Musings on mental health

Mental health is a difficult subject. A lot of people suffer in silence with mental health problems, never getting the help they need. Before I go on I just want to say that I'm in no way suggesting that any mental health problem can be fixed by a gentle jog around the park, it's far more complex than that. What I am going to talk about is my own personal experience with depression. This is tied in with C25K - so it's not completely off topic, I hope! Also, when I started writing this was supposed to be a short post, so I apologise for the ridiculous length!

I'm 23 now, and I can't remember exactly when I first starting struggling with depression (and I side order of anxiety when I got a bit older). I think it was my early teens or maybe pre-teens - I would have been 12 or 13. Growing up as the fat, geeky kid with glasses and frizzy ginger hair was, shall we say, less than ideal. I was not a popular person, and I was bullied from the age of 7 or 8. I can't say for sure when it stopped; I went to college for a year after I finished high school but dropped out when I was 17, so I would say that was when it ended. It left me with a lasting fear of people talking about me and saying awful things. I still catch myself thinking "are they laughing at me?" when I walk past a group of people giggling at uni. They probably aren't - and I know that - but 10 years of laughing, pointing, name calling and never having any real friends has left a mark.

For a large part of my teenage years, then again when I was between 20 and 21/22, I experienced terrible lows where I would sit in my room and cry, isolate myself even more than I already was, and self harm. I never attempted suicide, but I thought about it on and off and even planned how I would do it. I always said I would get a tattoo if I stopped self harming for a year - I reached that milestone at the beginning of the summer, and when funds allow I will fulfil that promise to myself. Starting university this time last year was a real turning point - apart from the odd little spell of feeling low I've been doing great; I coped with the pressure of exams, made fantastic friends and I'm studying my dream course.

It took me completely by surprise, then, when I came home this summer and the old feelings started to creep back in. My Dad is disabled, and I find it very hard to watch him get worse knowing there is no possibility for improvement, and my Mum and I have never been close. I think it was going from being surrounded by friends and having constant academic stimulation to coming back to live with my parents, away from all my friends and working my old job for 3 months that did it. I've not been anywhere as near as bad as I have been in the past - I've managed not to self harm, which is important to me - but I found myself sitting in my room, feeling this profound sadness that I can't explain. My mood swings come with a volatile temper, and I found myself become more and more impatient with my family and work colleagues. I would wake up not wanting to do anything or even move and just feeling very, very low.

6 weeks ago, I decided I would try and take up running. I was sitting on my bed and I found all the empty crisp packets and chocolate wrappers stuffed down the side (I comfort eat - a lot), and I decided to try and make a change. I tried running on a mad impulse, and although my legs hurt for about 4 days afterwards (I have since learned to stretch after my run!), I came home with a smile on my face. I was less impatient and more content, and my mood lifted instantly. A week later I started C25K, and I find now that that deep sadness that springs on me out of nowhere - or I wake up with it - recedes when I get out and run (at the moment it's more limping and panting, but still). The negative voices that tell me I'm worthless are drowned out, and I feel refreshed and invigorated. I finished W3R3 today, and the black cloud that has hung over me since yesterday has dissipated. I don't want to cry for no reason at all, and little things aren't bothering me. I'm hoping to go along to the Ultimate Frisbee taster session when I get back to uni - something I never thought I would have the confidence to do.

As I said at the beginning of my (very, very long - sorry!) post, I'm not saying that mental health problems can be magically cured by exercise. So many people struggle daily, and I would urge them to get help. My GP wanted to put me on antidepressants 2 years ago, which I refused; she then suggested a telephone counselling service, which I tried out but honestly didn't feel comfortable with. There is a lot of help available, and for some people medication is the best choice, so please don't avoid seeking help. My GP was very understanding, I was just scared that antidepressants showing up on my medical record would cause problems at uni (I do a course where I have to sign to declare myself medically fit to practice, and although I know there was support available I chose to keep it a secret. Probably a poor choice.) I should also mention here that when I was 20 and 21 I found that The Samaritans were very helpful; I didn't feel like I had anyone in my life I could talk to, and emailing them was brilliant. I would urge anyone who feels like they need to talk to someone to try them, you can email or phone and it's completely confidential.

What I am saying is that, for me, running is giving me an outlet for the frustration I feel, and the natural endorphins are working to lift the black clouds that swarm around me for no reason. I hope that I can keep up with the programme, and I will continue to enjoy it as much as I have done, and it will keep giving me the benefits I'm already seeing. I'm not just experiencing an improvement in my physical health, but in my mental health too. The answer to my problems was not at the bottom of an ice cream tub - and believe me, I've eaten enough tubs of ice cream to fully test that theory - but some relief may just lie in the calming rhythm of my feet pounding the road.

12 Replies

  • Good for you! Finding running has clearly added a big positive to your life - feel proud of yourself for working through C25k. The self affirmation of succeeding to complete each run made as big a difference to me as the improving fitness - it's taught me to celebrate small successes and made me feel much better about myself. It's a great stress release, too. Keep it up and keep posting.

  • Brave , insightful and inspiring post Nicole. It's great you have found something that helps you chase away your demons. Brilliant achievement in not self harming and I look forward to a pic of the tattoo when you get it!

    Keep running 😀

  • I suppose if at present the running is helping with the depression, then you have at least a temporary fix, and also a weapon to use in any ongoing struggle against the condition. So it looks like running works for you, and you have a good, solid, sensible appreciation of the limits of the "data" to date, so you're probably the right kind of optimist for the circumstances.

