Running Again

I set a goal at the beginning of this month: to run regularly and be able to run for 30 minutes straight by the end of the month. I planned it all out, loosely basing my plan on a couch to 5k programme I had followed before. I was supposed to be able to run for 30 minutes on 30th July. Today, 17th July, I thought I would just start running on the treadmill and see how long I could go for — I figured I could do 10 minutes without a walking break, maybe 15. I did 30 minutes.

Running shoes

I hit my goal in half the time.

I believed my running plan would push me, that I would have to work hard to run for 30 minutes by the end of the month. If you had told me it would take 2 weeks, I wouldn’t have believed you. I might even have said it was impossible — certainly without pushing myself to dangerous levels and collapsing at the end of 30 minutes.

In reality, I was pretty comfortable throughout. There were a couple of moments where I had to put in more effort to keep going, but I was nowhere near my limit. I felt like I could keep going.

 

It makes more sense in retrospect.

I walk a lot. I do kettlebell classes twice a week. I’m neither unfit nor inactive. I suppose, with hindsight, there was no reason why I couldn’t run for 30 minutes. Yet I didn’t believe I could do it — I only attempted it as an experiment. The experiment just lasted longer than I expected!

A couple of other points also indicated reasons for my success: I have run before and I run very slowly. I’m not learning to run, like I was 3-4 years ago. I’m returning to running after plantar fasciitis forced a 2 year break, which I extended by several months because I was afraid of getting injured again before trekking to Machu Picchu. I know from experience how to run through uncomfortable phases and control my breathing.

Note: exercise is fantastic for your mental health, but when you have anxiety, as soon as you start getting out of breath your brain thinks you are panicking — and then starts finding reasons for you to panic. I found this very challenging when I started running and it still happens sometimes, despite my being able to recognise what is happening.

 

I’m thrilled about hitting my goal — especially as it means I can work towards more goals.

I love running. I never thought I would say that, but my previous experience of running was at school, when I felt crap for being so slow compared to my classmates and had never heard of a sports bra. Not pleasant, considering I have been at least a D cup since I was about 14/15! Nowadays, I only compete against myself and having a treadmill at home means I don’t get embarrassed about people seeing me bouncing and puffing.

Running is one of the most effective ways in which I can manage my mental health. In addition to the hormonal effects of exercise, I go into a meditative state when I run. My mind is completely focused on running, so there’s no room for negative thoughts.

I also like how easy it is to measure running goals. I can focus on distance, time or even speed. I can see and feel my progress. It’s a stark contrast to many of my other goals in life.

So what shall I do now I have achieved my running goal for July? Get working on August’s goals, of course! 

The Next Few Steps

I did a 10 mile hike on Dartmoor at the weekend, training for my Machu Picchu trek. It rained and a lot of it was over tough terrain, so it was hard going. The fact that I am a little paranoid about getting injured and not being able to complete my challenge didn’t help, as I was extra-cautious and therefore slow. Towards the end, I was miserable and starting to feel overwhelmed — not by the Dartmoor hike, but by the looming threat of not being able to complete my Machu Picchu challenge. The only thing which got me through was focusing on the next few steps.

 

Stepping stones

 

Focusing on the next few steps is vital for any difficult time.

I realised as I was trudging along that I need to do this more often: to get myself through the next few steps towards my goal, rather than worrying about the bigger picture. It might not stop the anxiety, but it reduces it and makes it more manageable. Instead of being anxious about EVERYTHING in my life, I can only be anxious about not completing the next few steps.

Dealing with anxiety is often like that: you break it down by segmenting your anxiety and focusing on one segment at a time. This strategy can work well, as it stops you from having a total meltdown, but it presents its own challenges. When the next few steps go wrong, it feels like everything has gone wrong and your whole life is a disaster. That’s why it’s difficult for me to deal with last minute changes in plans. However, most of the time, I get through those steps — imperfectly and inefficiently, but somehow.

You need faith to take those next few steps.

Taking any action requires faith — or at least hope — that you can complete it and there’s a possibility of the next steps going well. There are no guarantees.

I have prepared for my Machu Picchu trek as well as I could, given the circumstances. I wish I hadn’t lost training time to physical and mental illness, but that’s how it worked out. I wish I could have raised more money, but I knew it would be a challenge even before my anxiety and depression got worse. C’est la vie. And if/when I finish the trek, it will be all the more sweeter for knowing what I have been through.

