Gotta move. Mental health and exercise

My idol, Callie Torres. Dancing in her pants. 

I was speaking to a friend yesterday who, like me, has some troubles with her mental health. She was explaining that her brain-space felt a bit cluttered and was expressing her belief that having a shower and tidying her room would help.

‘I just need to move,’ she sighed, ‘but I haven’t been very good at moving recently.’

The mental space associated with mental health problems can be one of stasis – the feeling that things will never change accompanied by the terrible fear of them changing at all. So I understood what she meant when she said she hadn’t been very good at moving.

When you’re struggling with your mental health, moving and exercise can be one of the things that is most difficult to do. It is also one of the best things you can do, given it’s positive effect on the brain space. So how do you start moving when you feel paralysed by your brain?

I recently read an excellent article on ‘The Pool,’ by Kat Brown who talked about her experience of SAD syndrome and how exercise had been an effective remedy for her. The article was entitled ‘The Anti-gym answer to exercise’ and addressed the fact that whilst exercise has been established as a valuable tool in boosting our mental health, sometimes our modern expectations of exercise are not very mental health friendly. Consider, for instance, the mirrored walls in gyms and studios. As a child and teenager I danced until I was eighteen years old with a dance school that, mercifully, met in a local village hall. When I went to University I joined the dance society that used an exercise studio above a gym. Lined with mirrors. Suddenly dance, which before had been all about how it made me feel, was all about how it made me look. For someone with an eating disorder this is not a mentally friendly environment. I didn’t last long. Or consider a running club or other sports club. I don’t like clubs because I’m naturally introverted and not athletic, but my friends who are tell me that clubs are excellent because they come with a sense of team, a social factor, and an opportunity to make friends and exercise at the same time. But what if you want to be athletic, but have social anxiety that makes interacting with new people exhausting and draining? Suddenly the price of those exercise-given endorphins seems very high. Or just consider the way we talk about exercise as a society. At this time of year you can’t move for marketing campaigns telling you to ‘just do it,’ huge billboards with energetic people jumping, and shop displays lined with tight fitting athletic gear. All of the language used to advertise ‘exercise’ is high energy, full on, over the top. It’s a lot of going for it and getting it done and jumping in.

But what if your mental health means that getting out of the house is impossible? What if you can’t get dressed? What then? How can you get those juicy endorphins that so many people rave about if you can’t bring yourself to pull on your trainers? What if you don’t have any trainers?

This is where Kat Brown’s article really comes into itself, addressing how you can work around ‘the brain spiders’ as she calls it, and find a way to exercise that doesn’t intimidate you or hoist impossible expectations onto your reality. She raves about working a simple stroll into your routine, finding some great short exercise videos on the internet, and running apps that make the process into a game in which you defeat zombies! (Seriously, check it out). Brown has found a way to exercise through the fog of her SAD syndrome, and that’s great for her.

These are some of the ways I work around the ‘brain spiders’ myself. Whilst I struggle with the gym (I am so prone to motion sickness that running on a treadmill makes me feel like I’ve put in an extra long stint on the Pequod), I really like yoga. But what to do then about those mirror-lined studios and the fears of ‘joining’ a gym?  Well, the great thing about the UK is that whilst we are full of top of the line gyms, we are also full of village halls and school auditoriums, all of them full of your local brand of a chosen sport. Apart from having the classic musty smell that ‘community exercise,’ automatically creates, there is a casual anonymity to village hall exercise. With no compulsory gym membership or sign up involved and the sight of the yoga mats tucked in the cupboard next to the props for the nursery nativity, I find that there is a real feeling of low pressure. Whilst it’s easy to be intimidated in a young, hip, gym full of stretchy people, that’s just not the case when you’re doing downward dog with a collection of locals in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes exercising with other ‘normals’ is all you really need to feel like you might just fit in.