    It works as a pick-me-up for lot of us, so you have plenty of confirmation here that you're not just imagining that you feel happier. :-) I'm guessing that the best way you can keep it working for yourself is to insulate running from excessive "mood swings". That might be achieved by things like going slow, not pushing too much, etc. Remember that if you get tired it can feel like depression, too. Go from some kind of runner's ecstacy to a sore foot collapso, and you can mess with your tranquility. In other words, you might have to manage it like you would have to manage your meds if ever it becomes necessary to use them. (Never say never about that; I've seen them do wonders for people I've known. But it's something that requires a lot of discipline to manage. You can't just swallow the tabs and leave them to do the work.)

    Longish rant about the good side of meds is hereby abruptly terminated. Your running as a mood management technique is something you'll have to expect to learn to have to manage. And if you keep it working nicely, no you don't need meds, I don't think. From what I've seen, though, the right target to be aiming for is stability, and not too much mood uplift. That could be because most of the depressives I know are bipolar, of course. If you have a more stable form, maybe it's safe to let things swing up a bit. (In the case of bipolar disorder, the ups are far, far more dangerous than the downs, generally. On the up there's the risk of tipping over into what looks a hell of a lot like schizophrenia. And if you "only have depression" at least be glad that you're not schizo).

    Intuitively it feels right. Running is something that could be developed into even one's main strategy to deal with depression. I think this is what you're hoping? And why not? Beats the hell out of risking diabetes (with omitted depressing list of symptoms) by comfort eating.

  • It's definitely a part of my startegy! And as I've got older I've found it easier to be more open with people, I have friends at uni now I feel like I could discuss things with. Had they been around at the first part of the summer I probably would have spoken to them, but I feel uneasy doing things over fb messenger!

    As for the meds thing, I would consider them if I needed to - I think it was just odd timing from my GP, she offered them when I was actuallt feeling much better and had mentioned my previous episode in passing when I was consulting her about something else. I think had I been offered meds when I was a teenager I would have taken them, and in the future if I felt as low as I have previously, or started self-harming again, I'd go with what my GP recommended for sure :)

    Stability is definitely what I'm aiming for - I have a tendency to get a little too over-excited, shall we say? So when I'm in a good mood I'm on top of the world, and when I'm low I'm in a really deep rut. My Dad always said I just had very strong emotions even as a child, but I didn't know what to do with them. He's probably right! A happy medium is what I'm aiming at :)

    And I completely agree - I don't know anyone personally with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia but I work with adults with learning disabilities, one of whom has mental health problems. He suffers from psychoses and mania, controlled to a degree by (completely essential) medication, and it must be so frightening, I really feel for him. I'm relieved that my issues were never serious enough to really take over my whole life, and I feel very blessed that I seem to be coming out the other side.

    Thanks for the reply! :)

  • Thanks for posting Nichole, good for you getting started with c25k. You like many before you have found the wonderful uplifting benefits of exercising! I often feel so much better after a run, even when I have to drag myself out. What week are you on at the moment? Keep posting to let us know how you get on. Some runs feel tough, others easier! It's great this programme isn't it?! :-D

  • I've just finished week 3, I'll be starting week 4 on Saturday or Sunday (started back after an injury on a Saturday, so my weeks are out of sync haha!) Where are you up to? :)

  • Good luck with week 4. I remember I started to feel quite excited about c25k around this point. I graduated just this week, so a pretty new runner myself! :-)

  • Oh Nicole, I found your post very moving to read, not least because so much of what you said resonated strongly with me. As someone who is prone to anxiety, I now consider running to be one of the most effective strategies I have of keeping it at bay! When I couldn't run recently due to injury, I was more worried about losing the emotional benefits than anything else! Running makes me a calmer and happier person - full stop!

    It sounds as if you have been on quite a journey, but also that you have the insight and tools to help you through those dark days. So pleased that running helped you through those tricky days recently and that it is maybe giving you a more positive release from some of those feelings/voices.

    keep up with the running and best of luck to you. 😀

  • You raise some very interesting thoughts. I have recently stopped working in a career I loved and it was a great loss both financially and also lost some of my identity. Running came at just the right time because I feel healthier and the sense of achievement is fantastic. There is routine too, running three times a week, rest days, it all works towards giving me some stability. I don't think about stuff when I am running, just relax and watch the world go by. I feel physically tired too after a run and later comes the feel good time too. Overall, as part of different options, exercise should be promoted to help people improve mental health. Thanks for sharing your story and all the best. Julie

  • Thanks for the positive responses guys :) I'm glad to hear that there are other people who are feeling the emotional benefits of getting out there and running!

  • Oh Nicole , ((((( ))))) Massive hugs to you xxx

    I was very moved by your post, you have experienced such emotional lows , depression is so debilitating, and sometimes you feel as if you don't care if you ever get up again.

    I am so pleased that you have found something that is so beneficial to you physically and emotionally. Good for you ! I think this programme is completely life changing , the benefits as you have found, are immense.

    I am so glad that you are feeling better and that you posted here . Please keep posting and letting us know how youre progressing , don't worry about anyone judging you here , this is a safe, friendly place .

    Good Luck for the future Nicole and please keep posting ! :-) xxx

  • well said Nicole, I feel your pain. I am always talking about the benefits of this program I include mental health as well as the physical. Whilst I haven't suffered depression for years, I do find a good 30 minute run 3 times a week gets rid of any stress that has built up, through work etc. I often have days when I am in my car all day and all I want to do is get home and pull on my running gear.

    I am sure as you have said this program helps to lift the cloud.X

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