Moving for mental health

As it’s Mental Heath Awareness Week, I thought it was a good moment to write about how being active can have a huge impact on mental health.

Before I go any further, I must point out that I absolutely understand how frustrating it is when someone blithely says “oh, exercise will help you feel better” or words to that effect. If you’re in the depths of a bout of depression, or at the height of a stress wave someone saying that probably prompts a pretty strong “punch repeatedly in the face” reaction in you, but please bear with me.

It is, however, widely acknowledged that getting more active can help manage the symptoms of some mental illnesses. Sufferers of stress, depression and anxiety can often find solace in exercise. When we exercise, our body releases endorphins, which make us feel good about life; when exercising, one is generally focusing on what to do now and next so there is less space to worry; if you exercise outdoors, the mindful aspect of absorbing nature can also help.

All this still sounds pretty simplistic – get moving and you’ll feel better. Of course it’s not as simple as that, but just as seeing a good friend can help lift the symptoms for a time, so can exercise. Better yet if you can get active with a friend who understands and will let you chat. The simple act of moving forwards side by side, and chatting, rather than trying to talk while face to face can remove some of the reservations about saying what you feel. If you overhear some of the conversations that occur in running and cycling clubs, you’d know what I mean (quite blush-worthy sometimes!).

Give it a try. Don’t ditch the medication – it is definitely doing a job, but try being a bit more active. If work is stressful, try a 10 minute walk when you get home. If you suffer with depression, try getting outdoors and being active. If it’s anxiety, put on your favourite song and have a dance around the kitchen. And let me know how you get on. I’m rooting for you.

The right activity at the right time

This week I am doing a course. It’s the GP referral course which will allow me to work with people with various medical conditions, and is also the gateway to several further courses that I want to do. It’s 4 days of pretty full on learning, and so far seems really useful.

However, it’s got me thinking about exercise guidelines vs personal capability. Over the last couple of years, for whatever reasons, my body has spent a lot too much time in the fight or flight mode, and as such I’ve been “stressed” (intentionally in inverted commas – I haven’t felt stressed, not in the way you do when there’s a deadline to meet, or a million things vying for your attention) for much of that time. Funnily enough existing like this takes its toll eventually, and right now I find myself in a sort of chronic fatigue type situation. If I plan ahead, I can find energy for what I need to do, but that’s all. This week, for example, I am finding the energy for this course but it will be at the expense of next weekend, when I will likely collapse; I spent much of last week gearing myself up for it, too.

Enough of the pity party, Emily, what’s the point?

OK, sorry! The point is on this course we are told the guideline amounts of exercise for people with various different conditions. Many of these conditions are attributed to sedentary lifestyles, among other things, so it makes very good sense that moving more will help. However, the guidelines seem to state that for each one ideally the person should be doing some sort of cardio exercise 3-5 times a week for 30 minutes (there are variations on this theme – I’m not for a second suggesting the guidelines are exactly the same for every condition).

Now, from my new position of understanding what it is too need to eek out your energy, and from having been told that cardio exercise is one of the big stressors for my body, I am finding this all very interesting. Yes, I absolutely agree that we all should be moving more. Yes, I 100% on board that my role is to encourage people to get more active.

What I am taking from these guidelines each time we get to that slide for a new condition is that getting active is the key here. It isn’t going and training for a 5k, a half marathon, a triathlon, whatever; it is moving more. For anyone with any of the conditions we are studying being more active WILL HELP. For me currently, being active HELPS, it’s just a different level of active to previously.

I’m really excited to learn more and to see how I can couple this learning with my experience to better support people who are inactive to take those first steps, to find their “thing”. We all have a thing. At the moment mine is walking. I walk with the dogs, I take in the sights and sounds of nature. I used to run to achieve the same, but not for now.

If you’re reading this wondering if maybe just maybe there’s an activity you could try that you just might enjoy, let me help you find it.

Right, I’m off for a snooze before today’s learning…

Language we use

I hope I’m not alone in having my external language – you know, how you speak to friends and family, the nice, censored version of stuff, the one that filters the appropriateness of what you’re saying most of the time to the situation you’re in, so you don’t start screeching at the little old lady in Sainsburys; and my internal language – you know, the one that has a very different filter as all the good stuff seems to get fined out, leaving just the negative versions of any story.

In our external language we tend to find a nice way to say things. We worry that we might offend with a poor choice of words. We sometimes walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting others.

Internal language? None of that. We beat ourselves with the worst of it. “You’re a failure”, “you’ll never achieve that”, “why even start?”. Would you EVER say these things to your friends? Almost certainly not.

OK, so we know we can speak nicely. We do it externally every day. So the next step is to start speaking nicely internally as well as externally. Rather than always going to the negative, start looking to find positives. Think about how you’re phrasing things. For example, “you’re a failure” can become “that didn’t work out quite as I planned, but I can learn from it”; “why even start?” can become “give it a try, it’ll be fun”; and so on.

What I find interesting is when internal and external language sort of meet up. I hear it a lot “I should get fitter”, “I should lose weight”. Should is a failure term – it’s using someone else’s external language to justify our internal failure. How about “I want to get fitter”, “I am going to lose weight”? Suddenly they sound so much more positive, so much more achievable.

