Exercise, Mental Health and Lockdown – By Ellie Griffin

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At a time when we are facing a global crisis, it is important not to forget our mental health. There is a focus at the moment on physical wellbeing, how the virus affects physical health and keeping physically fit during lockdown.

But it’s just as important to focus on mental health and the impacts the pandemic is having on mental and psychological wellbeing. Many people right now are going through some of the toughest times in their lives, for a variety of reasons, and it is important to recognise the mental impact this can have. Mental health is just as important as physical health and the two have a direct impact on each other. It is important to acknowledge that many people are struggling, in many different ways and for a wide variety of reasons.

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In this article I’m going to specifically talk about my experience with anxiety - which is just one of many mental health conditions - and exercise, especially during lockdown.

I was diagnosed with anxiety about five years ago. At the start of this year things were finally starting to come together. After graduating from university last July and struggling to find a job I was doing work experience at a great company, I became a Run Director at parkrun, I was part way through a recruitment process for a graduate job…. And then lockdown hit. Recruitment stopped, no one was hiring, the economy went into freefall and life changed for everyone.

At first, I found it quite hard to deal with as my future was on hold indefinitely. I really felt like I had no purpose. I had a few bad days at the beginning when everything would seem really overwhelming, and I felt like I couldn’t cope. I struggled to see the point of everything, having nothing to do and my future plans being uncertain. I felt like I was in limbo, missing my university days that were filled with fun and friends and routine.

Slowly I started to do things to make my days more productive. I made a list of things I’d been meaning to do for a while, such as finishing off a scrapbook. I also started volunteering – pre-lockdown I had really enjoyed volunteering at parkrun, the camaraderie and good feelings it brought. I have been a volunteer with GoodGym for a few years now but during lockdown they have switched their focus to providing shopping ‘missions’ and prescription deliveries to people self-isolating. The feeling I had after completing my first shopping mission was amazing. The sense of purpose I felt helped to reduce my anxiety. I have been doing a similar thing with another charity called Move the Masses, who mainly focus on prescription deliveries. The ability to sign up as and when you’re available means there’s no pressure to do a certain amount or do it every week.

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By throwing myself into volunteering I have managed to get a sense of purpose back, helping others, even in a really small way, has helped me to help myself.

Sport has also been a big thing for me during lockdown. I have been a competitive swimmer for many years now, training up to 7 times a week. Swimming is my main tool for combatting my anxiety and generally looking after my mental health. With lockdown swimming hasn’t been possible, so I have had to look elsewhere for my sporting fix. I have always been a bit of a runner and an occasional cyclist so doing more running and cycling wasn’t too much of an issue for me. I have also been participating in a virtual running race league which has helped me more than expected. It has helped to replace the competitive drive I got from swimming and motivated me to push myself and get out and exercise regularly, as well as giving me some structure to my training, like I used to have in the pool. It also provides a connection to other, like-minded people and is a positive and encouraging group.

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In these uncertain times it’s important to find routine where you can, stay connected and talk to others. I try to take everything one day at a time and talk to friends and family about how I feel: chances are they feel the same way, as everyone is going through the same situation right now.

I find I can put too much pressure on myself to be productive. But it’s okay to watch Netflix, have a lazy lie-in or read a book. It’s okay not to participate in every single zoom call with family and friends. (I find I feel under pressure to always do these sorts of things as I can no longer say ‘I’m busy’) It’s okay, and in fact, healthy to take time to yourself, especially if you are isolating with others and working from home etc. We all need our own space and I’ve found it can sometimes be difficult to remember that. It’s nice sometimes to take a walk on your own, or a read a book in your room and just generally have some ‘you’ time.

Anxiety isn’t something that is curable. It does reoccur and there are bad days. You don’t have to let it control what you do, and you don’t have to be afraid of it. I’ve come to accept it as something that makes me who I am. Yes, it makes me over-worry about the simplest of things that others may not even think about, and it makes me stressed and nervous in certain situations. But it also makes me very empathetic and caring and attentive. There are two sides to every coin.

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It is important in times like these that we all look out for each other and check in. You never know what someone is going through right now and even the simplest “Hi, how are you doing?” message could help someone hugely. We all deal with things in different ways and having our own way of processing the changes that have been happening lately.

In the words of Henry James: “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”

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