Exercise and mental health: overcoming barriers

The health benefits of exercise are well recognised.

Experts believe exercise releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and help you concentrate, sleep and feel better.

Exercise also keeps the brain and your other vital organs healthy.

“I get a huge buzz from my rock ’n’ roll class. Hours later, my legs ache, but I’m still smiling.”


Exercising doesn’t just mean doing sport or going to the gym. Walks in the park, gardening or housework can also keep you active.

Experts say most people should do about 30 minutes’ exercise at least five days a week.

Try to make physical activity that you enjoy a part of your day.

[Source: 2. Keep active | Mental Health Foundation]

We all know this and are likely to have had direct experience of these benefits. 

Why, then, can it still be so difficult to find the motivation to exercise?

It’s an issue that I’ve struggled with all my life, experiencing barriers associated with body image when I was younger.  I knew swimming was good exercise but would only ever go to a swimming pool or wear a swimsuit on a beach if I’d starved myself to be thin enough to feel able to do that. And even then, I felt morbidly self-conscious about how I looked.  It took a long time and a lot of working through masses amount of personal ‘stuff’ before I could stop worrying and start enjoying swimming. My partner and I even go wild swimming now, and it feels wonderful.

I tried jogging, but always found it so hard to build myself up to a regular routine. Lacking in willpower and discipline some people might say.  Struggling with severe depression, anxiety and low self-esteem was the real reason.  I’ve continued to struggle ever since, but have also never given up. Now 65, I’ve been doing on-line exercise classes, including yoga and pilates during lockdown.  Last summer we did some cycling around our local lanes.  We still both find that it’s an effort to go out, sometimes, but give each other a push and/or moral support when we need it.  Whatever it takes. 

What’s the alternative?  An inactive old age with all the complications that brings?

I’ve always found it difficult to go to a gym or to exercise classes after work. Just getting through a day involved such a major effort for me.  So I looked for ways to combine exercise into my daily routine.  Cycling to work meant that I often turned up looking like a drowned rat, but it did help.

Even so, I continued to struggle with depression, and continued to find it hard to motivate myself to exercise enough to help it lift on anything more than a temporary basis.  I felt like the only way I could sustain the ‘lift’ would be to train as if I was an Olympic athlete.  I have neither the physique nor the talent to be anything remotely akin to athletic and, like most people, have had to commit a significant amount of my time to earning a living and keeping up with the usual day to day domestic activities.

There were times as well when I felt that the more I exercised, the deeper my depression went, after the initial ‘buzz’ fell away. 

I continued to have to do a lot of work to try and shift it, with exercise being one of a number of tools and techniques that I’ve tried and tested over the years.  It has been, and continues to be, a lifetime endeavour.  I think that this is in part because of the way emotions are stored in the body, a matter which has been increasingly recognised and written about including the following article by Sean Grover (2018):

For years, I’ve made a study of where people tend to store their unwanted emotions. Certainly, not all body aches or illnesses are psychosomatic. However, as I studied people’s bodily reactions to stress, recurring patterns emerged.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Repression

Fear is the driving force behind repression, and is frequently rooted in your past. Repression is often necessary, particularly when you feel overwhelmed or experience trauma. But an overdependence on repression fuels psychosomatic symptoms and self-destructive patterns.

[Source:Where Do You Store Stress in Your Body? Top 10 Secret Areas | Psychology Today]

In his article in Psychology Today, Sean Grover goes on to identify the ‘Top 10 Tension Areas for Unwanted Feelings’ as:

1.Lower Back: Anger
2. Stomach & Intestines: Fear
3. Heart & Chest: Hurt
4. Headache: Loss of control
5. Neck/Shoulder Tension: Burdens
6. Fatigue: Resentments
7. Numbness: Trauma
8. Breathing Difficulties: Anxiety
9. Voice & Throat Problems: Oppression
10. Insomnia: Loss of self

I find this interesting and helpful, relating these areas to recent and past experiences.

I did a lot of work on repressed anger at one point, including going to a workshop where I was encouraged to take a lot of it out on a punch bag.  The physicality of the release at the time was phenomenal (although I did go into a kind of ‘toxic shock’ afterwards, so I would not recommend anyone trying this approach without a very strong support network around them).

Some years later, experiencing stress at work, I searched out volunteering opportunities, finding an outlet by doing trail maintenance work where I could break big rocks into smaller rocks to make hardcore with a sledgehammer.  I came back refreshed and invigorated. Although the effects did wear off after a while, I have so far – touch wood – not suffered from lower back problems.

