With more and more athletes that come out and talk about the cases of depression that they face or faced, whether it be during their career or post career.
It poses the question, do we really know how to look after our mental health. And how do we even do that?
I’ve suffered from a bout of depression. I’ve felt what it’s like to lose all colour in the day to day activities that you do and the consistent questioning of ‘what does it all mean?’ seems never ending.
I lost my professional career at the age of 26 through injury. I didn’t plan it. One day I was playing, loving my career, excited about the future of what I was on track for. Within one day that changed. I suffered multiple fractures to my spine which left me having to call time on my career early, far too early.
Over the space of a year I became totally lost. I had spent the better part of 10 years forging myself into a professional athlete and creating that identity for myself.
Once that had gone, I didn’t know who I was. What I wanted to be. Plus trying to manage the physical pain that I was left in for 9 months, the monotonous rehabilitation of the body, again. It all became overwhelming.
I’d never believe I could suffer from something such as depression. I genuinely thought my mind was strong and bulletproof.
However, when I caught myself realising that over a past week I hadn’t really had any meaningful interactions, nor could I tell you what I’d been up to or what I had planned. I realised my mental health had declined.
I was still taking care of my body, physically I was fit and strong but why was I so miserable. What the hell was going on in my head.
That’s where I began to study further into yoga, mindfulness, meditation and culminated in going to Hawaii to train as a teacher, which fundamentally changed my life post pro career.
Over the course of that intense 20 days I became so much more aware of my mind, my thoughts. In a simple meditation that involved sitting and asking myself “What thought is coming in my mind next?” and sitting waiting to view that next thought. It suddenly gave me the power to realise that I had control over my thoughts and how I wanted to engage with them.
It gave me further understanding of my how I could interact with the world, through my interactions with my emotions. Simply becoming aware of the physical impact certain emotions and states were having on me, gave me a new direction I wanted to take myself.
This work didn’t happen overnight, nor has it ended. However, what I have learnt is that in order to create mental health/space/awareness, whatever you want to call it, and break out of your habits that you deep down want to break. You have to use some tools and fundamentally, commit to them.
As much as you are looking after your physical health, how much are you allocating to your routine, training, average day to sustain, or improve, your health mental health.
The first point of call would be bringing your awareness to your breath. But not only is is meditative, the physical result it has on your nervous system can influence the state of your body from being in a stressed (sympathetic state) to a more relaxed (parasympathetic state). This is merely what we are after, a physical change in state.
Not only do these techniques help manage stress but allow you to set your biology into a more productive recovery mode for your sport, training, general life.
There’s a lot of organisations around talking about mental health, in society as a whole, which I am fully supportive of. The first step to any change is talking about it.
But lets move onto how we are going to practically regulate good mental health?
What tools do you have in place that will help keep you mind in a good space?
Just like a physical fitness plan and method, do you have a mental fitness plan and method?
As I mentioned previously, one way I use and teach (among others) in getting yourself out of your head and into your body is breathwork. Simple put. Your lungs go everywhere with you. Whereever you are, they are. And if they aren’t working, you’re dead. So let’s access this lowest hanging fruit.
Give this a try
Set a timer for 5 minutes.
Start by sitting comfortably or lying down with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Closing your eyes take your breathing to in and out the nose only.
Notice the sensations of the air entering the nose and lungs.
The sensation of the air moving in and out the body.
The rise of the body on the inhale, the fall on the exhale.
Slow your breathing down so the movement of air becomes almost silent.
Inhale for a count of 4, exhale to a count of 8.
Notice the sensations around the body.
Finish when the timer goes off.
Note how you feel. Physically and mentally.
Chances are you were totally focused on the breath and not the stresses within your life.
This is one of many ways to start opening up the awareness of how we can being to control the mind and not let it control us.
Not only to help improve our day to day activity, sport and exercise performance but how to manage the ups and downs of life that are inevitably going to come.
Try to use this as a tool for intercepting negative thoughts and habits or stressful days.