2014, the year where I entered the world of mental health. A year which after I finished my mechanical engineering degree, my brain decided to pick up some emotional baggage and open it up for essentially the world to see.
My brother died back in 2009, and that was the start of my studies; having more important things to worry about I bottled it up hoping for it never to see the light of day. Being ignorant to mental health and believing that there was no such thing, people should just “man up” and how it would never affect me.
That year I attempted suicide.
This was a time of questioning the very fabric of reality where I was plagued with not only arguments from people I have never met, being stalked by my late brother as if he was in the flesh, and seeing blood drip from my hands while my wife was reassuring me every time that “there is nothing there.” I did not believe it at the time but they were just simply manifestations my own brain was throwing at me.
Before receiving any form of diagnosis or even seeing any form of medical professional, I turned to the ever-favoured friend the world over; Google. I’m sure you know where this is all going, search online for a symptom and all of a sudden you have a death sentence! I’m not the only one; the mental health foundation has recently discovered that 48% of the UK population would rather turn to google than speak to their own GP and this still scares me.
Besides the issues that I was experiencing, it took two years until I realised what the real problem was; I would not talk to anyone. It wasn’t until I saw my GP with my wife’s support where it finally hit home that I was suffering with mental ill health.
It wouldn’t be until a few years later where I was at my heaviest of 23 and a half stone when I picked up running. Again with the support of my wife I found running as an outlet.
An outlet where I could lace up, headphones in and then just go wherever the pavement takes me; without doing it yourself you won’t realise that not only does it take you on a physical path but something just unlocks in your mind. One where you can look back and say “yes! I did that!” and it even sets you up for the entire day!
Within 8 months, I lost 8 stone, learnt self help techniques for my mental health diagnosis of PTSD, Severe Anxiety Disorder and Borderline personality disorder; but also how much running and physical exercise helps with all of that!
Running and physical exercise should be shared not only for physical health reasons, but by sharing my story, and breaking down stigma; we should use this for mental health reasons also!
My story isn’t one which is special, it’s one so common that 1 in 4 people experience and most unfortunately are too worried of social stigma attached to mental health. Lets stamp out stigma and run forward to a more supported community!
Physical exercise has an enormous effect on my mental well-being and I am sure that's the case for a lot of people reading this too. It allowed me to stop taking anti-depressants and instead of relying on a pill each day for endorphins, I decided it would be better in the long run to replace them with natural and simple exercise.
I reinforce this with other things; practising mindfulness, not rushing, going to bed early, and eating more vegetables! But overall, I feel happy that this is a better way for me to cope with my depression and anxiety. It’s important to talk and I find that being open about my experiences encourages others to do the same. It’s too easy to hide issues away and forget they exist, but that’s not healthy and at some point down the line they will resurface and be even more difficult to deal with.
The knowledge we have of the benefits of physical exercise has grown and a quick search through research papers shows just how much evidence there is to suggest that exercising can be seen as medication or therapy in its own right. Even Sport England now has mental well-being ‘at its heart’ of its current strategy. Doing any kind of physical activity, whether it be yoga, climbing or running, is proven to improve mood, reduce stress, better your self-esteem and help to manage or even prevent depression and anxiety.
So it’s a no-brainer right? It should be. But with all the knowledge in the world, it can still be hard to make the time or find the motivation to get your heart-rate up.
So what can we do to help ourselves not skip out on mental health therapy? I struggle when it’s early morning, dark, cold and I’m in bed, but here’s what I find helps me:
- I’m an independent person but I can feel isolated at times. Having like-minded people to support, motivate, and exercise with me is good for me. Therefore, I choose to be around those people and limit my time around those who do not fit this ideal.
- I highly value having a goal and a step-by-step plan of how to get there. For me, that means sitting down with a flipchart (plus bright pens) and writing out a triathlon training plan for my bedroom wall. Without one, I’d be stumbling around in the dark mentally and probably physically too. Being able to see the progress I make fills me with motivation each day.
- I’m more interested in new experiences and opportunities that will aid my personal development and ultimately enrich my life. However, I take care not to take too much on and I’m okay with saying no when things get too much. So if anyone needs a kayaking buddy, I’m itching to try it and maybe enter a cool adventure race!
It’s a no-brainer to help yourself and others who may struggle with mental health, but I think we can do it better, even in the most simplest of ways, and sport provides us with a huge platform to help make more of a difference and to put our health first.