Fatigue and resentments strike a chord with me – I’m so good at hanging on to them, no wonder I feel tired all the time!

So, while I’ve done a lot of work on myself to get to this point, and to feel largely positive about the position I’m in, there’s still a lot to do.

It’s often the enormity – or perceived enormity of the challenge – that puts us off dealing with it, which leads to repression, which leads to depression….

It’s all about the next step, and the one after that …

There are no easy answers or quick fix solutions, especially when difficulties are deep-rooted.  I just keep reminding myself that it’s all about the next step. And the one after that. And the one after that.  It does get easier.  Miraculously – it feels to me – my steps feel a lot lighter, at the age I’m at now, than they did when I was young, all those years ago! Something must be working, somehow. Barriers can be overcome. It’s not easy, but it’s worth working at it, bit by bit.

Washing Up

Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

One of the few things I remember from school is ‘The Order of Washing Up’:

Glasses first, clean and bright
knives and forks come next
plates follow on until they’re done
the saucepans finally too
I’ve washed up many times and yet
the order still comes through

Washing up is not a chore
it’s a time to stand and think
of soap and suds and water
and all things in my sink

I hope my pile of washing up
is there for me each day
I never dry, just let it drain
and then I put it all away.

January 2020

Being 65

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In one sense, this post should just be entitled ‘Being’, because age is irrelevant.

I interact with the world essentially as a being, and don’t need a label.

On the other hand, I do have history, and the ways that I have worked through that history impact on the way that I interact with the world – and other beings in it – on a daily basis.

It isn’t always easy to put the past behind us, especially when heavily loaded with emotions associated with trauma and grief.

Accepting things that I cannot change has been a hard life lesson to learn for me, helped by meditation, affirmations, and Buddhist teachings (including one in particular by Gen Togden of the Kadampa tradition).

Not having had children is a major regret. Raising this as an issue with a therapist recently, still needing to work it through, I was met with a profoundly uncompassionate response: “So you decided not to have them then, did you?”

At one level, she was right. I made choices – decisions – that led to me being in a state of extreme mental and emotional turmoil in my late 30s and 40s. Decisions that I made as a struggling, vulnerable young woman in my 20s were mine, and I was an adult. But should I really have had to pay such a high price in later life?

Shit does happen though, and doesn’t discriminate. Thankfully, I have had previous experiences with other counsellors/therapists who’ve approached my distress with humanity and empathy.

Even so, some things take a long time to work through. Some ‘stuff’ from the past has just come up that I thought I’d put behind me, or at least wanted to. It doesn’t always work like that though, and I’m sure my brain dredged it up now because I hadn’t properly dealt with it previously.

Now I’m in a much better place than I have ever been before, living with a kind, loving, supportive, funny partner. Being 65 is a starting point for me, and it’s never too late.

If I can send out a message to anyone who’s going through personal difficulties – whether recently experienced or long-term endured – it is to say: “Don’t give up.”

We don’t always know what we’re made of until our backs are to the wall, especially if we’ve oriented towards ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ in early years.

Fighting for survival is a primary motivator and there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you can’t see it for yourself, let someone else – a friend – see it and hold it for you until you can.

I’m only 65, and I’ve got all my life ahead of me. So have you.

Stitching

Cross-stitching to be precise.

I’ve spent hours – days even – cross-stitching over the last few months.

A lot of other people must have been cross-stitching too, as all the company websites I’ve bought kits from have had special messages up to say how they are coping with unprecedented demand due to the Covid crisis.

Even so, orders have arrived promptly, and been a joy to work with …

… helping me to gain a sense of being at peace with myself and the world:

There’s something so soothing about the technique of counted cross-stitch, that puts my mind at ease.

I’ve mostly made cards – and some Christmas decorations – to send to people – friends – and it’s lovely to think about these friends as I stitch away.

I’m not great on phone calls or Facebook, but stitching has become my thing. I’m going to try knitting again though, for a while. Knitting’s good too. And macramé: knotting!

Talking

I’ve never been very good at talking.

At primary school I was cast as a mouse in the school play: all I had to do was say “squeak, squeak”.

The career advice I was given at secondary school was to become a librarian. 

I didn’t want to become a librarian (or be a mouse) – I wanted to be able to speak.

There have been times in my life when I felt, finally, that some degree of fluency was coming through. But I’ve never quite reached the point of feeling that I could say what I wanted or needed to say, in any given situation. I think that’s why I’ve turned to writing poetry, because however much the spoken word evades me, and for whatever reason, I can express myself in poetry, one way or another.  It doesn’t mean I don’t end up feeling ‘dumb’ and stupid in conversation when my brain can’t tune in to what is being said.  However, in more positive moments I can also reflect on the many facets of communication, and the importance of being heard, in one way or another.

