MENTAL HEALTH. Its true meaning.

So before I start harping on, I have a few questions.

  • What is the first thing that enters your mind when you see or hear the words mental health?
  • Why are they so powerful?

When you come across those words I bet for the majority of people that if we played ‘word association’ we would be greeted with a whole range of negative words, negative perceptions, and for some, misconceptions about its meaning.

It is interesting that mental health – two words that affect every person on Earth have become so feared. Unnecessarily I might add!

  • If we were to play ‘word association’ with physical health, would your answers be any different? How about if we say social health?

I have been wanting to write about mental health and mental illness for a while because there are (in my eyes) big issues around the wording and terminology we have in our society. And not just with these, but with many other words associated to health and wellbeing every single day. Before I go on it is really important I point out the difference between mental health and mental illness.

Mental health ‘is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’ WHO. Mental health is something we all have, it can be both good and also not so good. And it moves, it changes, we may have ups and downs with mental health the same as we might with physical health.

Mental illness is ‘a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his or her ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.’ –NAMI.

So I thought I would do a poll, my own little social experiment of word association and the responses were albeit very honest, but a reflection of how culture and society has led to us having a big misconception and lack of understanding of the word.

Some responses included;

Stress, depression, illness, fear, weak, not enough support, unstable.

How does this happen?

Why are we so drawn to negatives when talking about these words? And for those who clearly saw the tweet and status but didn’t respond, why didn’t you? Was it through fear of being associated with it? Was it because you don’t think it matters to you? Was it worry over whether you said the right/wrong thing?

I am fascinated with how this has become such a misunderstood term.

Let’s talk physical health. Everyone has physical health, one might have an accident and chronic pain, that required treatment and management but is (for many conditions) treatable. One might have a cold or flu, a little bug and physically feel unwell, but then a few days later and a small intervention i.e. antibiotics etc and they get better. We accept this in society because it happens to everyone right? We have all felt a little poorly at times, probably all visited the doctor or gone home for some tlc, and that’s fine.

We also have a HUGE boom in culture around physical health and working to get active, improve physical health both from government and health agendas but also social media getting involved. Crossfit gyms, personal trainers, various walking and exercise groups, Instagram pinterst and other social media platforms getting involved and suddenly it is cool to look after and work on physical health. Because at the end of the day, a good active balanced lifestyle has an impact on long term physical health right?

So why the hell aren’t we doing this with mental health?

We understand that physically, certain foods, exercise and/or physical activity, sleep, limited alcohol etc are all protective factors, they look after our physical health and have been proven to prevent the onset of many health conditions.

So with our mental health what can we do? It is NO DIFFERENT!! I find it very frustrating both professionally and personally. I have always, since the day I set up my company, tried to encourage the proactive side to our work. Yes, there is a place for a reactive service. But there is an even bigger place for PREVENTION, being PROACTIVE, and actively looking after our mental health.

The protective factors link in with physical, social and financial health. They can be as simple as;

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting sufficient daylight
  • Having quality time with friends and family,
  • Making the time to do your hobbies and have some time for you.

It isn’t rocket science, but we don’t always encourage them and we certainly don’t prioritise them in our own lives.

I don’t think it is always a lack of education or awareness, because we all know ourselves more than anyone else could. Sometimes we may need the support of others to identify them and put these factors in place, but I think the real issue lies with society, our culture. The fact that we go around cringing whenever we hear those words, we try to avoid engaging in those conversations in case somehow we get tarnished, or draw attention to ourselves. When actually what we need to do is start talking more; not about mental illnesses, but our own mental health. We see so many posts and pictures on social media for completing a big walk, hike or run, why don’t we do it when we have done an hours meditation? Or had an hour to self reflect? Why don’t we talk about our own mental health more to actually promote this aspect of health.

We need to stop being scared of these words and realise them for their true potential. Our mental health is fundamental and an essential part to our overall wellbeing, so why don’t we start acting like it! We know we can promote and improve mental health, the same as we can physical health, so let’s make a conscious effort to break down those misconceptions and start putting us first. We do that, and slowly we’ll start to change that unhealthy culture and have an environment where mental health is being talked about and prioritised the same as a person’s physical health.

