Cycling and Mental Health

Wednesday last week was World Mental Health Day. I was inspired by the courage of a number of friends who shared their own experiences of living with mental health problems. That openness and honesty is so important, and I think this is an example of one way social media can be a powerful force for spreading a positive message. More people need to be open about mental health, so I’m going to try.

I experience anxiety. Not all the time, and not as severely as many people do. My experience of it has not required any long-term medical care.

But when it comes, it’s horrible. It’s an all-consuming, uncontrollable worry that I can physically feel in the pit of my stomach. Occasionally feeling anxious is normal (even healthy?), but this is different. It’s the experience of not being able to moderate or control how I feel. It’s the experience of being unable to stop worrying, despite knowing rationally that nothing is wrong. It is often unrelated to anything specific – a feeling without an object.

When I realised a few years ago that what I was experiencing was anxiety, I felt relieved. It was a relief to know that I was feeling that way because I was unwell. What I was feeling wasn’t simply ‘how things are’, but rather the result of an illness called anxiety. I was relieved because I knew that I could learn about my experience of anxiety, and learn to find tools to help me cope with it.

I’m deliberately only writing about my own experience. For other people anxiety will be a very different beast. Relatively speaking what I experience is mild, and I don’t want to be so patronising as to suggest that my ways of coping will work for anyone other than me. There are probably as many coping strategies as there are sufferers, but I’m just going to talk about mine. I’ve not needed to turn to medication, but I know that for many people it is an important lifeline.

There are a number of things that I have found helpful as I have learnt to cope with periods of anxiety. Mindfulness, prayer, fresh-air, good food and talking with others have all had their place. But the thing which has had the biggest impact for me has been exercise, specifically cycling.

Three years ago I was unfit and overweight; I did no exercise. I came home from holiday heavier than I had ever been, and knew something needed to change. I started cycling. Small distances at first, but on a regular basis – I made myself do some cycling on at least four days each week. The physical benefits came quickly, I lost a lot of weight and the distances I was covering increased rapidly.

What I wasn’t expecting was the effect on my mental health. I was finding that after exercising my mood went through the roof – I felt energised and buoyant. This should have been no surprise of course, it’s well known that endorphins are released when we exert ourselves. It made me want to exercise more, and so the benefits increased exponentially.

Getting into a routine of doing some form of intense exercise most days of the week meant that I was getting a regular dose of that post-workout buzz. I was breathing in lungfuls of oxygen, and my heart was pumping it all round my body.

It helped in other ways too. Cycling takes me to some beautiful places; that gives me a sense of peace and a sense of perspective. It’s exhilarating too, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of going down a hill on a bike – I’ve heard it described as the closest humans can get to flying, and I agree.

As I’ve got fitter I’ve cycled bigger distances. I will write more about the mental experience of long-distance cycling at some point, but for now it’s enough to say that for me it is life-giving.

I hadn’t been anxious for quite some time until this week. It seemed to come out of nowhere; that horrible feeling in my stomach that won’t go away. I started analysing my life, trying to figure-out what was wrong, trying to rationally convince myself that I was alright. Then I remembered: I hadn’t been taking my regular medication. I had been on holiday and not had the opportunity to cycle for two weeks. That’s the longest time I’ve had off the bike for a very long time.

The realisation that there was probably a connection between my emotional state and my lack of exercise was a relief. It motivated me to beat the holiday jet-lag and get back on my bike yesterday. Both yesterday and today I did sessions on my turbo-trainer (indoor static bike), and I can feel the benefit. I’m still not back where I want to be (I’m feeling anxious as I type this), but I know what I need to do. This weekend I’m going out for a 60-mile ride with my club, and am really looking forward to it – it’s just what I need.

Am I addicted? I don’t know. I don’t know if addiction is quite the right word when it comes to doing something positive. For me, cycling is not unlike eating, drinking or breathing – without it I’m going to be in a bad place pretty quickly. I feel very fortunate to have found something that (most of the time) works for me, and very fortunate to live in a spectacular part of the country with lots of great roads for cycling.

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