Waking

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Anybody who has had depression knows that one of the most difficult things to deal with is that awful desolation that drowns you as you wake up from whatever sleep you can get.

It is an experience that you have to have had to know what it feels like, when the thought of even having to get up and get dressed, let alone do anything else, is beyond daunting.

There was a time when I could only wake up and get up by setting a first alarm clock to go off several hours beforehand, then another some time after that, and another later still. When I finally did get out of bed, my first port of call was a strong cup of coffee (appropriately named ‘Rocket Fuel’) with which I swallowed my anti-depressant tablet. Eventually I could then get dressed and ready for work.

I’ve started to struggle again with this aspect depression, after years of having trained myself to get up without too much snooze time between alarms. The fact that my partner now brings me a good strong cup of tea helps enormously, as does not having any time pressures at the moment. Even so, the tasks associated with waking up, getting up and getting dressed should not be underestimated for anyone who is suffering from depression. Like a lot of things, breaking the process down into small steps can be a good strategy. First one sock, and then the other.

I’m working towards being one of those people who springs out of bed in order to ‘seize the day’. Just because I’m slow to start, though, doesn’t me I don’t appreciate and value. It just means that I have to take my time to get myself (literally) geared up, even at a basic level.

This is one place (of many) where the poem in my recently posted Poetry Rule No. 9b comes in. Don’t judge a book by its cover …

Sleeping

Ironically, I’ve recently been feeling too tired to write about what I have wanted to write about: sleep. Until today.

Breaking the cycle of inactivity is massively difficult during a period of depression. It feels impossible to know what to do or where to start that will make any difference in any meaningful and lasting way. And then sleeplessness takes hold and so it goes on.

I still have variable experiences of being able to get to sleep, and sleep long and deep enough to feel rested. However, any current difficulties I have are nothing compared to what it was like for me, years ago, when I became addicted to sleeping pills (Triazepam).

In the end, to detox, I took myself to Turkey in the hot season, walked and sweated for miles and eventually screamed myself off them.

The process of detox itself, especially in unsupported circumstances, is very dangerous, and, to anyone contemplating taking tranquilizers of any kind, I would say, “Don’t!”.

It might be easy for me to say that now, as I did take them then and felt that I needed to – desperately – at the time. Maybe I did. But that was before I had explored all the other options and possibilities, mainly because I didn’t know about them.

There is much more awareness and access to mental health coping strategies than there used to be over twenty years ago when I was going through some extreme experiences. Meditation courses and apps, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, affirmations (I use these a lot), talking therapies, the benefits of exercise and so on. Even so, despite drawing on these approaches and applying them in my day-to-day life as best as I can, I don’t always sleep well.

Now, though, I’m much more able to sit or lie with the lack of sleep and rest into it, be patient with it, rather than going for a quick fix with all the associated draw backs. If I’m really struggling to settle I might get up, watch a bit of telly (reading is usually out of the question at these times, such is the impact of depression on my capacity to concentrate), make a cup of tea or – even better – hot chocolate. I also occasionally indulge in a glass or two of wine or a gin and tonic. (I’m conscious of the drawbacks and addictive aspects of alcohol reliance but it does sometimes do the trick; a couple of paracetamols – again as a very occasional alternative and never at the same time as alcohol – also eventually send me off.)

I’m gradually working towards having a kinder and more balanced relationship with myself, doing what I can to be good to my body and my brain. I work on being thankful, get my brain into ‘glad’ mode and accept that I am getting “there”, which is “here”, with every day a blessing.

It is much easier for the me that I am now, than the me that I was twenty years ago, to not fall back on the quick fixes, partly because I have worked hard to find out about and put self-management strategies into practice and partly because I am in a much better place on a personal level. It is much easier to get to sleep on an evening, knowing that in the morning I will wake up in my partner’s loving arms.

Maybe there was a time when I did shoot the Albatross, and paid the price. But sleep is a very gentle thing, and doing my best to let sleep slide into my soul is part of an essential process of healing.

Cycles of Recovery

Grey Island

Grey island
you spin and swirl around me
(or is it the sea?)
as I sit and wait
for my thick-headed brain
to clear
which it does
almost, but elusively
and all too briefly
teasingly
still tense
tension immense

Four seagulls soar
one sits
probably shits
(or is that on the wing?)

