because it felt good to relieve some of the painful ache of depression in my bones, and the tension of anxiety from my neck and shoulders.
There is no doubt that Yoga is hard work, and it definitely is exercise. But without getting panicked, I would get the same letting-off-steam stress release I used to get from a long run, the same satisfied energy from a heavy gym work out, and the stretching -though gentle and patient- was intense and deep and could take my breathe away. I soon learnt that Yoga is a tricksy one, it would sneak up on you, one stretch at a time, and before you know it you’ve flowed into a full hour of physical exercise.
Emotionally too, Yoga taught me to be more resilient, as I learnt to control my breathing in even the more difficult asana postures, and accept feelings of pain or discomfort with an open and curious mind rather than shutting them away and suppressing them. After I had been Yog-ing for about a month or two, I remember experiencing a strange sensation of power as I walked home one day. It was a feeling of deep love, satisfaction, and respect for my body, as if it was a separate being, a long lost friend rather than a intrinsic part of me, and I wanted to look after it and nourish it and let it live. Whether it’s in the breathing, the philosophy, or the very essence of the way it is done, Yoga taught me to love my body like no form of sport before ever had.
But over all of that, Yoga gave me something I never even knew was important. It gave me a sense of spiritual connection; a purpose to live, and a connection to something bigger than myself. I now believe this is essential to recovery from any type of mental illness. Physical, mental, and spiritual. The threefold path of health as a human being.
So yes, do try to find the physical exercise and movement that works for you, and love and nourish your body (it’s the only one you’ll ever get… probably), and do take your meds, and do see your therapist, and do all of those exercises and worksheets that you’re given. But don’t forget above all to keep seeking meaning and purpose in your life, to find your spiritual soul, and connect with who you really are, behind the chatter of your intellectual mind, and the pangs of your physical body. And then you might find, if you’re lucky, that underneath all of that mess and mush, you are Divine, and you deserve life.
I hope you’re all really well.