Thinking beyond survival

Nathan Culkin is a Community Builder at shift. In an article for Mental Health Awareness Week he opens up about his mental health and the part physical activity has to play.

What works for me

In today’s world, we’re constantly told exercise is good for us, and we should do more to stay fit and healthy. It’s also considered an effective treatment for some mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and ADHD. There’s lots of information which talk about mental health and the benefits of regular exercise. They use scientific terms such as endorphins and neural growth, but for me it is far simpler. It is about allowing myself calming and enjoyable experiences. I don’t take part in what you might call ‘high intensity’ exercise, go out running or use a gymnasium. The most important activities in my life are walking and swimming.

Liberating and upsetting

Realising I had a mental health condition was both liberating and extremely upsetting. I understood why I had acted or behaved in a particular way. But it didn’t compensate for the fact I had been irrational in my thoughts and mistook other people’s actions as personal disdain. The feeling others didn’t care about things as much as I do led me to believe they mustn’t care about or respect me. These illogical thoughts were at the forefront of my mental health condition and for a long time I believed this was part of my personality.

At times, these feelings become overpowered, as extreme anxiety and stress turn in to the nothingness that is depression. My diagnosis was made just over two years ago. As I learned more about my illness and the reasons for certain behaviours, I realised I’d been experiencing mental health problems on and off for several years, going back to my childhood. Although I was in part relieved, I also chastised myself for not doing something about it sooner.

At my worst, I woke up every morning in fear of the battle which was the day ahead. Looking forward to things became impossible and I viewed my future as a war I could not envisage winning. My daily commute was a combination of tears, worry and anger. This was after, of course, the extremely difficult and energy sapping process of getting up and dressed. My whole life became about survival.

The power of exercise

I began swimming in January 2016, and have been addicted ever since. The time I spend in the pool is my break from negative thoughts and stresses. I never feel more relaxed than when in the water. Swimming in the evening helps me to wind down and have a brilliant night’s sleep, whereas swimming in the morning energises my body and mind ready for the day ahead. The way I feel both during and after swimming is something I look forward to, and allows me to think beyond just survival.

Walking is also a big part of my life, and I am in no doubt it has helped improve my mental health. I’m not talking about hiking boots and trekking for miles, but simply incorporating more walking in to my daily life. Small adaptations such as walking for 30 minutes at lunchtime, and parking further away when I attend meetings and visits. As with swimming, walking allows me to clear my mind and regain focus on what I am doing. It provides an excellent opportunity for mindfulness and helps me to overcome stress.

It is easy to tell someone regular exercise will aid with mental health. It’s not easy however for someone who is suffering to do something about it. I have made several lifestyle changes over the past two years which have helped improve my mental health. These changes include medication, talking therapies, diet and spending time with different people. I will however say that walking and swimming are the lifestyle changes which have been most effective, and have become an important part of my life.

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