And for the times when even the unassuming locals and their yoga mats seem too much for me, I found a collection of popular online videos that I pretty much stand by – Compared to other online videos that put the focus on if you can bend your neck behind your leg, Adriene’s motto of ‘Find what feels good’ is infinitely preferable. Also, she is the calmest woman in the world with a hypnotic voice that my husband says is ‘like honey and a warm bath.’ She also, insightfully, structures her yoga videos around the needs of life – so there is yoga for stress, and yoga for headaches, and sometimes that’s what you really need. Not a increasingly complex routine that will leave you sweaty and sad and feeling like a failure. There is also a sense of community in her videos, lots of people use them and stand by them. There is a forum for discussion, the feeling of a team without a team. Similarly, things like Runkeeper can provide something like the community a running club might provide without you ever having to panic about meeting people in person. Instead data is logged and compared online. There are fantastic ways out there by which you can find what you need without having to place yourself in a panic inducing situation.

But what about the times when what you need is nothing?  Those not getting out of bed days, those not leaving the house, not moving from the sofa days? How can you get your endorphins then?

Well, I find moving doesn’t have to be ‘exercise,’ to have an uplifting effect.  Sometimes moving can just be that – moving. When I’m anxious I like to brush my teeth. The repetitive motion is calming and gives me a moment of quiet. If someone said ‘Well, if you’re feeling anxious, you should do some push ups!’ that would be too much, but this little movement? I can manage that. When I am really struggling with depression and the maximum amount of movement I will likely achieve that day is from the bed to the kettle and back, I try and move in these small ways.

Like taking a shower. It wakes up my muscles, makes me feel a little alive, and like I have achieved something.

Like stretching. I might not feel up to dancing on those days, but a gentle stretch in bed just makes me aware that my body is there. It still works. Things might be okay.

Adriene even has a yoga routine that you can do in bed. I have used it more than once.

When I can just about make it out of the house and stick to schedule but the idea of changing into sweats and trying to copy a video is too much for me, the ten minutes it takes me to walk to a coffee shop to do my writing gives me the boost I need. That little bit of moment is invaluable. Or the five minutes it takes to walk outside and go round the corner to the local shop. It might not seem like anything to some people, to people who run marathons or sail small boats across oceans it might be riddiculous, but it is something. It is a little way of building movement into my day that I can manage.

Because when your brain space is stuck, moving can be really hard. When you have anxiety or weight problems or are just down-right shy, moving can be scary and feel like the last thing you want to do. But it helps to know it doesn’t have to be big, even the smallest movement can be the greatest achievement. You need to find what helps you, ‘find what feels good’ (Thanks, Adriene!) and maybe you’ll be one step closer to those large, exercise related goals you might have.

Maybe climbing Kilimanjaro.

Maybe running a marathon.

Maybe sailing a small boat around the world.

Maybe your goal is simply, like me, to feel a bit better. To feel a little more in control and a little happier. To have a few endorphins in your life. And maybe, one day, I will feel comfortable enough to pull a Callie from Grey’s Anatomy and dance about in my underwear.

Whatever it is, it’s a start.





When I don’t have any answers

‘Anxiety’ Arturo Leal 

I’ve been putting this off.

I’ve been putting it off because sometimes, being honest about where I am is too painful to admit. When I do admit it, people often want me to talk about it, they want to know ‘why’ without asking me why.

The trouble is, I don’t have any answers. I only have questions.

About why my mind is a prison

and why now.

My questions are a long list of complaints,

and fears, directed to no one

and everyone all at once.

How do you stay so happy?

Why are you not afraid?

Why are you not gripped by the arresting fear that something bad, something terrible, something unimaginable will happen to you if you continue to eat that sandwich, continue to walk down that street, continue on in your normal life the way that you are?

I have so many whys, but none of them are the right one

for this.

Why can’t I control it?

Why doesn’t this coping mechanism, t

his painful coping mechanism that has been carved out of me from years of terrible practise,

Why have the bolts fallen out of it?

Why is it broken now, when it worked three months ago?

The bedroom, the blankets, the soft voices on the television,

these are meant to be my comforts and they have

let me down, or I have let myself down.

How can I know which one it is?

