How to manage your mental health? Manage your stress and anxiety in the form of a story and how to live up to your expectations.
Lets start with a story
My mother and father are still referring to me today: “A little back pain, probably from Cabeza.” What is the number of parents we have here? Give me a fast wave – lots of you are there. All right, so I’ve been a hyperactive child. With my endless amount of energy, I drove my parents up the wall. No matter what my parents thought I wouldn’t sleep, I needed constant attention and I wouldn’t rest. No idea what was to be done with me by my parents. So they brought me to the doctor for the family to see if he could do anything.
But I was labelled as a ‘problem child‘ by my family doctor and he said to my parents, ‘If you can’t cope with Jessica – I always take him away and sedate him’ and then he continued to share with them some drug-related interventions that they might like to consider and my father and mom got into it for whatever reason.
They decided to find another way so they gave me other people to care for – friends and family of Mom and Dad. But it didn’t work, as everyone was very busy and at the end of their tether, my mom and dad remained with the problem child.
You know there’s a picture of my mum and dad on their wedding day they look young, healthy, vital and there’s a picture of the three of us – less than two years later, and they look at how they’ve aged 25 years. So, my parents decided to fight fire with fire, and they decided to attempt to tire me out and that’s where my life of activity started – way before I can even remember.
I was swimming from day dot, I went to mother and baby gymnastics before I was 1-year-old, that turned into tumble tots, and I was taking part in any physical activity that was going and every sport that I was able to do at the age that I was at and magical things started to happen.
I got easier to deal with. I’m happy that my parents have been on the route of physical activity because when I was six I began my dreams of being in the Olympic Games. I watched the 1984 Olympics on TV and told my dad I wanted to go to the Olympics.
On Christmas, I got the Guinness Book of World Records and wrote my time beside the world record holder to see the number of minutes I had to get rid of. I am happy that my parents have walked that path, as I began to go diving at the age of 9 or just before I had 9, which was one of many sports I tried, but it was actually clear to me that diving was the sport for me within a short time.
Ultimately, I followed my limpid dreams in the sport diving competing at 3 Olympic Games and even winning an Olympic medal in 2004 and none of that would have been possible if my mum and dad hadn’t chosen physical movement as my medicine.
So, it’s widely known- the negative effects of inactivity on someone’s physical health and the associated risk of disease but what’s concerning me is the link between inactivity and someone’s mental health. Now, can I just check with you here today in London; Just by a show of hands – How many of you know someone close to you who has suffered or is suffering in some way with mental health? Just gives me a quick indication. Wow! Pretty much every hand went up.
This is a huge issue today. You know in a recent index of over 300 diseases, mental health problems were the largest cause of the overall disease burden worldwide. Here in the UK, 2016 official survey showed that nearly 20% of those aged 16 and over are suffering from symptoms of either depression and/or anxiety.
There’s a huge percentage of the population who don’t necessarily have a diagnosable mental health problem, but who are suffering from their mental health. It seems that stress and overwhelm are so commonplace in today’s society and although stress in itself is not a mental health issue; it’s often the starting point for many.
Could you imagine, what our world would be like if we had very few mental health issues? What would it be like, if we could drastically reduce the number of people who are suffering? Well, I believe we can – I think there’s something that we can do even more of and is simple. I’d like to argue that we spend too much time stuck in our heads and not enough time in our bodies. Thinking isn’t necessarily the solution to our problems; Thinking is often the cause. Especially when we get stuck in a pattern of overthinking.
Overthinking may cost you much
Overthinking leads to psychological stress and according to the World Health Organization, Stress is a global health epidemic. So, what can we do? We can move more – physically move because you know physically moving changes everything and when I say everything – I mean our experience of the world.
Fascinating things happen biochemically in the brain; when we move, move physically the first thing that happens – the human nervous system recognizes this as a ‘moment of stress’ and thinks you’re about to fight or flee from an enemy; in order to protect you, your brain releases a chemical – a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF for short). BDNF prepares the brain, protects the brain and it also plays a key role in creating new neurons, specifically in the hippocampus area of the brain.
Alongside this, another chemical is released one that you may be more familiar with – endorphins. Endorphins are often attributed to the high that we feel after moving physically, but their role is to dumb down any discomfort that we might encounter from fighting or fleeing from that enemy.
So essentially, it’s the chemical mix of BDNF and endorphin which explain why things often clear up and we feel more at ease after moving physically. But how does this show up in the real world? How do we experience this? Well, moving physically in the short term immediately changes our state, it boosts our mood and it releases the build-up of stress in our human nervous system.
Over the long-term, consistent physical movement changes the structure of our brain, it boosts self-esteem and decreases the biological reaction to psychological stress. Psychological stress is the enemy to our mental health and its physical movement that is our best weapon to respond.
This isn’t new, Cicero, who was around over 2,000 years ago arguably one of Rome’s greatest orators said this, “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigour.” He was right and it seems more applicable now than ever.
There’s a whole body of research showing that movement is an effective intervention on more serious mental health issues. In 2013, there was a study into a depression that showed that meditative movement, in this case, it was yoga, chi gong and tai chi were effective in reducing symptoms of depression in all participants in that particular study.
A few years later, a separate study showed that regular yoga practises as an intervention was effective in reducing the symptoms, severity of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In some cases, so much that PTSD diagnosis was no longer valid.