I am going to kick start this off by leaving my own statement about my mental health;

‘Today I am going to spend some time at my allotment. Because my brain needs a rest and the fresh air always makes me feel better. And for me this a really important part of maintaining my own mental health’

Advertisements

Retiring from sport. Finding your way when others won’t let you

So it’s now been a year since I returned from Glasgow after fulfilling a career goal of competing at the commonwealth games representing team Wales. It’s also now just over 6 months since I retired from Welsh netball and Celtic dragons and it’s been an interesting period of adjustment, re-evaluating and reflecting.

So what have I learnt? I have had a number of interesting responses from people most of which I took as being part and parcel of retiring but it is only now I have had some distance from the sport I look back and realise that actually, many of these comments may have a negative impact to others during their retirement. After that amount of uninterrupted years in the sport I was not only thankful for the journey and experiences I’d had, but in the latter part of my career also left craving normality. I really craved being able to take up opportunities and explore other areas of my life. I had spent so many hours of my life on court, at the gym, shooting, travelling, at squad training, in camp etc. all of those hours meant sacrifices made along the way were the norm.

But what if I was ready to leave that behind and wasn’t as prepared to that anymore? I had amazing experiences through my netball career but I was missing out on precious time with friends and family, I wasn’t being fair to myself by exploring hobbies and other interests I had and had to push aside, and I wasn’t able to focus entirely on my company. But when I retired, for the first time ever I found myself able to do all of those things and not worry.

Interestingly though the responses I had on retiring were things such as;
‘so what are going to do with yourself now?’
‘What will you do instead?’
‘What’s the next thing?’
‘You’re going to miss it terribly, you’ll be back’
‘what are going to do with all of these hours you have back?’
‘Should you be eating that?’
‘Didn’t think you would be eating that?’
‘Having a few days off are we?’
All possibly said out of politeness or interest but actually contain tones of expectation, criticism, pressure and sarcasm!

My response? Well where do I start; possibly the commitment I had made to the sport since the age of 13? Are people really saying that I shouldn’t change my lifestyle and enjoy things now, post training? Do I really have to do something else with my time or can I just enjoy where I’m at like everyone else? What is it about me, or any other athlete who has retired that makes people think there must be something after? Maybe there is, but maybe there isn’t. Maybe we all just want to enjoy and appreciate what was done in the past and just enjoy things as they are now.

For years I have lived by the book from a sports performance perspective but it was done because it was part of performance. I didn’t always enjoy it, I didn’t always want to be that way and at times would have loved to ‘veg’ out, have a binge, not do anything but I didn’t…
Now that’s not to say that these things have massively changed however, it is so good to have total control and say over what I do without having to worry. Without having to consider netball, training etc. as a consequence.

I’ve realised that people are so used of me being ‘Cara the netball player’ that there’s an expectation now that whatever standards I had in place now continue.  It is one thing to readjust and become ‘Cara’ but to do that whilst having those expectations still in place is another thing altogether!

I personally feel that I have adjusted really well and that has a lot to do with the support I have around me, knowing I made the right decision and that decision being made on my own terms, but also because netball was something I love but I always knew my career and company would take over the sole focus.  But for others it may not be so easy, we all hear about so many athletes who since retiring have found it really difficult to adjust in to their new lives and whilst this has a lot to do with the individual I genuinely believe that those around the athlete, the expectations of others and social norms make it all the more difficult.

Going back to those questions and statements I mentioned earlier, I genuinely believe that they made it much harder for me to adjust and put the pressure on how I live, they made it harder for me to find a balance because whenever I felt doing nothing I felt guilty, whenever I felt like eating and drinking what I liked I felt that it wasn’t appropriate behaviour and somehow was letting myself down. But I realise this is nothing to do with my own beliefs, it’s others!

I think that people need to realise that when you perform to a high level in sport it is a choice, but one which takes up time to your life so when you stop you don’t suddenly have an abundance of time which needs to be filled, it’s there to enjoy, to relax, maybe do something else but it doesn’t have to be to the extreme again. Similarly, if those around us can eat and drink what they like and have days off from training, why can’t the rest of us? If we have spent ‘x’ amount of time training on a programme we may not want to do anything for a while, but that’s not a bad thing, it may actually be a really good thing. I guess the point I am making is that an individual’s journey and transition out of sport in to retirement is very personal and one which must be dictated by the individual because it’s their journey.