Of course, some elements of the trek are almost impossible to prepare for. I have no idea how I will cope at altitude, for instance, which can reduce the fittest people into crawling, panting wretches. I can’t align my training walks with the walking I will have to do on the trek, because the incline and terrain will be different to anything I have access to in Devon. Nor do I know how my pace matches up to my fellow trekkers — I may be alone at the back of the pack, scurrying to reach the campsite before dark.

But the point is to challenge myself, physically and mentally.

I have never thought the Machu Picchu trek would be easy. Maybe I come across as nonchalant to some people (since I have had a few patronising comments, from people who have never done a similar challenge…), but inside, I am panicking and overwhelmed. I’m doing this because it’s NOT easy. Because I want to learn abot my capabilities and hopefully prove to myself that I can achieve something big.

I’m pushing myself on purpose. I need to keep reminding myself of that fact. It would be easier not to do the trek — to not try. It would be easier to stay at home lost in despair, never trying to fight my way through mental illness, but what kind of life is that? Not one I want to live.

Watching the Mind Over Marathon programme has helped me. One of the runners had to pull out because his anxiety was too intense to cope, but he overcame his anxiety enough to support the rest of the team. A couple of the runners couldn’t start the marathon due to injury and although they were upset, the others (and the trainers and presenter) reminded them that the challenge wasn’t really about completing the marathon: it was about pushing their limits and learning to overcome their mental health problems, one step at a time.

So I’m trying to remember that wisdom as my departure date rushes closer: even if I cannot complete the trek, it doesn’t negate my achievements. I would be devastated, for sure, but it wouldn’t undo all my hard work. I’m still fitter than I have ever been in my adult life. I’m still 2 stone lighter and a little further along the path to a healthier life.

I still fought through my depression and anxiety enough to set a huge goal and follow it through to the endgame.

I want everything to go according to plan and to complete my Machu Picchu trek without any major problems  but I can’t waste time worrying about it right now. At the moment, I just need to focus on the next few steps.

 

 

My Biggest Challenge Yet

Today is a big day for me: in precisely 6 months, I will be leaving for Peru, where I will complete a charity trek to Machu Picchu. It’s something I have wanted to do for many years, so when I was feeling frustrated and bored with life back in the summer and received an email from Amnesty International about a planned trip, I enrolled with little hesitation. I consider it a chance to challenge myself, to raise money and awareness for human rights and to show everyone that mental illness needn’t stop you achieving your dreams.

Peru Challenge

The trek is rated “tough” and is challenging for anyone, but there are some factors which make it extremely challenging for me:

1. My mental health problems

I find it difficult to be around people I don’t know, so anxiety will be an issue for me – at first, anyway. In my experience, the anticipation is worse than actually meeting new people and spending time with strangers, so it will probably be more of a challenge during my preparation. I’m not sure whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage! Either way, it’s just something I have to deal with.

Anxiety also makes it difficult to organise fundraising events, especially as it is unpredictable. It means that funding my trip through sponsorship was never going to be an option, since the pressure of a high sponsorship target combined with the need to arrange lots of events to meet that target would be detrimental to my health. As it is, I feel stressed about whether I will be able to raise the modest target I have in mind.

2. I am fat and unfit

When I say fat, I mean obese – not just a few pounds overweight. This means that I will have to lose as much weight as I can before the trip (and to lose it healthily, unlike when I have lost weight in the past), as well as building up my fitness. I’m already making progress: I have lost 25lbs, despite the struggles of coming off antidepressants causing a resurgence in comfort eating. I joined the gym nearly 3 months ago, doing one BodyPump class and two kettlebell classes per week, which is improving my core strength. In addition, I have been walking (a lot) more in order to increase my cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

Although it’s hard to stay motivated, especially now that winter is setting in, I can’t wait to feel really fit and strong again. When I consider that 5 years ago when I graduated from university, I was a size 26, it seems unbelievable. I’m now a size 18 and much fitter and healthier – physically and mentally. I’m trying to use this success to spur me on as I lose more weight and get even fitter.

3. I have no money

As I already mentioned, funding my trip entirely through sponsorship wasn’t an option because of my anxiety, so that means I have to find the remaining £2,000 left to pay after the deposit. Plus spending money. And I will have to buy some clothing and equipment, despite those items constituting the majority of my Xmas presents this year. It’s expensive and I earn very little. I also have existing debt.