Blame is heavy on my shoulders

like the scratchy weight of my old University gown,

a constant irritant and a constant question:

What did I do? What did I do?

What did I do?




No answers then, I am afraid to say. And I am afraid to say it – I guess I am concerned that people will stop listening to my words if I have nothing to say about growth, about change, about how things can get better. Maybe they will stop listening, and maybe that’s right for them. Because sometimes gazing at another persons darkness only gives you darkness.

It’s all been a bit dark from where I’m sitting at the moment.

What can you do when all of the weapons you use to fight the demon suddenly break and fall apart?

Lie down and pretend to be dead?

Fight with your bare hands?

Hope someone else appears to fight for you?


You retreat.

I am retreating; from advice, from confidence, from feeling like I have a handle on this. Because even if I do, I don’t feel like it. I no longer feel like I am holding things together in the way I was at the end of last year.

Fighting has exhausted me, and I am too defeated to keep fighting for my every day normality. I need to retreat.

So just for now, I can’t tell you how it will get better, how it got better for me. For now, I can’t tell you that medicine makes a difference and community is key. I can’t tell you there’s a way out.

Because I am just too damned tired.


Some people might read this and think ‘Dear God, she’s a suicide risk!’

People who know me day to day might say, ‘I think she’s exaggerating how bad it is. She doesn’t seem this sad.’

Here’s some truth: I’m not a suicide risk, and it’s important also to note at this point that the act of blogging itself is a bit anti-suicide. It is personal therapy, the working out, the talking out of dark feelings. Suicide risks are often people on the down-swing or up-swing of a dip in their mental health. Not people like me who are currently too tired for bloody anything. Suicide is active, suicide requires effort. Suicide also requires a certain type of aggression and impulsiveness that I simply don’t have. There is too much anxiety involved in suicide.

(I don’t mean any of this lightly, what I mean to say is that if your friends or family members talk about hurting themselves or seem very low, don’t assume the worst. Maybe they are asking for help. Maybe they just want to be honest.)

As for exaggerating, maybe I am. I am grateful for what I have, maybe I should be more grateful.

But I don’t think gratefulness is going to stop the panic. I don’t think gratefulness is going to stop the depression.

Here’s some more truth: I don’t seem sad, it’s true. Because I’m not always sad. Sometimes I am, but mostly I am always anxious. That state of mind that you feel before an exam, or after a car accident, or when you dream that you are falling and wake up sharply? That is, on a sliding scale, pretty much the normal pitch of my mind. I’m not always sad about it. I am always tired by it, literally, physically exhausted. I’m not always sad about it. I am frustrated by it, angered by it, and a bit hopeless about it.

But I’m not always sad.

And you can be frustrated and angry and hopeless (and even sad)  whilst carrying a normal conversation. Sometimes you can even be them at work, or when you are shopping.

I might not look like a depressed person, but I’m a person and I’m depressed.


Here are some articles that I am reading at the moment, attempting to find a why for what’s going on inside my head. Some of them help practically, others just help because they tell me it’s not just me in this hole. Other people fell in too. Some even climbed out.

How pinterest might be saving lives – there is a community of people sharing and talking instead of hiding and hurting. I think that is good.

Anxiety toolbox – since the tools I usually have have proved to be not quite up for the job, I’ve been looking around. None of her ideas are obviously written in stone for everyone, but I found the guidance for handling a panic attack very helpful.

24 Comics that capture the frustration of anxiety – number 7.

14 best songs for people with anxiety – Sometimes music really helps when you don’t think it will, because the usual loud tunes might fill you with dread. The songs I go to most often are ‘The Call’ by Regina Specktor and ‘Safe and Sound,’ by the Civil wars/Taylor Swift.




Poetry post

Here is a link to one of my poems, published on another blog I write for – Transpositions – a blog associated with the Imagination, Theology and the Arts department at the University of St. Andrews, my alma mater.

