Exercise. It helps, you know. It’s the one thing I can pretty much guarantee every other sufferer of mental health issues has heard at some stage – maybe not those with eating disorders, I’d hope people might be more tactful than that, but you never know.
Physical movement is hailed as one of the best treatments for poor mental health and an essential for maintenance of good mental health. It was my idea to link to a few articles or studies here, but I’m not sure I need to. It’s everywhere, inescapable, and we know it’s true. I am not seeking to deny the efficacy of exercise in sustaining better mental health. There’s no point, because I have fuck all to back that up, and I’d be hounded incessantly by fitness and wellness internet presences trying to defend their cause.
Instead, I want to open the blinkers a little bit. Create a wider narrative, a more cohesive understanding of why people who suffer with their mental health are not all cycling to work or dashing off to a spin class at lunch.
I did some yoga earlier, about twenty minutes, give or take. By the end, I was sweating. My heart was hammering insistently in my chest as though it was trying to get out of a room with Boris Johnson in it. My arms and legs shook. Half an hour after I finished, my heart had still not returned to its normal resting rate (which is probably significantly higher than it ought to be, given my propensity for anxiety). My muscles were still delicately trembling throughout my body.
‘What an unfit slob!’, I hear you scoff. Well, these symptoms, for the uninitiated, are uncomfortably similar to those of a panic attack or extreme anxiety. Or just every day anxiety, if you’re anything like me. Instead of calm and mindful I felt drained of energy from my body’s response to the (minimal) exertion. Not to make excuses, but when exercise triggers that sort of response in my mind and body, it’s understandable why it might be something I’d like to avoid.
Strangely, if I go to the gym and force myself to do some cardio I often feel alright; I’m expecting an increased heart rate, major sweating, and for a beautiful hue of red to bless my face. There have been occasions, though, when I’ve given up after about two minutes. Not because my body is so weak and broken, but because my mind has taken over without me realising. I might get worked up at the thought of what my body will go through, and it makes me feel sick.
‘Why don’t you just go to the gym and do some cardio, then, you loon?’, I hear you cry. Well, even if I could manage it, actually getting out is often the hardest part. When I’m already exhausted from just being alive, plodding off to the gym is not high on my list of priorities.
There is an intense pressure throughout society to ‘be well’ and to exercise as it is; this increases when you reveal that you suffer from mental ill health. Well-meaning people will crow uproariously about how good exercise is for your mood. This means that when I can’t manage it, I feel more shameful. It’s something else to be negative about, isn’t it? I couldn’t manage to get to the gym, so I’m a failure. I’m not trying hard enough. Frankly, I’d like to see these well-wishers down the doses of medicine that most of us less-than-sane people have to take, and see how much they fancied a run after that.
In my more mentally stable days, I’ve been known to exercise. In my early twenties, obviously I didn’t bother because who has the time for that, when they could be in the pub? I must have been around 24 when I realised I should probably get off my arse, and started going to a zumba class that was down the road. My boyfriend at the time was running, and either was or had been training for a marathon. After a while, I decided that I wanted to go with him on a run. I made it, my first ever run around the park, without stopping. It was actually a 5k, which really isn’t bad at all. I was slow, but the zumba had boosted my cardio.
That was it, then. I did a few more tentative runs, and signed myself up for a Race for Life event to give me something to aim for. I spent the next few months running a few times a week and still going to zumba. I can’t remember how long this was, but I did the race in the summer, and even after achieving my goal, I carried on. This is almost incomprehensible to me in my current mindset, and shows the stark difference between what I’m capable of when I’m well and when I’m not.
For a couple of years, I was a runner. Not a fast one, but a consistent one. I carried on when I moved into town on my own, finding new routes and enjoying different views. When my mental health sailed merrily off to sea for an as-yet-undefined length of time, leaving me with only mental illness, my interest in running slowed. My interest in most things slowed.
Over the past four years, I have dabbled every now and then. 2016 was probably the last time I was anywhere approaching consistent. What’s my excuse?
Exhaustion. The inability to get out of bed, never mind out of the flat. A complete lack of interest in myself or anything that might benefit me. I tried doing more yoga, I did a couple of 30-day programmes on the bounce, but never really felt those much-lauded benefits.
Last year, we joined a gym. I’d always been opposed to this – it sounded awful, and I didn’t see the need when I could just go outside to exercise. I didn’t feel up to that, though, so a gym seemed like a logical step. We were enthusiastic at first, and even went swimming a few times. Once I was in more of a routine at work, I could fit the gym into my life.
Unfortunately, my routines have never lasted long. I’ve lost jobs, I’ve changed medicines, I’ve had different types of therapy and intervention with varying results. It’s a lot to take on, and whilst my health has been suffering, so has my ability to find time to do anything so seemingly trivial as go to the gym.
