Me, Mental Health & an active lifestyle

So lets talk mental health and fitness. Before I start I would like to say that I am not mental health trained, I have no qualifications as a psychologist, psychiatrist, nurse or anything of the kind. This blog is based on my own experience and how living a healthy and active lifestyle has helped me.

Some will know and some will just be hearing for the first time that I, like many other people, have had mental health problems, I say ‘had’ lightly, I am still in the process of dealing with mine.

Depression, Anxiety, lack of motivation, Significant tiredness, alcohol or drug abuse, confusion, suicidal thoughts… the list goes on. Mental health is a crazily vast, you may not experience all symptoms but the ones you do have the ability to turn your life upside down.

I was medically discharged from the Army after 12 years service for Post Traumatic Stress disorder, Serving in Iraq & Afghanistan I returned and cracked on with my job. I was a Physical Training Instructor, and although they are much disliked in the army for the amount of pain they distribute to others, it’s a job where that you are looked up at by many.

I came back from Afghan with the Coldstream Guards and was posted to a training establishment, my job to get the new recruits fit ready for their Units. It was whilst I was at this job that the symptoms first started. Somewhat 18 months after returning from my tour.

It started off with little things like insomnia, waking up with sweats, getting frustrated as I couldn’t sleep. It was manageable at first as I was just a little tired throughout the days. But living off just a few hours sleep every night will eventually takes it toll on you. I started to drink to sleep, if I drank enough I would fall asleep and get more than a few hours, I may wake up hungover but ive slept right? Not exactly the quality of sleep is massively effected by alcohol having effects on our Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and melatonin.

Rapid eye movement is the second phase of our sleep in laymans terms, the deeper part of our sleep, Alcohol prolongs the onset of REM which doesn’t allow us to get a deep sleep.

Melatonin is a key facilitator of sleep and regulator of sleep-wake cycles. Alcohol diminishes the body clocks ability to respond to natural light cues and keep the body clock in sync.

Next came the nightmares, I would wake up in states of shock, not knowing where I am, what was real and what wasn’t. it would take me a good 30 seconds to come back to reality, which in hindsight doesn’t seem a long time, but in that state of mind it felt forever.

The symptoms got worse, social anxiety, fear of combined spaces and too many people around, the ability to trust people and what they were saying, I thought everyone had something against me and questioned myself on why people were giving me something or asking me to go somewhere. But I was a soldier and I was in a job that others relied upon and looked up at, I couldn’t break. Many other people had been and done what I had done and seen what I had seen but they were fine, likewise people had it far worse than me and they are getting on perfectly normal. So I decided to hide it away and try to act like it didn’t bother me, … However I now created a second personality for myself, and as if dealing with one wasn’t hard enough, I now had to try and be 2 people.

Eventually after years the inevitable happened. Things got too much and I caved in on myself. I ended up in a psychiatric ward, locked away from anyone normal. Had the laces taken out my trainers, the tie taken off my dressing gown and surrounded by civilians who were also dealing with their own mental issues. I done mean to sound awful as everyone has their own problems but I felt like I didn’t feel I belonged in there with these people. I had people introduce themselves to me 10 times a day as they forgot who I was, not knowing they had seen me 30mins before, I had a women who sat next to me at dinner and poked my mash potato with her finger, I had people screaming, banging on doors, split personalities and more. I NEEDED to get away from there.

My training had massively diminished, I went from training everyday before all of this, weighing 85kg with very little bodyfat and a lot of muscle mass, to weighing under 70kg, looking ill, gaunt in the face, I needed to get back.

It was difficult at first, I had no drive, no motivation, I couldn’t lift or do the things I could used to do, it was demoralising and to me embarrassing (note I say to ‘me’, in reality no one else cares what you are doing, how fast you are going, how much you are lifting, everyone is on their own journey) I then decided I needed to do something really difficult, something that was going to test me, push me, make me feel alive again. I signed up to a 40 mile charity walk… walk pfft!! I decided I wanted to make it difficult, a real battle not physically but also mentally. There was no time to train as it was in 4 days. I packed my old army bergan (rucksack) with 55lbs of weight, I put on my old boots and I set myself a target of 8 hours. It was hard… the first 20 miles went quick, 3hrs 30mins. “ive got this I thought” then I stopped to sort my food and hydration for the next 20… big mistake, the lactic built up so quick that I struggled to set off again, cramp every 400m, then every 200, then every step. It got to mile 27 and I wanted to throw my stuff in the lake next to me and quit, and I was so close to doing so. I remember sitting on my bergan, head in hand and giving myself a talking to, this is why I signed up to this. Anyway cut a long story short, I finished it. The battles I had with my own mind, the pain, cramp and everything else I had gone through was worth it… I had finally completed something again after years of losing motivation, not caring and just going with the flow. The fact I was being sick black stuff, shitting through the eye of a needle and being sick constantly after it definitely reminded me that I was alive again.

It was from here that I started getting my fitness back on track, eating properly again and ENJOYING training, because the ability to enjoy it has a massive effect on how it will help.

So how can it help you?

Yes exercise improves aerobic capacity, improves muscle growth, makes your waist smaller and improve your sex life. But exercise has been proved to be able to help treat mild depression just as good as any tablets will, plus there is no side effects. Exercise changes how the brain works including neural growth, inflammation and more, it releases endorphins which are a chemical which energises you and makes you feel good. Exercises releases tension and stress which in turn again energises you, it keeps your mind active on good and positive things rather than just switching off or zoning out to later come back to the same problems without having experienced any good vibes inbetween. Your serotonin levels increase which helps promote a healthier sleep pattern. Just from the few examples above you can see how exercise helps relieve the problems.

Exercise does help... Try it

So what can you do…?

My first bit of advise would be to start doing some form of exercise that you enjoy. It doesn’t have to be super hard, if you enjoy it you are more likely to stick to doing it, get into the habit which in turn will led to becoming part of your lifestyle. Go for a walk, play with the kids, go to yoga, if you have a bootcamp of fitness class local turn up. As it starts to become part of your lifestyle you will more than likely look to improve on it, making it harder, turn the walk into a jog etc.

If you feel down one day, depressed, anxious or whatever symptoms you feel use your new found habit to help relieve it, you may not feel like even moving to put your trainers on but that little battle with your mind in comparison to the rewards you will get from it will definitely be worth it. In weeks to come you may even look in the mirror and start to feel good about yourself again.

You have heard people say “habits are hard to break” however this is most commonly used for bad habits, but it’s the same for the good aswell. Create a good habit and routine and make that the habit that is hard to break.

Im not saying that exercise is going to cure your mental health, but it can help, if you allow it to. It wont completely stop you having to use your medication or relieve your anxiety, I still take medication to this day and still cant go into Sainsburys shopping after a melt down in there years ago. But it gives me an escape, a active and healthy one, which releases endorphins and makes me feel good, increases serotonin which helps me sleep better and because I love the form of exercise I have chosen to do it give me enjoyment and something to look forward to and take away the stress i am feeling at the time