Please feel free to take a look and wander around the site, there’s some interesting stuff up there. The poem published is from my collection of poems (as yet unpublished officially) ‘The Song of Birds,’ the origins of which come from some of the early work on this blog. I am hoping to find some interest in the poetry collection this year, so if anyone has any tips about finding a publisher who takes these things, let me know! 

Reading the signs – what do you need to be mentally healthy


Art work by Aegis 

I’ll be honest, I’ve had a bad time of it recently. Since before Christmas I have been mentally circling the edge of the rabbit hole, and it only took the arrival of new year to send me spinning in for a little while. I hope I am coming out of it now, but at times like that, I think of Winston Churchill:

‘I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and, if possible, get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.’

Churchill struggled with depression, calling it his black dog, which is an excellent metaphor to describe that feeling of waking up knowing that something has arrived or come back into your life that was previously not there. That is so often how depression can be. And as for desperation, I doesn’t have to be so extreme as being afraid to stand on platform edges. Perhaps you start to notice you think about death a lot more – not necessarily your own, but maybe you find yourself worrying about the deaths of loved ones. Maybe you sort of wonder on your drive home from work what would happen if you swerved the wheel suddenly. Maybe the thought keeps returning every time you drive that route. Maybe you’re exhausted all the time, and just feel so on edge in your daily life, so constantly close to tears, that you find yourself just wishing for some sort of illness, an accident, that might give you time off to rest. Perhaps you begin to wonder at what speed a car needs to hit you to break a leg. There it is, the little seed of desperation, planted in your mind.

So how do you keep the black dog at bay? How do stop the desperation from growing into something dangerous?

How do you climb back out of the rabbit hole?

Well, ignoring it doesn’t help.

If the dog is there, the dog is there.  If the thought is there, the thought is there. Denying it will only give it more strength, make it seem worse and more illicit than it actually is. Because the reality is that whilst suicide is obviously an incredibly serious thing, having dark thoughts doesn’t mean that you are one step away from jumping off a bridge. Not at all. Our brains are complex and magical organs, and sometimes we process things subconsciously that we haven’t realised yet, and our darkest thoughts can be a product of that. Our brain trying to tell us that something is a bit off, and we need a little bit of help. These thoughts are not the whole story of who you are and your mental health, but they can be warning signs. Last week my thoughts were very dark, but rather than assuming it meant I wanted to kill myself, my partner very knowledgeably identified that it was part of a pattern. It meant I was having a rough time mentally, and I needed to step back and take a proper look at the situation. Several pressure points in my life in the last two months have lead to this; a mixture of things as big as a car accident and as small as getting a little bit sick.

Perhaps you feel this way because you’re really overworked.

Perhaps you feel this way because you really actually hate the winter and miss the sunshine.

Perhaps you feel this way because you don’t feel satisfied in some of your life choices.

Perhaps, like me, you feel this way because you have a long-standing anxiety disorder and depression and something has triggered you.

So what can you do?

1.Tell someone you trust. Speaking the thing aloud can make it much less terrifying, and also give you a sense of release. Sometimes the act of just telling someone is enough the banish the lure of plaguing bad thoughts, sometimes it just enables someone around you to be a person who can check on you, offer you extra help when you need it most. Sometimes it’s hard to tell someone in our lives our problems, and if it’s impossible for you then maybe somewhere like Samaritans, or Mind can lend an ear. They are there to listen, to be the person you can trust.

2. Be a bit kind to yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself about it. Yes, feeling crap is annoying and frustrating, and if you have a demanding life then it can be really easy to blame yourself when you feel unable to meet those demands. But the reality is that your body is talking to you about what you need. Everyone has that one symptom that comes before a major bout of flu – for me it’s a sore throat, and I know then it’s time to boost up, get a bit more vitamin C, a few good nights of sleep. Sometimes dark and troubling thoughts can be like that one symptom, warning you that actually, your body needs some help to cope with the extra stress. Acting as a sign that actually, everything isn’t okay, and if you let it go unchecked it might get a lot worse.