I think that’s a huge part of it – when you’re battling with your mind so much, what happens to your body becomes completely unimportant. I didn’t care what I was eating, never mind how much I was moving. In all honesty, I can look at my life and say that when I’ve been on a more even plane mentally, exercise has probably helped to keep me there. When I’m on a less even plane, well, it’s not a priority, and when I do manage it… I’m sorry, but those magical endorphins don’t really seem to touch the sides an awful lot of the time.
Exercise often feels like another ‘should’, rather than something I want to do. This means that if I don’t do it, I get annoyed with myself, blame myself, and assume that I’m just being lazy. It means there is extra anxiety attached to it, and hopes pinned on it being the miracle cure it’s supposed to be. Apparently, it doesn’t work like that. It’s very easy to say how much exercise helps your mental health when your mental health was alright to begin with.
I know some people who swear that exercise helps, and I can certainly see the appeal – the sense of achievement, the rush of adrenaline and endorphins, time either outside or inside where you’re just thinking about something else, or nothing at all. I understand that, and I have experienced it. It just doesn’t work like that all the time for me.
I have little interest in exercise, and I wish I did. Truly. I would love to be reminded of what my body can do, how it can carry me miles or stretch into beautiful positions. I’m also impatient and a world-class self-critic, so if I do try something and I’m not very good at it, I scare myself off with the harshness of my own response to it, convinced I can never have back what I used to.
It’s hard enough remembering that I enjoy reading or watching films, never mind that apparently I used to enjoy just running around in the outside world like it wasn’t a big deal, with no real aim in mind other than to, well, run. Then the pressure of ‘wellness’ looms, and it all just feels like a bit much. I’m not daft. I know exercise helps. It doesn’t help when it shoved down my throat, when people try to coerce me, even when I try to coerce myself. Depression and anxiety don’t like being coerced.
There’s probably some deep-rooted fear of failure, injury, or any other panic-related things that mill around in my brain. Whilst I’ve always had anxiety, my ability to push it aside and say ‘Who cares?’ as I gleefully embark on a casual 10k has seriously deteriorated. It’s mind versus body at the moment, and the mind has been winning. It sounds completely counter-intuitive, I’m sure, that the thing blocking me from freeing my mind and body is my mind.
Well, that’s what it’s like when you have a mental illness. It doesn’t matter how good something used to feel, or how good we know it is for us. The mental illness does not care about that. The mental illness wants us to focus on how lazy we are, how we can’t manage anything. It tricks us into battles we aren’t ready for and sends us into places we never wanted to be. It doesn’t want us to get better.
It doesn’t matter that the most painfully obvious answer might well be to lace up and get outside. What appears obvious to you is often a very distant and very large hurdle for us. It’s the same as suggesting we ‘think positively’ or ‘stop worrying’.
Look at me – I can’t even hold down a full-time job where I sit around all day. It seems unlikely that I’d be able to hold down a habit of launching myself around the streets on a thrice-weekly basis.
So, if you’re sick of hearing how wonderful exercise is, but you can’t get out of your pyjamas and into your leggings, I hear you. I know, and I understand. Take your time, and celebrate the things you are doing. If you can manage some exercise, even once a week – GREAT. THAT IS AMAZING. You do whatever you can, you enjoy yourself and use it as a base to form some other habits that you enjoy. Don’t wear yourself out, though.
If you’re like me, you might be somewhere in the middle. I have days where I’m pretty sure I could manage some exercise, but it’s not my focus. I don’t see the point if I’m not going to be consistent, and seeing as I don’t always know how I’m going to feel or how tired I’m going to be, consistence is difficult to come by.
I’m sick of feeling as though I write negative things all the time. I’m not trying to, but I am trying to show what it’s like when we hear these things, and that there are a million and one reasons why your depressed, anxious, paranoid or obsessive-compulsive friend might not be leaping out of the door to join in a passing fun run. These are only my thoughts, my experiences. I’m not dissing the marvels of a healthy exercise routine, honestly. I’m just trying to show that it isn’t always possible, and that actually, we usually don’t need reminding of that. I feel pretty confident that anyone who’s heard the exercise thing already knows it, has already considered it, and already has a hundred things going through their brain about it.
If you really want to help and be kind, talk to us. Listen to us. Don’t drag us to the gym. If we make it somewhere like that, by all means tell us how amazing we are for doing it (because you are – if you’re struggling and you’re managing to exercise, I take my hat well and truly off to you). Please don’t wave exercise in front of us as though it’s something we’re too stupid to have thought of, or something we simply just don’t understand. That’s not the case, and I’d argue that if that’s your standpoint, maybe you’re the one who doesn’t understand, not me.