For those around them, support in whatever way that you can but be mindful that how you discuss life after sport may be misinterpreted so step carefully, be supportive and positive and help guide them to where they want to be without holding them back in the ‘athlete role’.

So my story in to retirement? I can look back and appreciate everything I achieved and I am very proud of that. But for me, I am enjoying having a balance, concentrating on building my company, spending time trying new things and taking up activities I enjoyed as a child, spending time with my partner friends and family but most of all, I’m enjoying finally being me!

Raising awareness between adults on participation in sport, exercise and physical activity among children in time for the summer

Summer 2012 was the UK’s summer for sport. As millions tuned in to watch the European Football Championships, Wimbledon, the Test Match Cricket and of course, the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The enthusiasm shown towards sports is staggering, but the problem is that we are either there sat watching it live or sat watching it at home on the TV, and unfortunately some of us still rarely actively participate ourselves.

Over recent years, participation in sport has improved dramatically; however, we can still do a lot better. I believe us adults, as our time has been and gone, should create an environment where children are not afraid to try new things and actively seek to participate in sports.. We need to concentrate on ensuring children are aware and educated on the many benefits of exercise. Hopefully, in years to come our children will be actively participating in physical activity, with the aim to get their children actively involved, and their children, and their children, and…. you get the idea!

Current department of health and children’s guidelines recommend that children and adolescents should participate daily in at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity five days per week (DHC & HSE, 2014) in order to avoid being inactive. Inactivity constitutes a major public health threat by increasing the risks of chronic disease and disability (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). This not only causes serious and unnecessary suffering and impairs quality of life, but also comes at a significant economic cost. The direct costs to the NHS, and the indirect costs to society as a result of inactivity, totals to more than £8 billion each year (WHO, 2014).

Raising levels of activity and participation in sports not only improves health outcomes and reduces costs to the NHS and to the wider economy, but can also contribute to a range of positive behavioural outcomes.

Directly below is a brief description of the benefits to be gained from regular participation in sport, exercise or physical activity, which can be divided into three areas of life.

Physiological

We all know that physical activity is important to children’s current and future health, and to follow the physical activity guidelines produces a range of direct and indirect benefits. Firstly it assists in the control of body weight by increasing energy expenditure and helps to avoid developing adult obesity (Pate et al., 2002). It reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and some site specific cancers (Anderson et al., 2006). Weight resistance physical activity is important for bone formation and remodelling (Field et al., 2001).

Psychological

Participation in regular health enhancing physical activity may also mediate psychological states. It can reduce depression and anxiety (especially in shy children), enhance mood, self-esteem and quality of life (Tremblay et al., 2000). It is also known to reduce rule-breaking behaviour, to improve attention span and classroom behaviours, and can positively affect academic performance (Castelli et al., 2007). In addition, it was found that students who engage in moderate-vigorous activity had significantly higher grades than those who reported doing no moderate-vigorous physical activity (Coe et al., 2006).

Social

Participating in regular physical activity can also have positive social outcomes including crime reduction and more cohesive communities (Biddle & Mutrie, 2003). Moreover, the Ecological Model (Sallis & Owen, 1997) remarks that individuals affect and are affected by their physical and social environments. In particular, children’s behaviours are primarily influenced by family and school environments. More specifically, having access to programmes and facilities such as physical activity; influences a child’s behaviour (Davidson & Birch, 2001; Sallis et al., 2000).

What are the reasons behind participation?

There is a significant and growing evidence base that is devoted to understanding sports participation and how to increase it (Biddle & Mutrie, 2001; Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2005; Weinberg & Gould, 2011).

A review of the evidence suggests that there are four main determinants of participation: physiological, psychological, socio-cultural and ecological.

