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Sunday, 19 July 2015

#GetSetToGo How Running Helps My Mental Health

This time last year I was one week into my spell in hospital to treat my acute depression. Throughout this hospital stay, though, part of my treatment plan was to continue to exercise, whether this meant running or walking, every day, because I so identify with the benefits one can derive from physical exercise. At the time we were trying to address my sleeplessness problem where I would often wake at 5 or even earlier and be unable to sleep for the rest of the night, in addition to having a broken night of sleep throughout. And we were also trying to calm me down from the completely ‘on’ Jessica that has to keep moving at all times so that nothing gets missed, but which has the negative side of keeping my mind permanently switched to hyper speed, racing through hundreds of different items on my multiple, mental “to-do” lists.

I started to run in 2009, thinking that if I were to be able to keep eating as I desired (and desire, I did!) I would have to start keeping fit in order to allow for that. I was eating about 1200 calories a day or so to try to keep my weight down, but when a ‘normal’ restaurant meal (or in fact a meal of any kind) was afoot, let alone when wine was served with dinner, of course, that base level went out of the window, and I knew that in order to have more flexibility with my diet and try to make sure that my clothes still fitted. The fact that I was also getting married in 2010 also provided a time-bound incentive – the dress, the dress, the dress!

Running towards a dangling burger (nope sorry, a carrot won't do it).

At first I was hopeless at running. My biggest failure was a total inability to pace myself. Running outdoors was hopeless as in less than a minute I’d be perspiring and expiring from the sprinter’s pace I’d mistakenly put in. I tried the treadmill as an alternative, but this approach meant that I was constantly looking at the clock in front of me, panicking that I couldn’t keep going and hyperventilating myself into stopping. Interval training was one way to get out of this, but I knew if I were ever going to run any kind of distance I had to learn to pace myself.

A fair distance...ZZzzzz

I finally agreed to do a 10K and absolutely had to get past this, and eventually realised that it was more mind over matter. If I ignored the bits of my mind telling me to stop, slow down, lie down, and concentrated on the bits telling me to keep going, don’t give up, not much farther, I finally built up my stamina. And I started listening to music that drowned out the sound of my ragged wheezy breaths and (at times) made me feel like I was dancing along with Katy Perry, Florence and the Machine, and Britney and Madge. It became a treat to go and spend time with my tunes. And the fact that burgers could be wiped off the slate afterwards if I’d run far enough were a massive bonus too.
I was still running last year, but much less than before.

Running up that hill. And that road. 
And if I could swap places and not...sometimes I would

Depression affects me by killing any desire to do anything. I just want to stay in bed or on the sofa. I can just about foresee the next meal, but any other activity is hugely difficult to contemplate, let alone complete. On my day of admission, my psychiatrist and I had deliberately planned a 1-2 week stay, in order to support my depression, but without wanting to delve too deeply into buried issues and traumas that might have increased my feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and general defectiveness and have needed a lot longer than a short term treatment plan to deal with the many past life experiences which act as triggers for my low mood and inability to function.

At five in the morning, then, I would get up (not before trying to go back to sleep) and head out for a morning walk / run in the nearby park. I wasn’t confined to the hospital grounds as some of my fellow patients needed to be, so could benefit from the stunning summer sunshine and the – just about – cool enough weather of the early morning to run / walk through a few miles and return just in time for showering, breakfast and that day’s groups to begin. It was the Elle Woods approach. “Exercise gives you endorphins. [Yes!] Endorphins make you happy. [Yes!] Happy people don’t kill their husbands.” [I guess not but I have no ability to comment…]

It certainly gives you endorphins, Elle!

I continued my exercise after hospital, determined to make it a part of my recovery plan, and even signed up to run my first half marathon in a couple of years with my husband in the early autumn. If I’m being honest, preparations hadn’t quite gone to plan. I was clinging to ‘mind over matter’ but even I knew I had to have run more than 6 miles to complete a distance over twice the length. I ran home, ten miles, from Waterloo towards the west on a sunny afternoon. I made it through sheer grit, nothing else, and had no idea whether I’d be able to complete the 13.1 miles on the day.
Then I found the excuse of all excuses to avoid the half marathon by accidentally chucking myself down the stairs, fracturing my back in two places and smashing my left elbow in (and my head, bye bye sense of smell and taste buds)… it was an original excuse, and certainly prevented running for a fair long time afterwards.

PINK post Park Run

Tendonitis, thanks so much for adding to my list of medical complaints. And at this point any positive voice in my head was severely tested. I was so annoyed, frustrated, and fed up.
After a lot of physio I’ve been doing a Couch to 5K for the last few weeks, complete with orthotics in my shoes, more to accustom my battered feet to walking and running again than to get back to fitness. I have to say, I’ve been along to many more runs as a spectator than as a participant. I love the Park Run, where I regularly get trounced by yummy mummies, daddies (complete with single and double buggies), dogs and children, septuagenarians and more. 

You can get one of those T-Shirts if you do 50 Park Runs. I'm on 12. 

Today I accompanied Mat to the Harry Hawkes 10, a ten mile race along the Thames beginning and ending in Thames Ditton. I had dressed for a run, thinking to run a few miles and walk a bit while Mat ran the course; however, and I still can’t quite believe this as I write it, they were offering a last few ‘on the day’ entries, and I found myself handing over money in order to be allowed to try my luck on this course.

Harry Hawkes Ten. Done.
Surprisingly heavy medal!

I can only write with the primary emotion of surprise that I managed to complete it (with a snail’s pace and lots of stops for drinks, but I did it nonetheless). And I had the burger afterwards, with onion rings, fries and coleslaw too. (Come on, there have to be some perks). When I can get out of the house and on to the streets it makes such a difference to my mental health. I’m just glad I can say I’m well enough to get out of bed and get out for any kind of exercise. I feel so much better afterwards, but getting out there is the hugest step, the farthest distance, the hardest stage of the entire process. @MindCharity knows how beneficial physical exercise is, which is why they’ve launched their #GetSetToGo programme.When I’m out there doing it, particularly with a crowd, sometimes I just keep going. I hope this is the start of an upward slope for my running. (Just not literally, at least for now!) Take care. xxx


  1. I exercise for my Anxiety. I have tried running a few times, but find controlling my breathing for any length of time impossible. (Possibly linked to my Anxiety and being a shallow breather?). I think you need some sort of exercise though. Whatever is achievable and for the most part, make you happy. Well done on your progress.

    1. Hi Melissa,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your comment. I agree that the breathing part is the hardest. I think it took me a year to get to grips with that, and what also helped that I didn't mention in my post is that yoga really helped me, because it forced me to learn how to breathe in and out slowly whilst doing strenuous exercise. (I also did cardio yoga - Baptiste or Power yoga as it is often called, which meant it was a fast paced class and challenged my breathing as well as my core strength.)
      What exercise do you do for your anxiety? I do love running but it would be great to hear what else helps you - maybe I could try it?
      Thanks for your good wishes and I wish you all the best. Take care. xJessica