How fitness helped me deal with depression and body dysmorphic disorder

When 2015 became 2016 I was wearing a gaudy gold, cheap plastic medal around my neck that I had bought to celebrate making it through a particularly challenging year without topping myself. It was a small, perhaps poor-taste joke to close a year that had felt like one humongous one, and if any of it sounds at all dark to you it’s because it was. Depression often feels like the sort of ever-encroaching darkness in which you’d struggle to see your own hand in front of your face, and the majority of those twelve months had felt pitch-fucking-black.

It was no way to live, but I was fortunate enough to realise that it wasn’t reason not to either and so, come January 1st, I joined in the ritual of resolution making for the first time. I made a list, I made a promise to myself that I would do whatever it took to turn the lights back on, and over the past ten months I’ve discovered that the ultimate flick-switcher is exercise.

Before you choke on that sharp intake of breath at the word alone, I’m not about to scream at you to ‘go hard or go home’. In fact, I believe that going too hard more often than not leads to a person going home, defeated or injured. And that’s of absolutely no use to us, here.

What I will say is that mental wellbeing and physical health ultimately rely on one another. Indeed science tells us that our bodies – the bloody wonders that they are – produce endorphins when we exercise, and these chemicals trigger a natural high and a wave of euphoria unlike any other. As such, those that struggle with mental illness seek to benefit most from physical activity.

This being said, I come from a place of understanding. I know that things become problematic when many of the most common traits of mental illness can all too naturally and easily form a wall between ourselves, and something new – no matter how beneficial we know it to be.

If your anxieties take root in socialising or busy public spaces, the gym might understandably be your idea of hell. Much like if your depression finds its hold and control through lethargy, chances are the thought of getting your heart pumping and your pits sweating is enough to send you straight back to season 6, episode 8 of that thing you’ve watched too many times already. As someone who’s lived with body dysmorphic disorder and bulimia for just shy of a decade, I had reservations that added time spent focusing on my body would do more harm than good. That I would become obsessive again.

And I did become obsessive, I have become obsessed, but in all the right ways and for all the right reasons. I am obsessed with the fact that I now know how to make myself feel better, how to feel good, because I found exercise that suits me – and that is the secret.

No two bodies are the same, no two brains work the same and as such, exercise isn’t a one size fits all sort of deal. What’s more, unless you’re training for a particular sporting event or genuinely considering joining the shiny, bronzed world of competitive bodybuilding, you needn’t restrict yourself to ‘working out’ in its most traditional sense.

When times are busy, the world is chaotic and our brains are loud, we’re likely to only make time and create space for the things we enjoy most. So exercise should be one of these and it can be one of these if you think outside of the box and be more inclusive of what you consider exercise to be.

If you have a dog, walk it that bit more regularly or that mile further. If you have a bike and a safe route to work, cycle on sunny days. Sign up for a pole-dancing class, take a friend to a salsa evening or dangle from a trapeze. Hell, dance around your bedroom for an hour a day to your favourite songs. If it gets your body moving it counts and if it’s fun, chances are you’ll stick to it.

Personally I’ve found my happiest place on a yoga mat and having been introduced to the Yoga with Adriene channel on YouTube by a friend back in January, I’ve made it to my mat almost every day this year.

You wouldn’t expect something as contemplative and quiet as yoga to drown out the racket that can go on inside your head, but it does. As a practice, it creates a distance between you and the world around; through the connection you make with your own body as you move and the concentration it takes to do so. As exercise the focus isn’t on how you look or how you could look, but on how your body works, how it performs and what you could be capable of. It isn’t a short-term sort of thing – you need patience and persistence – but the same can be said of good mental health.

If bending yourself into all sorts of shapes sounds like your kind of thing, why not try day 1 of Adriene’s 30 day yoga camp challenge…

…and if you find it isn’t your thing, don’t fret!

How about dusting off those rollerblades? Going to a trampoline park? Or once again trying to master the hula-hoop?

My Don’t Fret Track: The Maine – Miles Away

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