I might be mad, but this is the challenge of a lifetime and it feels important for me to do it now, when I have no ties and as I’m facing a pivotal point in my life, managing my mental health without medication for the first time in years. Even if I end up putting extra money on my credit card, I believe the trip will be worth it: I need to prove to myself that I am capable of doing something amazing.

So why I am putting myself through all this?

In all honesty, I don’t know. It’s just something I have to do. My intuition tells me that I need to complete this challenge.

I’m sorry if that sounds vague and odd, but it’s the truth. I can give you lots of other good reasons for participating in this trek, but none of them is my core reason. Here they are anyway:

  • To raise money and awareness for human rights issues. I have supported Amnesty International for years and was saddened to have to give up my monthly donation when my finances took a nosedive a few years ago. I’m especially passionate about freedom of speech and gender equality, but there are many more issues which are important to me. Human rights often get misrepresented in the media, but it is essential to protect them. I’m lucky to live in a country where I can access education and medical care – this isn’t the case for a lot of people in the world, especially girls and women. Completing this challenge is my way of speaking out for those who do not have a voice.
  • To show everyone that mental illness need not obliterate your life. I despaired of ever being able to do anything valuable, meaningful or fun for years because I couldn’t imagine a life where mental illness didn’t control me. The balance is shifting and I have been able to achieve some of my goals as my mental health becomes more manageable, so I want to give hope to people who are in situations similar to the ones I have been in. I want to encourage others with mental health issues to pursue their goals.
  • To motivate myself to become fitter and healthier. Having a specific reason to exercise and eat healthily makes it easier to go to the gym when I would rather stay inside and watch television. It’s helping me transition to a healthier lifestyle. It might seem extreme, but experience has taught me that I perform better when I’m aiming for a massive goal, otherwise it’s difficult to stay motivated and I tend to give up. Giving up is definitely out of the question when I have invested so much effort already and there are people sponsoring me – I would sooner die trying!
  • To see Machu Picchu and Peru. I have wanted to visit Machu Picchu since I learnt of its existence. I have no idea why, but I feel a connection to it that I don’t feel for other world heritage sites. I’m interested in history and other cultures in general, so relish the opportunity to see Peru. It looks beautiful and will be an entirely new terrain for me. I have never left Western Europe, so it will also be my first long haul flight and I’m secretly hoping to meet some of Paddington Bear’s relatives.
  • To inspire confidence in myself. Trekking to Machu Picchu is the trip of a lifetime, but there are many other things I would like to do with my life. I’m hoping that this challenge will help me prove to myself that I can achieve my goals.

The countdown begins…

I will probably mention this challenge a lot over the coming months, since it will take over a large chunk of my time and will hopefully turn out to be a pivotal point in my life. I’m very nervous and excited. Sometimes it doesn’t feel “real” because it’s not the kind of thing that people like me do, according to popular opinion – except that popular opinion is wrong, because I am doing it! I will do my damnedest to ensure that I am well-prepared, raise a substantial amount for charity and complete the challenge successfully.

 

If you would like to sponsor me, I will be very grateful for every penny you can spare – all of which goes straight to charity, since I am self-funding. Here is my JustGiving page so that you can donate with the utmost convenience and security: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/HayleyNJones

You can read all the details (and see what I’m getting myself into) here: https://www.charitychallenge.com/expedition/itinerary/2468/Amnesty-International-trek-to-Machu-Picchu

If you would like to find out more about Amnesty International and the amazing work they do, please visit the website: https://www.amnesty.org.uk/

Getting my Mojo Back

The past month or so has been difficult. In addition to the stress of coming off antidepressants, which I didn’t expect to be so stressful, several minor events threw me off course. I couldn’t even turn to exercise, which I have been using to manage my mental health, because I injured my hip. My mood was affected and at times, it felt like the world was conspiring against me.

However, this week is a lot better. My hip has recovered enough for me to return to gym classes, so that has boosted my mood and put me back on track working towards my fitness goals. I think using the SAD lamp has helped a lot, too. It’s the kind of thing I don’t notice doing good until I do less of it and experience a corresponding drop in mood. My fiction writing is also going well and I’m doing some volunteer work again, both of which help me feel more purposeful.

