mental health and exercise: natasha’s story

Over the last year or so as I’ve been switching a lot of gears in my own life, the amazingness that is the internet has facilitated the growth of a friendship between two people halfway around the world from one another who have, in my opinion, far too many parallels between themselves for it to be a coincidence (that said, I don’t believe in coincidence).

I’m blessed to have my friend Natasha sharing her story here about the effects exercise has on not only her body, but also her mental health (and that whole body image monkey that comes with the intermingling of the two).  Natasha lives in the Netherlands, grew up in the UK, and is a Canadian citizen [yay for Canada!], which makes for a lot of interesting discussion!  She’s also in the fairly recent past completed two triathlons and her first half marathon–no small feat for anybody, but when you add not only asthma but also a host of mental health problems, you’ve got one amazing woman!

It takes a lot of guts to open up about mental health issues in a forum such as this, but it’s something that needs to be talked about, so I’m really excited to be able to share Natasha’s story.

natasha

I think it’s fair to say that I have a long standing love/hate relationship with exercise.  I’ve had the image of myself as exercise-hating, non-athletic and unfit as long as I can remember, and yet if I think back to my childhood, I don’t think this was always so.  It’s a fair point that I never fared well in team sports – a lack of co-ordination, coupled with being prohibited from wearing glasses in school PE lessons didn’t make me a very useful person to have on a team.  And then, of course, there was the fact that I was sick on a fairly regular basis.  I was only diagnosed with asthma in my early teens, but the signs were there from a younger age.

On the other hand, though, I used to love going on cycling ‘expeditions’ to the local woods, or to the park.  I enjoyed gymnastics, skating, skipping, playing elastics… I think I wasn’t the inactive child I picture myself as.

Kerri’s already had a couple guest posts by other asthmatics, and I’m not sure that I have so much to add, so I want to take this post in a slightly different direction and rather than focus on the topic of physical health and exercise, to direct my attention to the area of mental health.  In reality there’s a fine line between the two things, and for me, at least, the two are very intertwined.  As a teenager and through much of my twenties I suffered from depression, and both then and now I’m more prone than the average person to anxiety.

Cause and effect are a murky line, I’ve been recently diagnosed with ADHD, with which both depression and anxiety are often linked – either through biochemistry, or simply the result of trying to fit into a round hole as a square peg.  I also suffer from a condition called Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).  PCOS causes hormonal imbalance, which leads to weight gain and hirsutism amongst the more visible symptoms.  Needless to say, neither the body image issues which result, nor the wonky hormone levels do much to help your mental and emotional health.

Between issues of self-image, and the breathlessness which came with the asthma, then, exercise quickly because something I hated as a teenager, in a world where school PE class involved tiny gym skirts, which suited only the sylph like.

And yet, here is the biggest irony of them all.  The PCOS, the ADHD, the depression, even the asthma, exercise would seem to be that magic pill that has the power to help all of these conditions.  The one thing you can do for yourself, without cost, without resulting to pharmaceuticals.

But…

The weight gain caused by the PCOS keeps you out of the gym because you’re ashamed of your body.  The ADHD distracts you when you intend to go out for a run.  The depression… well, really, when you’re curled up on the sofa in a ball of misery, does stepping outside for a walk even cross your mind?  If it does, it only serves to remind yourself how worthless you are, because it’s a beautiful day outside, and you just can’t face it… yet you hate yourself for wasting it.  And then, the icing on the cake, the anxiety, the fear that you’ll have an asthma attack you can’t bring under control.

When I read back over that last paragraph, I have to say that it doesn’t sound very hopeful.  And yet, last year I took part in a 160km (100miles) walk in four days.  After a year sidelined from running whilst I worked to bring my asthma back under control, this year I ran my first half marathon, and took part in two triathlons.

Yes, I am still overweight, although I have it under better control than in my teens.  I can’t say that I’m happy with my weight, but I’ve learned to live with it, and I haven’t stopped striving to lose those final pounds.  I’m learning to take baby steps, set myself concrete goals, and figure out how to work with the ADHD, rather than waste my energy fighting against it, and myself.  The anxiety remains, but I refuse to let it defeat me, and with every small success, I come closer to defeating it.  My asthma is better managed, and I’m beginning not only to run despite asthma, but to learn to push myself beyond what I believed were my limits.

And yes, it is true, the further I push myself out of my comfort zone, be it facing an Open Water Swim in a triathlon, or sparring in a kickboxing class, the more I feel the benefit, both physically and mentally.  I may not be losing weight, but I’m toning up.  I may still get more out of breath on the stairs than my colleagues, but I know that’s the asthma talking and not my fitness level.

And most importantly?   At the end of a workout, I feel like I’m on top of the world.

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Thanks for sharing your story, Natasha!  (Gym SKIRTS? You poor thing!)

Natasha lives with her crazy cats, enjoys reading pretty much anything she can get her hands on (she keeps saying she needs more bookshelves!), and is a software architect with a passion for photography and travel.  Natasha blogs at Heron Underwater, sharing her stories of athletic endeavours, her health and life in general.