About the author: Alister Brown is a coach with Tri Energy Triathlon Club and an advocate for mental health awareness.
In a busy world filled with stress and anxiety, more and more people are looking to meditation and mindfulness to help them relax. But what are the benefits? And what's the difference between the two? We explore meditation.
Where meditation originated
It is widely understood that the concepts of meditation and yoga are thousands of years old. There are arguably different types of meditation, such as trance and chanting. These are both ancient rites that our ancestors would have partaken in regularly. All of these different concepts are widely associated with world religions, and the one that is most often credited with the birth of meditation is Buddhism.
According to Buddhist teachings, one can achieve an 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' by practising extensive meditation. While this was first taught well over 2,000 years ago, it is still widely practised today by people all over the world.
Meditation only really moved to Western civilisation in more recent times. Improved transportation and communication meant that the far-reaching corners of the world became more easily accessible and thus concepts such as meditation spread across the globe. Now in the present day, mindfulness is everywhere, from mindful eating to being more aware of our impact on the planet.
How meditation helps sleep
Studies show that mindfulness and meditation really do have an impact on our sleep, which is good news if you struggle to rest easy at the end of the day. Meditation can help our sleep in two ways: both physically and mentally.
One of the main causes of poor sleep is stress and psycho-related issues, causing over 70% of insomnia cases - this is the mental factor. If you live a busy and stressful life with a hectic work-life balance and come home each day to kids running around the house, chances are your stress levels will be through the roof. On a mental level, you may well lay awake at night thinking of all the things you should have said to your boss and all the things you shouldn't have said to your kids. This is where meditation comes in. By spending some time each day allowing yourself to drift away from reality and collect your thoughts, you will not be frantically thinking about everything as you fall asleep and therefore will sleep better.
On a physical side, it is thought that as well as stress hormones being present in our body, there are also relaxation hormones which can have the opposite effect. 'The relaxation response' is a phrase that was coined by psychologist Dr Herbert Benson and goes some way to explain the way our brain signals our organs to slow down as well as our blood flow. It is thought that meditation and mindfulness can cause this reaction in our body, resulting in a much more peaceful night sleep and a much happier you!
Can meditation lower blood pressure?
If you suffer from high blood pressure, there are a surprising number of non-medical ways to lower it safely. You can do so by changing your diet and following a low-blood pressure diet like the DASH diet. Another way to lower your blood pressure is by practising meditation. Research has found that certain mindfulness techniques and meditation can reduce stress and produce significant results in lowering blood pressure in those who suffer from elevated levels.
That said, it has also been found that meditation may not be able to lower blood pressure alone, and instead is best done in conjunction with other proven methods that can reduce blood pressure levels.
Meditation vs Mindfulness
Mindfulness refers to an awareness of yourself and your surroundings. We live in a very fast-paced world and it's very easy to rush through your day and not realise what you're doing. You chug a coffee on your way to work and eat a breakfast bagel because it's quick and easy, not because it's nutritious and good for your health. Especially if you eat while scrolling through your phone or while watching television, you will not be eating mindfully. It is often the case that we say and do things without realising their true meaning and mindfulness steps in to try and put a stop to this.
By being mindful, you try to tap into what your body truly wants and needs and you listen to your inner self. Being mindful of when you're actually hungry rather than just eating because it's lunchtime is an example of mindful eating. This would also extend to stopping eating when you're full, rather than finishing what's on your plate just because it's there.
On the other hand, meditation takes more forms. You could say that mindfulness is a type of meditation. Meditation is a much more broad term and refers to trying to achieve a calmer head space and clearer thoughts. It can involve something as simple as sitting quietly in a room and being alone with your thoughts. It can also involve a practice such as yoga.
The importance of meditation and mindfulness today
We live in a world where 'lifestyle diseases' are rife and rampant, meaning that a lot of people who suffer chronic pain and are taking a lot of medication could significantly improve their health simply by changing to a healthier lifestyle. Illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity are all completely avoidable if we live a healthy lifestyle and make mindful choices.
What this means is that meditation and mindfulness are hugely important in this modern world as they can help someone to reduce stress and be more aware of what they are putting into their body, therefore avoiding a whole host of diseases that have a high mortality rate.
Any mention of mental health generally conjures up images of isolation, institutionalisation and danger to society. I want to change this.
