“Hello! I hope you are all keeping safe and well. Let me introduce myself, my name is Claire and I am a Mental Health First Aid England Instructor, founder of The Mind Map project and The Anxious Exercise Club and, programme lead for the Tricky to Talk programme at Nottingham Forest Community Trust.
I also live with a long-term anxiety condition which I manage day-to-day. Back in 2015, I had a relapse in my long term anxiety condition, which made leaving my home very difficult. Some days, it took all my strength to walk to the car to be able to go to work, and that did not leave me very productive for the rest of the day! I knew that activity and exercise were good for me and that it would ease the symptoms of my mental ill-health. But the anxious voice in my head was a lot louder when telling me that the outside was scary and there was no point in even trying.
Towards the end of 2015, I became more and more unwell, with long-term pain, muscle stiffness and overwhelming fatigue. I was referred to the hospital and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I was given guidance on how to manage my condition and one of the overwhelming pieces of advice was to do more activity. I knew I had to listen to the doctors, but I also still had the anxious voice.
So I made a compromise. I walked to the post box and back. It was about 500 yards and I started doing it once a day. Then I walked to the church just next to the postbox and then onto the bench. Every week, I added a small chunk onto my walk and it didn’t feel unmanageable, even the anxious voice quietened down. I began a circuit each evening, I simply did three or four rounds of the circuit.
This simple activity allowed me to rebuild my life. It wasn’t instant, there wasn’t a miracle cure. I still live with a long term anxiety condition that I manage each day. But I do experience the benefits of what activity can bring to my life and how it helps me to manage my anxiety.
The reason I am talking about this today is that I am finding myself in a very similar situation as we live in the current lockdown situation. I’ve found exercising very difficult due to fear and anxiety. So I wanted to take some time to talk about getting active whilst living with a mental health condition and whilst living in lockdown.
Today, I went for a small walk.
It took some bargaining with the anxious voice, but I felt able to get up a little earlier and take a few steps outside. It wasn’t about distance or the number of steps I completed, it was about breathing and feeling the sunshine. It was about letting my whole body know that whilst these are extremely frightening times, these few small steps can benefit our mental wellbeing and help us to get through this time.
There is lots of information out there currently about how we can get active in our homes, which is fantastic. But it can also be overwhelming, so I hope this post, and future ones, will let you know you are not alone.”
From living in a tent in the woods to being employed by the City Council as a Fitness Advisor, life really does begin at 40 for Tony!
Tony who has been profoundly deaf since the age of seven, was referred to Nottingham Community Housing Association through the Deaf Society two years ago. His Support Worker Pete explains, “Through no fault of his own, Tony found himself living rough after being kicked out of his shared housing by his housemates. Pete worked alongside Tony to make sure he was receiving the right support and ended up getting sole tenancy of the property. “It meant I could see my daughter again”, says Tony.
Although Tony is no stranger to a gym, having trained on and off throughout his life; the experience of homelessness left him feeling defeated.
“When the opportunity came up to access the leisure facilities in a free three month trial, it was like a light bulb moment for me. I suffer from anxiety when I’m out and about so I started to use the sauna to wind down or would let off some steam in the gym where I’m surrounded by my medication – my dumbells!
“My dad was diagnosed with Cancer and I lost him in October. I’ve learnt how to talk about my feelings and share my own experiences of mental health disorders and cancer with others – so I’ve also gained some counselling skills too!
“I trained to become an instructor a while ago but missed out on a qualification by a couple of points. When the Instructability course was mentioned to me, it seemed like another chance and meant I could transform my troubles from grief into drive.
Tony admits it was difficult to go back to a learning environment when he started training at Clifton Leisure Centre but found it helped his mental health and built his confidence. “Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations helps you to grow mentally, which is just as important as physical fitness.
“I had a great tutor who waited for me to write up my notes and gave me visual handouts to help with the learning process so it was a bit of a blessing.
“After I finished my training I had a three month placement as a volunteer but there was no guarantee of a job at the end of the 12 weeks, so I could have stopped, but I continued to volunteer.
“I’m on the payroll now but I still keep my voluntary shifts – I’m paid spiritually for that!”
“The best thing about it is I can go up to and talk to anyone now, that wouldn’t have happened before. I’ve got disabled clients being referred to me. Being able to relate to and help others – it makes everything I’ve been through all worth it.”
Tony is also having a huge positive impact on others. When the Instructability scheme reopened, he referred people to it who he thought would also benefit. “Rob doesn’t like new environments and would have panic attacks”, Tony explains, “so I would help diffuse situations when I realised he was about to have an attack by taking him outside and getting him to breathe to open up his airways.”
He is also getting some sign-ups from patients being discharged from Highbury Hospital. “One of the guys I’ve been helping is thinking about becoming a Personal Trainer.”
Tony cites the support he’s received from the team at Ken Martin as being a key part of his success.
“The team have been really understanding and have allowed me to swap shifts when I’ve needed to because of my mental health and were really flexible in allowing me to complete my 1-2-1 in house qualification.
“It’s very difficult to see an opportunity when you are depressed or get anxious,” says Tony. “But there’s lots of things you can do. Talk to people around you, you might find someone in a similar boat. Walking can help by giving you thinking space. Oh and anyone with a dog, it’s like a gym on legs!
“Finding a gym buddy will help motivate you but group activities is another option worth trying. Classes get your endorphins going and you push yourself a bit harder. I think routine is important, but don’t beat yourself up. Plus, sometimes it’s just about coming along, just being here is an achievement.
“People can have a negative view of the gym but Ken Martin and other council leisure centres are so friendly. We even adjust the music to make sure we cater for different groups depending on the time of day.”
Tony added, “For some it’s a social experience, others it’s a lifestyle choice. Whatever the reason, it’s important to look after your heart and general well-being and just be happy.”