Before discussing these determinants in further detail, it is worth noting a couple of important points:

  1. The determinants of participation do not work in isolation; they interact and influence each other as they contribute to the behavioural outcomes (Weinberg & Gould, 2011).
  2. The mix of the determinants vary across the lift-cycle of the participants (Biddle & Mutrie, 2003), and indeed within particular lifestyle stages (Prochaska et al., 1992).

In support, the Transtheoretical model (Prochaska et al., 1992) argues that individuals progress through stages of change and that movement across these stages is cycle, rather than linear position, because many people do not succeed in their efforts at establishing and maintaining lifestyle changes (Marcus et al., 1996). With this in mind, they argue that information and interventions need to be tailored to match the particular stage an individual is in at the time.

Physiological

Physiological determinates of physical activity among children and adolescents include age, gender and ethnicity. Specifically, girls have been found to be less active than boys, older children and adolescents less active than younger children, and black girls less active than white girls (Adams, 1995).

Psychological

Psychological determinants include confidence in one’s ability to engage in exercise, perception of physical or sport competence, having a positive attitude toward physical activity, enjoyment of physical activity, and perceived benefits from engaging in physical activity.

In contrast, perceived barriers to physical activity such as lack of time or feeling tired are negatively associated with physical activity among youth.

Socio-cultural

Socio-cultural influences include support for and participation in physical activity in peers and siblings, parental levels of physical activity, parental support, and parental income.

Ecological

Ecological determinants include access to play spaces, facilities, availability of equipment, and transportation to activity programmes.

Something for the parents

Encouraging your children to play sports is one of the best ways to help them develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime. However, some parents take that support too far by focusing on winning rather than the development of skills and enjoyment. The line between encouraging your child and pushing him/her beyond his/her abilities can be somewhat easy to cross. Youth sports parents occasionally need to be reminded of some of the basic elements to help children become happy, healthy and confident young athletes.

  • Encourage your child to try and play any sport he or she enjoys.
  • Support your child’s decision to not play a sport if he or she does not want to.
  • Let your child make mistakes.
  • Enjoy what your child does and can do.
  • Encourage your child to set goals and measure their progress.
  • Encourage your child to develop their own self-awareness of the skills they have gained.
  • Remind your child of the health benefits of playing sports, and encourage him or her to focus on positive health behaviours.
  • Encourage your child to compete against him/herself, and use competition as a way to improve his or hers own abilities.

The Mind In Snooker – Part 2

I used to be very conscious about my health prior to using food as a comforter, I would exercise daily and monitor everything I consumed. However, within a matter of weeks I went from being a fitness fanatic to having an addiction to junk food and I firmly believe that snooker was the primary reason for this.

Have you ever found comfort in something because there is something that you want so badly but you can’t have it? That’s the feeling I was having on a daily basis. Although I was doing something that I loved, I wasn’t content with the standard I was playing to. This resulted in me finding comfort in something away from snooker and junk food gave me the endorphin I needed. Comfort eating was a form of escapism that I couldn’t find anywhere else, it was a fixation that helped me to relieve anxiety caused by the feeling of not being good enough.

Eating made me feel good in the moment, but the feelings that triggered my comfort eating were still present afterwards… except they were made much worse now I had consumed unnecessary calories. I was gaining weight rapidly and losing my confidence in the meantime… I was simply punishing myself!

In my mind I would say to myself ‘it doesn’t matter about today, I’ll start a fresh tomorrow’, I was waiting over a year for ‘tomorrow’ to happen.

The Mind In Snooker – Part 1

If anybody reading this article before has ever played snooker, you will know how mentally challenging the game can be. Watching the likes of Ronnie O’Sullivan make the game look so easy on television is a false representation of how difficulty snooker really is, both on and off the table.
I have been playing snooker since the age of 12 and I have recently decided to play full time in order to give myself the greatest chance of competing at the highest level. However, I have self-admittedly suffered from the high pressure which comes with playing elite sport and I used food as a comforter. I noticed this was becoming a serious problem due to the amount of weight I had put on, but it was a habit I didn’t feel I could control. Everyday I was punishing myself by eating as much junk food as possible because of the dissatisfaction I felt with my performance that day. I knew I was being mentally weak by listening to the little voice in my head which was telling me to eat when I was stressed, but I couldn’t overpower it.
Thankfully the little voice in my head which previously told me to eat when I was stressed is now a silent whisper. The techniques I have developed whilst working alongside Mind In Sport have allowed me to control my emotions rather than being controlled by them.
Written by Jack Bradford, Athlete Ambassador Mind In Sport Limited