A different type of movement intervention was used to combat anxiety disorders, it was shown that aerobic exercise was a fantastic intervention into those who are suffering; those with anxiety when they experienced a physiological change that they are fearful of – for example, an increased heart rate when it’s through aerobic exercise, it helped make the fight-flight response to their stress system – less reactive and therefore, building resilience and tolerance to such symptoms resulting in infrequent intense anxiety episodes.
In 2016, Fritz and O’Connor showed that 20-minute bouts of medium intensity exercise successfully reduced symptoms of those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That’s certainly reflective of how the movement was used as an intervention when I was younger. So, what would happen if we reclaimed our mental health by moving more?
Well, there are two actions that you can all take – the first one is when you find yourself in a context where you’re stressed whatever that is – maybe you’re hunched over the laptop, maybe it’s a completely different context. When you’re stressed, you’re poisoning your body.
There are chemical changes taking place, cortisol is going through the roof; Adrenaline going through the roof and if you don’t change that then you’re poisoning your body. The thing that you do is get up and go for a walk and if you’re physically not capable to do so, even just changing your posture and the rhythm of your breath is enough to change the chemicals in the brain and move you from stress and more towards wellness. The most important thing here is, we disrupt this constant pattern; we disrupt the build-up of stress as often as we can.
The second long-term solution is a challenge – a challenge to find your movement, your physical movements. Sport, activity doesn’t matter what it is, but there’s something very important at play here and I learnt this the hard way; So, clearly diving was my movement and you’d think that someone like me who used to train for seven hours a day, six days a week would be one of the most mentally well people around, because of all of that movement.
But that wasn’t the case in my experience, the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, I ended up fourth and I knew that I couldn’t get any closer to my dreams. That next year, things started to go south. I had reconstructive shoulder surgery on my right shoulder. At seven months of painstaking rehabilitation, I made it back to fitness only to have to go under the knife once again for a second shoulder reconstruction on the same shoulder and then I fell into a ditch.
For the next eight months, life wasn’t fair – I fell into a depression. I was training, obsessing on all of the detail, doing exactly what I needed to do and I was stuck – because something was missing. I hit rock bottom. I’m stood on a poolside away from the crowds with tears rolling down my face, my shoulders are hunched and I’ve given up – because I’ve tried everything and it’s often the way there’s a point where it turns around and it was my mentor that came up to me at that time, and he gently put his hand on my shoulder asking me a question.
He said, “Jessica, remind me why do you do this sport?”. “Because I enjoy it”, I said. He said, “Well, why haven’t I seen you smile for the past eight months”, and that was it. The reason I chose this sport in the first place overall of the sports I went into when I was young, is because I enjoyed it and because of the stress and the pressure that I put myself in I was stuck in that negative spiral. I made one change when I went back to training the very next day, I put a smile on my face and it was like that it was a forced smile to start with – but that negative spiral very quickly started to go the other way.
I found the joy in the movement once again, every single training session, every single dive, every single weight I lifted. I find that didn’t make it easy, but I found the joy in it and that negative spy went the other way and I was back on track after my Olympic dreams.
So, my challenge to you, this is an exercise – for exercise forsake, this isn’t forcing yourself to go to the gym, this isn’t a movement for movement sake. This is finding your movement, the movement that fills you with joy. So, we challenge you to be creative – walk, run, swim, dive, play tennis, kick a football even head off to one of those early-morning sober raves; whatever you need to do but the magic ingredient here is enjoyment! So, what would happen if we moved more? What is possible for movement as an intervention? Well, a number of years ago, I was asked to work with a young man as an executive coach, I was to be his performance coach.
On paper, things were looking amazing because he was a high flyer accelerating through a massive organization here in London. He was already almost at the top of the very tree, but in reality, things were very different. When I sat down with him, I discovered the things were very dark – he was suffering from bipolar disorder. He was under the care of a psychiatrist and over the past five or six years the symptom severity of his bipolar disorder had slowly been increasing and therefore, the medication he was on subsequently was being upped and he found himself to a point where it was tearing him, his young family apart and he was right on the edge.
We made one intervention, I asked him “What do you love to do movement-wise?”. He proceeded to tell me a story of how he still loved to run when he was younger. So, we built a series of behaviours and habits around running – he started to go running frequently, before long enough in a number of weeks he’d already joined a local running club and this journey went on.
In six months down the line, he ran in his local half marathon with his wife, his children, extended friends and family cheering him on the most momentous day. Over that period, the symptom severity of his bipolar disorder had been reduced, so much that he was taken off pretty much all of his medication. The side effects that were plaguing him had faded away and from a mental health point of view, he was in the best place he’d been for over a decade – because running was his movement.
So, there’s a beautiful quote from Thomas Jefferson who said this, “Exercise and application produce order to our affairs, the health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and those make us precious to our friends.” So, in this world of stress, overwhelm and overthinking we need to get out of our heads and back into our bodies. We need to physically move more because if we don’t, the children of this world will continue to model our behaviours of stress and inactivity and this mental health unwellness will continue to rise. So, here today let’s start a movement for movement, I challenge you to reclaim your mental health by finding your movement – the movement that fills you with joy and do it as often as you can!
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