I’m a jolly person. If you’ve met me you’ll probably agree. Others would say my chirpy demeanour is something that comes across pretty strongly in fact. So, I’m happy, right? My mental state is healthy, yes? Well yes, luckily it is.
But it isn’t always and, a long time ago, I went through a pretty bad patch. Like everyone else, I have had low points in my life. I consider myself lucky that the only episode of what I’d call depression, lasted just a few months (though it seemed much longer at the time). It was brought about by a relationship ending and compounded by being during the ‘what do I do with my life?’ period between studentdom and proper adulthood.
I won’t dwell on the catalysts however as it can be different for different people at different times. Sometimes there’s no catalyst at all. That’s why it’s not as simple as thinking someone suffering will ‘get over it’. As the causes can vary, the symptoms can too. Some will cry at random moments. Some will withdraw from social interaction. Some will drink or smoke more. Some will sleep less (At my lowest point I didn’t sleep for what seemed like weeks in a row). And some symptoms will manifest themselves physically. My eczema is worse when I’m stressed, for example. But more widely, headaches, chest pains or stomach problems can be experienced. And some symptoms won’t be obvious to others, or even the one suffering. How can you deal with something that isn’t identified?
Mental health is far more complicated than the black and white divide of being either okay or clinically depressed. This is not just about ‘breakdowns’. Mental health, like physical health exists on a broad spectrum that we are all on somewhere. We all have bad days and good days of course, that’s natural. What we need to watch out for in ourselves and those we care for is when things go beyond our version of ‘normal’ and behaviour changes. Whatever the cause of poor mental health, short or long term, others being understanding and empathetic is key. It’s hard to explain how you feel when you feel mentally weak or out of control, but all those around can do is listen and be sensitive to people’s feelings (as we all should anyway of course)
There are a number of lifestyle choices that can positively affect your mental health and luckily most are accessible by all. Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising are all known contributors to both a healthier mind as well as a healthier body. The trouble with the exercise part though, as readers of my own blog will know, is that I really have to push myself to do a decent amount of exercise. I didn’t have sport in my life growing up. I remember PE seeming like punishment and the playground felt like it was dominated by the more socially confident children.
Missing out on sport when you’re younger can make it harder to motivate yourself to do enough as an adult. I only really started doing sport as an adult and I consider myself lucky to work for Sport Wales for many reasons, but a key one is the culture of playing sport together. Staff frequently play badminton, run together or play football at lunchtimes. It aids communication and team-working, the benefit of which is felt back in the office. The sport I enjoy most, by far, is football. Following England and Southampton FC has been an exercise in sadistic, self-inflicted torture over the years due to their overwhelming ability to disappoint, but I really love actually playing the game (albeit badly).
Team sports like football have double strength mental health boosting powers. First there is the exercise itself. Serotonin and endorphin production increases as you get a sweat on, which causes that buzz you have from getting physical. There is no way I know to get the same positive feeling that is both free and doesn’t cause you damage (unlike many of our most popular vices). Second, there is the social aspect. The camaraderie created through being on a team is hard to beat. I play on a lunchtime as well as after work in a five-a-side league and genuine friendships have been forged through doing so.
I cannot overstate the benefits felt from playing sport. When I do, I don’t stress about work and when I return to the office my mind feels energised too, quite the opposite of the sluggish fog that envelopes you when you eat too much for lunch and just want to snooze…
NB. This piece was originally written for Mental Health Awareness Week for Sport Wales.