Depression in Sport

As we commemorate the 3 year anniversary of Gary Speed’s death, we are reminded of the stark realities associated with depression. Whilst football still has a long way to go before tackling the stigma of mental health issues, the untimely death of Speed has brought about active change in tackling one of football’s biggest taboo subjects. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a fluctuation in footballers openly sharing their battle with depression; Lee Hendrie (former Aston Villa midfielder), Leon MacKenzie (former Norwich striker), Stan Collymore (former Liverpool striker), Paul Gascoigne (former England midfielder), Neil Lennon (Celtic FC manager). The Daily Telegraph reported that over a quarter of footballers suffer from depression, with ex-professionals forming the majority of that statistic. Sporting Chance clinic received phone calls from 10 footballers after the death of Gary Speed.

However, depression is not just a football-centric phenomenon. Sportsmen and women are perceived to be placed on a pedestal, immune from the grips of depression, however, they too are humans and victims to this oppressive mental health issue. Countless athletes have battled and continue to battle their way through depression; Dame Kelly Holmes, Iwan Thomas, Freddie Flintoff, Markus Trescothick, Frank Bruno, Ian Thorpe to name a few.

So what factors contribute to depression in professional athletes?

Whilst exercise is commonly associated with the release of positive endorphins in to the system, the conventions of professional sport can be detrimental to the human mind. Confinements of victory and defeat, the bitterness of injury, the pressure to retain/regain position on the team, concerns over ability to perform, internal/external pressures and sacrifices, and the relentless spotlight of the media can very often lead to a breaking point in mental resilience.

As previously mentioned, former professional athletes are increasingly predisposed to suffering with depression. This can be the outcome from a variety of factors; extreme change in environment (from adrenaline fuelled competition to an empty void and loss of routine), loss of identity, cessation of elite demands, and biological factors (significant decrease in serotonin levels).

Tackling depression in sport.

The death of German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009 after losing his battle against depression, sparked the creation of the Robert Enke Foundation, which provides 24 hour support to players who are experiencing mental health issues. Not only this, the PFA released a 36 page document about depression to ex-footballers after the death of Gary Speed in order to provide additional support and advice.

Other forms of support can be found in a variety of places. Utilizing your expertise in your sporting area, such as coaching and a supervisory role can help to alleviate an onset of depression. Consulting a sport psychologist is also a very good and specific route to apply techniques (check out our website to see a range of services that we can offer you; www.mindinsport.com ).

At this point, it would seem apt to quote comedian Jason Manford as he commemorated Robin Williams, in saying “The world needs you even if you don’t think it does. I promise, we need you here, now.”

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90

An athlete’s story: Clean eating and intense training– where do we draw the line?

I’m writing this blog today not as a professional in mental health, not somebody who offers emotional support nor as a therapist but for the rare occasion, as myself in the role of athlete. This is a topic close to my heart because I have seen the effects of over training and food restriction take hold of those around me but I have also experienced areas of this myself across my teenage years and even to this day …

Elite sport is a very unique culture, performance is key and in order to achieve that level of excellence people’s standards of wanting perfection in everything from physical attributes, conditioning, aesthetics through to our personality types are extremely high! So, in a world where this is the norm how do we know what is healthy? How do we know when we are within a healthy zone of training, eating and performance culture without crossing that line in to routine, obsession and unhappiness? And beyond that in to eating disorders and further mental health issues?

I guess the real answer is that for most, we probably don’t! Not least until we are caught in that cycle and experiencing these things for real! You will find much research in sport discussing the importance of good nutrition, there is of course evidential backing for clean eating, fuelling your body efficiently and ensuring our ‘machine’ – our only vessel to execute greatness in sporting domain is appropriately fuelled! Likewise, with the training in order to achieve the very best standards in sport (regardless of the sport) you will find hours of practice, dedication, rehearsal and conditioning are essential to meet the mark – rest and recovery of course being just as important in that!