Thrift, rock, heather
purple, black, yellow, mauve
green, grey, white
weather wild
mild
quite

Walking, talking, inwardly
I sit (still) and wait
for my thick-headed brain to clear
and allow me to feel
the joy of the sea
and the splendour of the trees
and everything around me

So, I sit (on a rock) and wait
for my thick-headed brain to clear
and know that someday soon
it will be free
hopefully

© Maggie Baker 1998

A quarter of a century after I started my self-directed journey of recovery from a complete personal breakdown, it would be easy to think at this stage that I never will get that sense of mental clarity that I have been seeking.

I hoped by now that I could have been sailing instead of struggling to find the energy to get through each day in a remotely positive way.

There are significant differences though, between then – when I started out – and now – when I’ve arrived at a particularly low down point, wondering how on earth I’m going to summon up the motivation and momentum to start going ‘up’ or ‘forward’ again.

The most significant difference for me is that now I’m in a loving relationship.  My partner and I care for and about each other in ways that make us both feel good.  He suffers from depression too, so we often alternate in terms of who most needs support from the other at any one time. We’ve both had almost catastrophic life experiences to contend with in the past, both just come through by the skin of our teeth, both had to learn to trust again – often the most difficult thing of all, including trusting ourselves as well as each other. And we’re both now thankful that we’ve found each other. ‘Together Forever’ is our motto. We want to make the most of the time that we have – both now in our 60s – and that, in itself, is a motivator. At the same time, I’m still feeling profoundly exhausted and know that I need to do some more work on myself to pull out of this and finally put the traumas of the past behind me.

I know that it’s important to sometimes push myself and at other times do nothing. Doing nothing is hard as it brings with it the fear that it will become a permanent state and that I will vegetate from doing nothing to being nothing. At my age, fear of dementia also comes in to the mix. But in the depths of depression, doing anything at all feels like just too much, so where do I start?

I keep coming back to affirmations.  Affirmations, some gentle regular exercise, healthy eating, not too much alcohol.  All sensible things.

The affirmations I’ve identified for myself at this time are for depression and hearing problems.  While I don’t really have hearing problems as such – other than age-related deterioration – I do have problems with ‘itchy ears’ and I have also had problems in the past with being heard. 

I set about learning and practising active listening skills when I trained as a volunteer bereavement counsellor – it must have been about 20 years ago now.  I’ve found those skills invaluable in different jobs and roles that I’ve held, although more latterly I’ve found it increasingly hard to concentrate.  Active listening, by definition, means giving another person full attention. I think my body and brain have been telling me to give myself full attention for a change; had I ‘listened’ to what they were telling me earlier, I might not have arrived at the state I’m at now, although by the nature of cycles, they do have to go full turn.

Anyway, the affirmations that I’ve found, to say to myself when I can and when I need to, are:

“I move beyond other people’s fear and limitations. I create my own life.”

“I hear with love.”

https://healinglaffirmations.blogspot.com/2014/04/self-healing-through-affirmations-from.html?m=1

When I say each of these, at the very low ebb that I’m at now, I get a sense of uplift in my spirit, even if my body and brain are running well behind.  I hold on to the belief that they will catch up though. Eventually.

Oh, and of course writing – something, anything – can be therapeutic as well. I’m going to keep writing, and affirming. And washing up, and doing a bit of gardening …

Familiar Fields

Familiar Fields

Turning the corner
the familiar fields and shelters
come into view

Open outlook, clear and calm
this is the place where past harms
are healed

Friends old and new
graze on at steady pace
it’s never too late for needs to be met
just a turn of fate

The familiar fields and shelters
will come into view again next year
the way ahead may not always be calm and clear
but we can always come back to this place
this sanctuary

And marvel at the donkeys
stroke the pony’s mane
it’s always different every year
and every year, just wonderfully
the same


It’s around a year ago today that my friend, Rosemary, passed away. She was 49.

I wrote the above poem after we had been to visit an animal sanctuary in Norfolk. Rosemary had introduced me to the animal sanctuary because she had adopted a Shetland pony who lives there, Sampson.

I suggested we go and visit which we did, and revisited a few times more, before it got to the point where it was too much for Rosemary. She found it too tiring, she said, which it was. It was too tiring because she smoked heavily and was an alcoholic.

Rosemary had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in her early 20s.  While she never opened up much about her past or about anything emotional at all really – I was told in no uncertain terms to ‘leave it’ if I prompted her in any way – she did tell me once that the psychiatrist who diagnosed her told her that she would never work again.

That may well have been the case in the conventional sense of what constitutes ‘work’ in our society, but if it was unlikely that she would ever do regular paid work again, that prognosis could have been presented differently, to give Rosemary a sense of hope of having a fulfilling life, even if not the life that she would have been hoping for as a young woman in her 20s at that time.