2. So get a bit of help. I’m not saying you should jump straight into therapy or rush to the doctors for medication, I just mean that you should give yourself permission to ask for the help that you need, or give yourself the help you need.  At the moment I have found that I have needed tasks and company to structure my day, give me a way of pushing through the darkness and make me feel purposeful again. So even though it is embarrassing and I kind of hate it, I confided in a few close friends that I had been having a bad time and arranged for some hang out time this week. I have written lists. I have allowed myself to buy fancy pens for writing. Because I know that’s what I need. That’s my little bit of mental vitamin C.

Maybe you really need a weekend off from work and away from everything, where you just stay in.  Maybe you really need to call a friend when you get into your flat at the end of the day, just to touch base with another human and get rid of the loneliness. Maybe you need to give yourself time to do that thing that relaxes you; watching your favourite TV show, painting, writing, sketching. Maybe you need to skype family members. Maybe you need to purchase a daylight lamp to lift your mood (they really do work!) Maybe you need a little bit of exercise every day to pump up your endorphins. Maybe what you actually need is therapy or medication, maybe it’s time for you to take that step, I don’t know.

What I do know is that there is an end to a dark day, or a week of dark days, or even years. What I do know is that when we read the signs of our mental health and act to help ourselves, then we come out stronger and healthier. What I do know is that last week was a bad week, but that doesn’t mean this week will necessarily be as bad. And the reason I know that is in part due to the fact that I have spoken to people I trust and not let the darkness eat away at my insides. I have been honest about where I am, and the act of being honest has helped me face my own situation head on. I have been afraid, I have been anxious, but I have asked for what I need.

There is so much about mental health that can feel out of our control, as if we are in the hands of a terrible being intent on playing with us until we fall apart. But we are in the hands of those we trust, those who love us and stand with us in our darkness. When we allow ourselves to be open and speak about our darkness we allow ourselves to be helped. I don’t know where you find yourself today, what state your mental health is in. What I do know that it can be worked out, and if you are scared and don’t have someone to work it out with, get in touch. I’ll be here.



Old friend

Anxiety is brutal.

A friend that never leaves –

He brings that tingling down my spine,

that shiver in the small of my back sensation

of something or someone

always watching,

always hovering,

just out of sight.

And I am too afraid to turn and look

in case it is not my old friend,


but a new demon, with claws drawn,

ready to strike.


But Anxiety! I know him well,

the feel of his cold, slimy hands

jumbling my intestines –

making me nauseous.

I feel his whisper on the back

of my neck,

hairs stand on end.

His creeping words follow me

around my house, from room

to room he hisses in every

corner. The same words.

A terrible notion that

fear is coming,

fear is coming,

fear is coming.


I opened my eyes this morning,

and before even the dull winter light

had bled through my window,

before I heard that morning hum

of traffic, buses, life and noise,

I knew:

My old friend,


that hellish bastard,

He was back.


Having Resolve – healthy resolutions

‘Receive’ painted by one of my best friends, Joanna Leidenhag. You can find her beautiful work here.


For a large portion of my life my new years resolutions were always the same. Lose weight. Gain confidence. Do something that scared me.

Sounds healthy?

Yeah, maybe, on paper. It looks like a good combination of specific and vague – nothing focused on giving something up, all focused on starting something. They say that’s the best way to do it, in all those women’s magazines.

So why aren’t I doing that this year?

Because even if it sounds healthy, it wasn’t healthy for me.

Maybe you should ask yourself if it is really healthy for you, too.

Why wasn’t it healthy for me? Well for starters, I couldn’t lose weight safely, the eating disorder pretty much took care of that one for me. A lifelong ban on scales for mental health reasons meant I was only ever judging it on how I looked bigger or smaller in the mirror, which only leads down a dangerous road. Then to follow, as a teenager I used to think confidence was gained through nice clothes, high grades, slim figures and a boyfriend, not from doing what you loved and believing you were loved. And finally, pretty much everything scared me. How could I choose just one? Things that made me anxious covered everything from ordering food in a restaurant to abseiling. I simply truncated the new years resolution into simply not being scared. Ever again. Ever.  Perhaps you are thinking, why didn’t I just pick a less intense resolution, like to read one new book a month?  I tried that, and it didn’t help for one simple reason. For me, any resolution I made was only about one thing: Being a better person.