Now with the amount of sport science involved in sport these days athletes are very well looked after in these respects, we can trust in the team around us to provide us with the information, programmes and support to achieve these high standards. However, to follow such routine takes a certain type of person…

Somebody said to me once when I was a young athlete ‘in order to make it in sport, you have to have an element of craziness about you’, now at the time I didn’t understand what this meant. But years on, through many or the usual ups and downs of sport, more understanding of the sporting culture and greater self awareness in knowing my own habits I realise they were fairly accurate! That’s not to say I’m crazy or those around me are crazy, but I realise that there is certainly an element of obsession, addiction, routine and perfectionism that comes with the territory of making it in performance sport.

What can start as a routine and merely ‘following the programme’ quickly becomes your world, your whole world starts to revolve around the sport, the eating and the training you do … but that’s normal isn’t it? Because you have targets to meet? Goals to achieve? And this is only way to get there?!?!

In some respects those goals keep you going, they motivate you and inspire you to keep going, keep pushing and striving for perfection. One of my favourite quotes was given to me by my father (an ex international rugby player himself) and that was ‘by aiming for perfection we can reach excellence’. This has almost become my own motto – but in my training for big competitions where I stuck to training religiously and clean eating, no drinking, no going out, routine and discipline in everything I did, it quickly started to turn to something else….

Although training brilliantly in the gym and feeling great physically, there came a point where I noticed starting to feel unhappy about following the plan for myself. I envied those around me indulging in what they wanted, I couldn’t allow myself to have that treat or cheat meal in fear of the guilt that would follow, I never wanted to break the routine because id set myself a target and if I didn’t follow it through till after competition that would meant I failed, I would have lost, I would have done myself an injustice.

Now my reasons for this structure was certainly not weight based!!! And in reality I was very rational in that I knew I was never going to suddenly put on lots of weight or my performance suddenly dip – it was purely the target and expectation I had set myself. But that wasn’t the driving force for me…

Wanting to go in to big competitions knowing I had done everything I possibly could to be the best I can be, that was my motivator – that has always been my number 1 motivation in everything I do. ‘TO BE THE BEST ME’ not to look back and think I could have done any more.

So how do we break the cycle? I guess for me, as somebody who experienced over training as a teenager I know my signs and indicators a lot better. I can recognise that there is a difference between what is needed and what I want, I know my body a lot better. I know when I can push it but also when I need to rest. I can recognise when that need for excellence is starting to become more of an obsession than a lifestyle.

For me, a healthy mind is a healthy body – I have always been a strong advocate of this message not only because of the research available but because I feel it myself! I follow a healthy lifestyle, I sleep well, I don’t drink very often, I eat well and make good food choices and I also work hard in the gym. As much as I love to feel great inside and out from this choice of lifestyle I can also now see that times where I am really craving rest, something different, spontaneity of eating whatever I fancy, having a drink with a meal etc it is probably because I need it. And that’s ok!

I have learnt that actually I feel much happier by following that lifestyle but allowing myself to enjoy things around me and the things I crave. I always think that being rational, having perspective and also just enjoying life, and allowing yourself to be happy helps with making these choices…

There is so much pressure on athletes to look and be a certain way, so much media attention around lifestyle, fitness and clean eating that images and advice surround us everywhere we turn. But there are two rules people all need to follow when taking on any of these lifestyle changes;

  1. Each person is different, you have to learn what works for you, what you want, what your body needs and also your mind needs, emotionally where do you sit with all of this?
  2. You have to be happy! If you aren’t happy then is it working for you?

Life is far too short not to be happy and I know for me my performance is crucial, clean eating is important as is my training but ultimately if I do all of those things and aren’t happy along the way then that’s the failure. The failure and injustice isn’t in skipping a session to rest, having that lie in, or eating something bad, the failure is depriving my body and mind of things I want, the things I need and I now realise that by actually by doing that from time to time it helps me keep a good equilibrium. I am able to sustain an all-round healthy lifestyle, one that is disciplined, positive and performance based – not robot like!! Most importantly one which fits me!!!!