About 15 years ago I was an overweight couch potato, smoking 40 cigarettes a day and on anti depressants***.
***That admission might get frowned upon by some as ‘oversharing’, but how on earth can you be an effective therapist if you don’t ‘get it’? And how on earth will you know I ‘get it’ if I don’t tell you?!
Anyway, I didn’t like being on anti depressants – I’d been on them for a long, long time and I didn’t like the numbness to life that they had as a side effect, so I decided it was time to stop taking them.
(Now just to be clear, I have no issue with anti depressants. I’d needed them then and they were brilliant at giving my brain the chemicals it had been missing to get me through some really tricky times. If you need them, that’s absolutely ok too. But it had been a few years and at that point, for me, I felt like the numbness had gone on for too long and I was strong enough to move myself forwards. It’s also important to know that I did this with the support of doctors – this isn’t an approach to take alone.)
When you stop taking these tablets, you do so in increments. It was suggested at the same time I start something to replace the serotonin and other chemicals that I would be missing. It was suggested I start cycling. I’d like to remind you about the overweight, chain smoking, couch potato part of me. And I didn’t even own a bike.
So I bought a bike. I got dropped off at the bike shop and had to cycle it home as I couldn’t fit it in my tiny car. I’d not ridden a bike since I was a young kid, and I was in all sorts of pain and wheezing within minutes. I also discovered I only had enough balance to take my right hand off the handle bars, so I couldn’t indicate to turn left…
I started cycling every night. Just a mile at a time and in small circles (because I could only turn right for quite a while!). I don’t remember how fast or slowly I was able to stop taking the anti depressants. I don’t remember how fast or slowly I increased my distance and got the courage to indicate with my left hand and expand my routes. But I do know that this one tiny step of regular cycling was the start of three things:
- Something about it gave me what I needed to stop taking those tablets.
- It gave me the understanding that exercise and time outside are absolutely critical to mental health.
- It made me see that however tough something is, if you take it tiny step by tiny step you can get there.
And do you know what? I started enjoying the time on my bike. Unbelievably, within a year or so I did a 50 mile ‘cyclo sportive’ to raise money for a local hospice. Then I did the London to Brighton Bike Ride to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. Cycling became my ‘thing’.
Then, after a few years I decoded to start trying to run. I was pretty terrible, and still am, but I ran my first 10km, then my first half marathon, then in 2019 my first (and only!) full marathon.
Then I discovered mountain biking and started cycling through woods and The Downs…
I’ve never gone back on anti depressants. I’ve had struggles, but I’ve used my exercise of choice at that point to help get me through them.
There is heaps of research that supports all this, and you probably know it all already. But maybe you don’t know someone who actually proved it, but who still sometimes hates the idea of putting in their trainers or getting out their bike, because it’s not always fun and an extra hour in bed would be lovely…
But maybe this explains why I am so passionate about encouraging my clients to get outside and get their heart rate up on a regular basis – and sticking to it myself.
You don’t need to run a marathon (honestly, it was a terrible idea, and I will never do another one!), or even do a mile turning right in small circles on a bike. Just a brisk walk or a bit of gardening is enough to help yourself to feel good. Ten minutes every day is all you need, but if you extend that to thirty minutes you might notice even more positive changes.
So here’s my challenge to you: Try it for two weeks. I wonder what you’ll start to notice…