You will be better, you will be stronger, you will be thinner.

Read one new book a month? You will be better, you will be smarter, you will be better educated.

I was sucked into the “New year, new you” mentality.

And why not? For someone like me who has struggled so much with myself, the idea that simply meditating for five minutes every day or joining a running club would completely transform me into a new person was amazing. No more depression, no more anxiety, I could be different, I could be better, all I had to do was a couple of things.

For someone with mental health problems this type of thinking can be incredibly dangerous, and for years I didn’t know, but I wasn’t just setting myself up for disappointment. I was setting myself up for a serious relapse.

A large part of my acceptance of my mental illness has been acceptance of the fact that there might not be anything I can personally ‘do’ to make it better. For the longest time I believed that if I just ate the right amount at the right time, if I just got the right amount of sleep, if I just maintained an iron-clad grip on the whole situation, then I would be okay. It took some professionals and some hard time in therapy for me to really understand that I was fighting with a real illness – something that needed to be fought with medicine and time, with guidance and careful consideration of my body and what it could handle. It couldn’t be fought with my own mind, with all the little controlling features I had developed. Those fail-safes I had introduced were only making it worse, only making it harder. Trying to control it was only making it less controllable.

When I sat down at the start of the new year and made a list of things I wanted to change, things I thought would make me ‘better,’ I was allowing myself to be tricked into thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could cure my depression with a new years resolution.

Maybe I could fix it. Maybe I could control it. Maybe it wasn’t a real illness and all I needed was some rules, a few more rules, and I would feel much better. Maybe.

That’s not to say that new years resolutions don’t help people – that they can’t be responsible for excellent lifestyle changes that make a person happier and healthier in the long run, like quitting smoking or giving up marmite. (That would make EVERYONE happier!)  For example, my partner is amazing at selecting something he wants to add to himself and doing it throughout the year. Last year it was writing an ebook (he wrote two), and this year it is learning Italian, (Pinguino is Italian for penguin). But he hasn’t bought into the whole ‘New year, New you,’ idea like I have in the past. He periodically sets himself goals throughout the year, and new years just happens to be one of them. I’m not like him. In the past I have believed the advertising, I have scoured the magazine articles, I have joined online programmes. I have been looking for a new years resolution that will change my life. Something that will change me.

But when your life involves a mental illness like mine, it’s got to be a pretty miraculous new years resolution. The idea of new years resolutions and the new year itself is all about fresh starts, new beginnings. In mental health there are no fresh starts, there are no new beginnings. There is just you, and the road ahead of you, and you carry with you everything you have learned so far about staying alive and walking forward. That’s the way it should be – it keeps you from stumbling, it maybe keeps others from falling.

So I’m not resolving to do anything this year. I’m not hoping to make a new me. This is who I am, and I am stuck with her, for better or for worse. Maybe the new year will bring healing, maybe the new year will usher in the first year in sixteen years that I haven’t experienced depression, but the signs don’t look good so far. But I can be hopeful. I can be hopeful and trust in the medication I take, the support that I have, and the Power of the universe that I believe in that maybe this year I might get better. Maybe I might be made new. But I’m not going to try and do it with a resolution.

Instead, I’m taking on board the word ‘Resolve.’

Resolve: late Middle English (in the senses ‘dissolve, disintegrate’ and ‘solve (a problem)’): from Latin resolvere, from re- (expressing intensive force) + solvere ‘loosen.’

Dissolve. Disintegrate. Loosen.

I am loosening my grip on who I believe I should be. I am dissolving my expectations of myself as a ‘better’ person, a healthy person, a person without illness. I am looking forward, not with a firm grip tightening around my hopes for myself, afraid that if I don’t control the situation it will slip away from me and I will never be the person I hoped I would be, but with open hands.

I am resolving.

I am choosing to let go.