I have realised that getting my mojo back isn’t about a dramatic change or a magical transformation. It is simply the accumulation of small actions.

Like Austin Powers, I had my mojo all along. I just need to access it through concentrating on self-care. I have to keep doing the things which help me manage my mental health, even when — no, especially when — I don’t feel like doing them. These actions may be small, but they still take a lot of effort when depression and anxiety set in. They may be small, but they are significant.

My self-care actions, in addition to the ones already mentioned, include:

• Getting outside, especially in woodland

• Spending time with my dog and cat

• Eating reguarly and as healthily as I can

• Reading novels and short stories

• Watching The Big Bang Theory

• Mindfulness meditation

• Scribbling down my feelings

• Watching tennis (and Andy Murray reaching number 1 helps!)

• Texting friends/seeing friends

The result of getting my mojo back is that I feel more motivated and have more energy. There is room for improvement, but compared to how I felt recently, it’s brilliant! 

Again, this experience demonstrates the power of small actions when they accumulate. I find that very encouraging — not just in terms of mental health, but also how the principle can be applied to other aspects of life. You might not feel like you can do much to change things, but you can do something small. Keep taking small actions and you could change the world.

Flinging Away The Crutch

I recently made a big decision: to stop taking antidepressants. I have been on medication for most of the past 14 years — continuously for the past 11 — and they have helped me a lot. They have been a vital tool in helping me change from someone so controlled by her anxiety and depression that she rarely left the house to someone who actually has a life. I just don’t feel that I need to take them anymore.

Deciding to take or not to take antidepressants is a a personal choice.

I have read a lot of people’s opinions on antidepressants, ranging from those who think they are evil and that the side effects are worse than the illness they treat, to those who advocate taking as large a dose as possible for as long as possible. In my experience, neither of these extremes are true or helpful. Antidepressants don’t work for everyone and even when they do, it can take a lot of experimentation to find the correct type and dosage for you.

I decided to take antidepressants in the first place because my doctor thought they would help me and I was desperate to grasp at anything which might make my life more bearable. Too many people judge others’ decisions to start or continue taking antidepressants; whereas nobody judges people for relying on medication to treat physical illness, even when that illness could theoretically be controlled through other means, a lot of people feel the need to voice their (often misinformed) opinions on antidepressants. Perhaps it would have been “better” for me to have used other methods of managing my mental health, but these simply weren’t available to me when I was at my lowest points. Medication was available and I’m very grateful.

I should stress that I am in regular contact with my doctor and reduced my antidepressant dosage according to his advice before stopping completely. This was important to prevent withdrawal symptoms, but it also enabled me to gauge whether my symptoms worsened as the dose decreased. They did not, so I decided that coming off medication was the right choice for me.

One of the key reasons that I am able to cope nowadays is because antidepressants helped me access and implement other ways of managing my mental health. When my mental illness was at its worst, I simply couldn’t do things like taking regular exercise and using CBT techniques to challenge my negative beliefs. Antidepressants were the crutch which allowed me to take steps forward.

It’s scary, but I have contingency plans — including going back on antidepressants if needed.

I will never be anti-medication, as much as I advocate using other therapies and activities to manage mental health, and I will take antidepressants again if required. I know that I have to monitor my mental health so that I can observe and address any changes — I still have mental health problems and they will never magically disappear. I hope to manage my mental health well enough that I can be considered “recovered” in the future, but I’m taking things one step at a time.

I know that my progress won’t be linear. Everyone has good days and bad days in terms of mood and mental health, regardless of whether they have ever been mentally ill, and recovery from physical illnesses and injuries os rarely straightforward. I think it’s important for me to keep this in mind. While I’m confident in my decision, the uncertainty still terrifies me. I don’t know what will happen — whether there will be a dramatic deterioration or improvement in my mental health or, as I suspect is more likely, whether things will change gradually.

So being congratulated for coming off medication is tricky.

For one thing, I don’t know whether I will have to take antidepressants again in the future. I feel unable to claim this as an unmitigated success because I have no idea if the change is permanent. I’m happy to be able to try life without medication, but it feels like being congratulated for starting to learn to drive — it’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t know whether it will turn out well.