In recent times there has been a lot of talk about mental health and a lot of awareness raising in the media, but when it fundamentally comes down to it, has anything significantly changed to ensure that people who have diagnoses of extreme forms of mental illness can find some way of identifying themselves with a meaningful role, a sense of positive purpose, in the world? I’m not convinced that it has. 

Some people are fortunate to be partners, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, which can help to offset the stigma and isolation that accompanies their condition, but many – like Rosemary – do not.

Rosemary was not an easy person to get on with. She pushed people away, more often than not, and did make lifestyle choices – however hard and judgmental that sounds – that led to her limiting her own life in many ways.  But I have often wondered how different it would have been if, when given that diagnosis of schizophrenia all those years ago, she had been told about all the things that she could keep doing – and all the support that she would get in the process – to help her feel good about herself and her life, whatever form or path that took.

Having extra support at a critical time can make all the difference between us, on the one hand finding our own strength and resolve to come through with a sense of purpose and, on the other hand, wavering and floundering and – at best – just not drowning.

At times Rosemary pushed my patience to the limits and then some (and she knew it!), but I could only try and imagine what difficulties she went through every day. Somehow, through that diagnosis, and prognosis, and the position it placed her in, in the world, all her intelligence, her good memory, her dark sense of humour, her creativity, her kindness to animals and sense of fair play got devalued, not least by her.

Thank you for the friendship that we shared Rosemary.  For the times we spent at nature reserves and animal sanctuaries, the concerts we went to and the smile that you used to greet me with. 

I hope you are now flying high, with the birds.

Affirmations

“I choose to be peaceful and calm. Everything is unfolding as it should.”

Affirmations can be hard to take on faith at the best of times. At times like this – and especially with an affirmation like this – it can be even harder.

On my daily walk with my partner, in the beautiful spring sunshine and along the peaceful country lanes around where we are lucky enough to live, I’ve stopped and said this affirmation out loud, and it has helped; helped me to remind myself that I can choose to respond to any given situation in a calm and peaceful way, providing I have control of my emotions and my mind. It might be hard, but not impossible. It is something that I can keep working towards being able to do, even if I can’t do it now.

I first started to use this affirmation a few months ago, when I was struggling with some very difficult work situations and high levels of associated anxiety.

I discovered it in a slightly different form at http://thinkup.me/affirm and my thanks go to the author of that article. (5 Recommended Positive Affirmations for Anxiety by Yvonne Williams Casaus, 26 December 2017)

After struggling with anxiety and depression for many years, I keep thinking that I’ve beaten them, only to be hit again by another wave.

The difference, though, between when I first started my personal battle with depression – in my teens – and now – in my 60s – is that I now have a well-stocked resource bank of strategies to fall back on.

Even so, the nature of the disease- and it is a dis-ease – is such that it can be hard to fall back on what we know works when we are at our lowest ebb. I also find that I no longer have the reserves of fighting energy that I used to have, but if I can at least find an affirmation that resonates with me – even on a leap of faith – then I am doing something positive to pull myself through.

The first time I came across affirmations was when I was going through a breakdown in my late thirties.

Suddenly reaching out – desperately, as I knew I was in danger of drowning and was definitely not waving – I found that there were sources of help and support around that I had never even heard about before or could imagine being available.

Counselling was one of these, meditation another, and I also came across a book called You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay (1984).

In that book , as I recall, I identified an affirmation that reflected the exact opposite of how I was feeling:

“I am the love and beauty of life in full expression.”

At the time, I was feeling like the worst wretch that ever crawled the planet. But I knew I had to do something to turn my life around and so I took on board the affirmation and kept saying it to myself again and again and again. And it worked. Not on its own, not without me doing all sort of other things at the same time and ever since, but it helped to cure my warts (literally) and set me on the path to keep working and trying, never giving up.

This brings me to some more poetry, and Poetry Rule No. 28, Stand your ground when you need to; move when you don’t

Sometimes

Sometimes
it isn’t as bad
as you think
it’s going to be
it isn’t even worse
as you hesitate
with anticipation
and brace yourself
to curse

Sometimes
you’re presently surprised
more than you thought
you could be
when you’re met with
some small kindness
unexpectedly

At times like these
it’s good to be wrong
in fact I would go
so far as to say
it’s a blessing
that’s been missing
for a long time
so, no messing
seriously

Sometimes
are better than
no times never
wouldn’t you
agree?

(c) Maggie ‘Glad the Poet’ Baker 1998