In 2014, I suffered numerous psychotic episodes that would culminate in attempted suicide. It took me a long time to realise I had a problem but eventually I sought help from my GP and local crisis team. I confided in friends who ultimately turned their back on me and set up fake social media accounts in my persona, sending me messages of hate – all I could think about doing was taking my life to make everyone happy. After receiving various diagnoses, I started to cope with medication, therapy and comfort eating, the latter being my more destructive way of self-help. Eventually my weight skyrocketed and this was having a detrimental impact on my mental health.
In 2017, I realised that at my heaviest weight of 23 ½ stone, something had to change. I turned my attention to wanting to lose weight. With the support of my wife and whilst supporting a charity which helped to save my life, Mind, I began following slimming world which as a food lover suited me perfectly, and I started to run short distances. Just over 7 and a half months later I have lowered my weight to 16 stone, losing 7 ½ stone in the process and have started to cover larger distances.
I learned that physical exercise for myself was one of the best controls for my mental health: an outlet where I could tame the demons that follow me around every day. Now that my goal of weight loss is complete and I am using exercise to improve my mental wellbeing, I have a new challenge. I am now sharing my story to help those suffering with mental health issues to realise that “It’s okay to not be okay” and to do this I have set up my website: MentalHealthRunner.co.uk
I want to break down the mental health stigma and start conversations to prevent the hatred our community often receives. I want people to realise that 1:4 people suffer from mental health issues and many suffer in silence, feeling like they don’t have a voice and won’t be heard.
Thomas lost a huge amount of weight and uses running to help with his mental health. He talks to Sundried about life as a runner.
Have you always been into sport?
I’ve always liked sport and at one time played basketball for my local team RAF Waddington. I went onto coach an under 18 team for a year before landing my apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. I picked up running in 2013 before I developed mental health issues. I gained a lot of weight and decided to get back into running and help those suffering with mental illness, so I started my blog to discuss my own personal experiences, to help those suffering get out and get fit; and finally to keep me going!
What made you decide to become a runner?
When I was at my heaviest (23 st 6lb – 328lb) I wanted to lose weight and really enjoyed it before my mental health took a nosedive. I decided to get back into it with my wife’s encouragement and support and within 8 months I lost over 8 stone!
I love how running gives a release where I can put some music on, lace up my trainers and just run. The feeling of letting out stress, accomplishing something and having that time of personal reflection always ends my exercise feeling refreshed and happy (albeit fairly tired!)
Its also a sport which has a huge support network and can be done by almost everyone!
What’s been your favourite race to date and why?
I would have to say the Liverpool Rock and Roll half and full marathon. The course is incredible with a different musician at almost every mile! The people running and spectating are massively motivational and supportive; I was even photobombed by two guys dressed as Axel rose and Slash while I had a photo on the famous Penny Lane!
And your proudest achievement?
My proudest achievement would be losing a huge amount of weight to something manageable and healthy; sharing my story to help motivate and inspire those who may need it.
Have you ever had any racing disasters / your toughest race yet?
The toughest race I’ve completed is the Rat Race dirty weekend at 20 miles and 200 obstacles which at the time was the farthest I’ve run in a single event – never mind the amount of obstacles!
The only racing disaster I’ve had is where I got to the last obstacle, about 50 yards from the finish line, and fell off the 12 ft wall landing on my back and head.
How do you overcome setbacks?
Suffering with an anxiety disorder, PTSD and Borderline Personality Disorder, it's important I keep a positive head about setbacks. Rather than dwelling on things, I put a plant together of “Okay, What can I do now then? What’s next?” The worst thing you can do is look back on it, as you’ll miss what’s coming up ahead of you.
What is the best bit of advice you wish someone had told you before you started competing?
Don’t skimp out on your footwear! And get a gait analysis!
What are your goals for 2018?
Come back after my recent ankle injury and continue to push down my personal bests in training and help and support those with mental illness to exercise and seek help.
Who do you take your inspiration from?
I take my inspiration from my family. We’ve all had our own personal battles and we have always been there to love and support one another. I also take inspiration from my wife because she dedicated every minute of our relationship to supporting me and cheering me on, keeping me in line and not letting my own demons affect me.
What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?
I love how the company ethics of sustainable and responsible products are such high quality, made out of recycled materials and still so comfortable to use!
I adore my Olperer T-shirt because its so comfortable and made out of recycled coffee grounds!