The thornier issue is that congratulations imply that you have achieved something through hard work and while I have worked hard to control my mental illness, I was struggling a lot more when I was on antidepressants. I worked hard even when there were no positive results. It comes back to the idea of being judged for taking medication: congratulating me now implies that I was doing something wrong because I needed to take antidepressants. That makes me uncomfortable because it’s not true — needing medication doesn’t mean you are weak or a failure. Regardless of how you choose to treat mental illness, battling it takes courage and strength every day.

More than anything, I’m curious about the future — and a bit excited!

I have no idea whether I have suffered side effects from my medication for a start, though I have my suspicions. I don’t know precisely how much my antidepressants helped me, or in which situations, so I don’t know how (or if) anything will change. I never felt that the medication blotted out my personality — though my mental illness did — but I have no idea whether it affected certain behaviours or personality traits. I can’t wait to find out what life without antidepressants is like.

Having said that, coming off medication is just one of the changes I have made this year and my curiosity and excitement about the future owe more to these other changes. I may be taking tentative steps now I have flung my crutch away, but hopefully I will be skipping ahead someday soon.

 

 

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10 Ways Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

I want to start with a caveat: not everyone with mental health problems can exercise. There are many obstacles, including physical conditions or disabilities, financial concerns and some mental illnesses (like anxiety and depression) making it difficult to leave the house. Neither do I consider exercise a substitute for other treatments – if you use exercise to treat your mental health problems so that you don’t have to take medication or go to therapy, good for you, but don’t assume that everyone else can do the same.

It took me years of antidepressants and talking therapies before I could consider using exercise to help improve my mental health. I recently came across an excellent piece on this subject, written in response to some ignorant comments made by a prominent ex-politician: www.thefementalists.com/2013/05/24/louise-mensch-just-doesnt-seem-to-get-it/

However, I have also read an excellent book called Spark! The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain by Dr John J Ratey, which explains the various benefits exercise has for mental health and cognitive function. I recommend that you read the book, which is informative and fascinating, but here are the advantages of exercise that most appealed to me:

  1. It can help you cope with stress. At the cellular level, exercise is stress. But it “controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress” as it breaks down and builds up neurons (which is similar to how muscles get broken down and rebuilt), making them stronger and more resilient. As a result, the mind and body adapt so that you become better at coping with stress.
  1. Exercise makes us more socially active. I keep espousing the importance of making connections and exercise can help you connect with other people. It boosts confidence and motivation, and often provides opportunities to meet people.
  1. You feel more in control. Exercise gives you a feeling of self-mastery because you initiate the action and therefore experience exercise as a predictable and controllable form of stress. Running has helped my anxiety because it has taught me to control my breathing. When a panic attack begins, I am more able to slow my breathing instead of thinking ‘oh my god, I can’t breathe!’ which helps me calm down.
  1. Exercise boosts your motivation. When you become physically active, you start to see yourself as active in other areas of your life. You begin to see what you can change and how you can reconnect with friends and activities you used to enjoy. You no longer see yourself as a passive recipient of the problems and sufferings heaped upon you.
  1. It distracts you. It’s difficult to pay a lot of attention to negative thoughts when you need to be aware of your movement and surroundings. Exercise – especially exercise which demands a degree of concentration – provides you with respite, taking you out of your harmful thought patterns.
  1. It improves self-esteem. Exercise tackles self-esteem from both a neurochemical and a psychological perspective. When you do something that makes you feel better, like committing to regular exercise, you value yourself more. If you set yourself fitness goals, your self-esteem is boosted when you achieve or surpass them.
  1. It creates a sense of stability. Having a fitness routine gives your life rhythm and provides a good foundation for mental health. For this reason, it is an excellent way to prevent mental health problems. You can increase the sense of stability by sticking to a schedule and exercising with another person or as part of a group.
  1. Exercise increases our cognitive abilities. This is particularly the case for sports which rely heavily on learning and developing skills, but any exercise will improve your ability to learn. Better cognitive function means it’s easier to implement other strategies to improve your mental health, such as CBT techniques.
  1. It gives you focus. Not only can exercise improve your concentration (related to the previous point), but it provides something in your life which you can directly influence. Even if every other aspect of your life is a disaster, you can focus on your fitness. It can provide you with a purpose.
  1. Exercise alters your brain chemistry. Did you think I’d leave this one out? It elevates serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which affect mood. This makes exercise a potent treatment for depression, as well as other mental illnesses – but remember my caveat at the beginning of this post and don’t assume it’s a miracle cure for everyone.