Have a listen to what your internal language usage is. See if you can play around with it. See how much better you feel when you start using the positive language internally… Go on… Try it…

A few lunch suggestions

With many clients, we talk about how food can work with us rather than against us. I love really simple yet effective lunch ideas, so here are a few of them:

 

Easy Humous

Ingredients: 1 can chick peas, 1 tub cream cheese, 1 teaspoon tahini

Method: blend together

Serve as: dip for carrot sticks, sandwich filling, wrap filling

 

Easy fish pate

Ingredients: 2 smoked mackerel fillets (or hot smoked salmon), 1 tub cream cheese, 1 dessert spoon drained capers

Method: blend together

Serve as: spread on Melba toasts or oat cakes, dip for sliced cucumber, wrap filling, sandwich filling

 

Quick salmon pasta

Ingredients: pasta, courgette, smoked salmon, crème fraiche

Method: while the pasta is boiling, fry the sliced courgette until it is lightly browned on both sides. Drain the pasta. Mix the pasta, chopped smoked salmon and crème fraiche into the courgettes and quickly warm through

Serve as: main dish

 

Chorizo spinach mix

Ingredients: chorizo, cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, spinach, mozzarella

Method: fry the sliced chorizo, when it’s cooked add the halved cherry tomatoes and pine nuts, after a minute, stir through the spinach until it wilts, make dents in the mix and divide the mozzarella into them. Serve when the mozzarella has gone gooey

Serve as: main dish

 

Chilli, garlic and prawn linguine

Ingredients: 1 bird eye chilli, 1 clove garlic, raw prawns, 1 dessert spoon olive oil, linguine

Method: while the linguine is cooking, lightly fry the chopped chilli, and add the finely chopped garlic. Before either browns, add the prawns and mix the cooked pasta through

Serve as: main dish

 

Simple salmon

Ingredients: salmon fillet, bag of stir fry veg, lime juice, soy sauce

Method: put the salmon fillet in tin foil with some lime juice and soy sauce, make the foil into a parcel around the salmon and cook in the oven for about 15 mins. In the man time, heat some oil in a pan and stir fry the veg. As it’s nearly done (takes about 5 mins in total to stir fry, usually) add some lemon juice and soy sauce. Serve the veg with the salmon fillet on top

Serve as: main dish

 

Avocado and salmon open sandwich

Ingredients: hot smoked salmon, avocado, sour dough bread, rocket

Method: toast the bread, mash the avocado and spread it onto the toast, sprinkle hot smoked salmon and rocket on top. If you’re feeling really indulgent, add a poached egg.

Serve as: main dish

 

Pesto

Ingredients: basil, pine nuts, roasted garlic, olive oil, cheese (ideally parmesan)

Method: blend all the ingredients together to taste

Serve as: a pasta sauce, a topping on salmon fillet, an alternative to butter in a mozzarella and tomato sandwich, a drizzle on a salad.

 

If you’d like help with your food ideas, please do contact me.

 

 

Happiness

I have been trying to write this post for a few days now, and it keeps feeling a bit trite, as though in talking about happiness I am playing down the seriousness of mental health issues that so many people face. However, having heard that yet another friend is suffering with depression, I am determined to get this out there.

For far too long it has been taboo to talk about depression, anxiety, and so on. Stress has become a synonym for “far too busy being important” in too many people’s parlance, when actually stress need not have anything to do with work. Depression is an awful, dark place that I wouldn’t wish on anyone; along with anxiety it isn’t something the sufferer can “snap out of”, and yet all too often I hear people are advised that by acquaintances, even friends.

Personally I have always considered myself a happy person. I am very lucky in this regard. But I have had several periods of low mood, and more recently of intangible stress – it manifested itself as broken sleep, constant worry, disinterest in things that usually cheer me, getting slower and slower in my training, no energy, and many other things. I say intangible because it wasn’t associated directly to my job, my home life, money, whatever; but it caused me to worry irrationally about all those things.

OK, this is all a bit bleak, you’re meant to be talking about happiness, Emily!!

Knowing that my default setting is happy, I now make a conscious effort to notice things that make me smile, that lift my mood, that make me feel better. Today, for example, it’s the colour of the autumn leaves and it’s the toasted teacakes we had for breakfast (haven’t had any in years, desperately NEEDED them today!).

This ties in with the idea of mindfulness, being present, living in the moment. All these things help us to find the simple happiness in life, as they take us away from the stresses and worries that otherwise can engulf us.

Often people suffering with low mood, and worse, are told (helpfully!) that exercise will help. While this is undoubtedly true – exercising releases endorphins which lift mood – telling someone who is depressed that getting out there and running will magically make them feel better is like telling someone who is overweight that if they “just lose some weight” they’ll get healthier. We all know these things in our conscious mind, but illness or our subconscious can be so much stronger than just knowing the facts.

So, how do we find happiness? In doing little things: small bits of movement, small acts of kindness, small changes of food to be healthier; and building up to doing these things more. I’m not suggesting I have a cure for depression, but I do believe everyone can find a moment or two of happiness in their day.

In all my work with my clients I try to keep clear in my mind the trilogy of kindness, happiness and playfulness. When we speak on Skype, we look at how adding exercise will make someone happier, how it can become an act of self-kindness, and how being playful can fulfil that. If that sounds like your sort of way to get more active, do have a look at my Jumpstart plans. There is no taboo around mental health with me.