By Christopher Cudworth
May is Mental Health Month and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week.
Like all workaday weeks, it begins on a Monday of course. So here’s a thought. For those with anxiety, every day feels like a Monday. It’s a constant dread and wonder over what bad thing could possibly happen next. That’s the best way to describe anxiety.
For people with anxiety, hardly a day goes by where a mild feeling of dread or concern does not occupy the thoughts. It’s not just the imagination at work, or practiced fears. In many cases those patterns do enter the picture of course. Ruminative thought patterns vex the anxious and can contribute to depression. They are like two sides of the same coin. So what do we do about it?
Anxiety is a real physiological condition that can be diagnosed and treated with a combination of methods. Those of us who run and ride have discovered one of the very effective ways people with anxiety and depression can control the “fight or flight” feeling and even moderate genuine feelings of depression. Physical activity produces a very real sense of control and results in a valuable release of tension. Those two simple responses can be vital to mental health.
Self esteem also enters the picture. When we look ourselves only through anxious eyes, we see only a person who is worried about where the next bad thing will come from. Yet when we literally step outside to explore the world on foot or by bike, new thoughts are able to enter our minds. Bad thoughts can be perished or enough perspective is gained to produce the motivation to overcome both short term and chronic anxiety.
Combined with talk therapy, anti-anxiety drugs and other medically supervised approaches to controlling anxiety, physical exercise like running and riding are tremendous tools to help those with anxiety and depression gain control of emotions and reduce the difficult byproducts of poor mental health. These include poor work performance, strained relationship, inability to enjoy life and even reduced resistance to sickness or illness.
Those are all hard phrases to digest, and all too familiar to millions of people around the world. The Independent.com published a revealing article on the number of women who experience anxiety on a daily basis. As mentioned, some forms of anxiety are situational. Yet is 25% of the world’s women experience anxiety every day, that’s nearly a billion people living with an anchor on their hearts and minds.
It is important for everyone to understand that anxiety is real. It affects people deeply. Yet anxious and especially even those with depression are some of the most profoundly influential peoplel in history. Winston Churchill had major depressive episodes. Yet it was his courage and stalwart resistance to Hitler and the Third Reich that saved the world. Abraham Lincoln also struggled with depression. His wife had a form of mental illness as well.
John Lennon famously wrote about his deep emotional struggles with anxiety and depression. These were compounded by his propensity, from an early age, to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. He also suffered great personal loss with the death of his mother. It is highly important to realize that events in our lives can in some ways affect the very chemistry of our brains.
John Lennon’s insight and ability to see through so much of society’s self-absorption and pain made him a great musical artist. His vision was so profound in its breadth and simplicity he challenged the world to think differently on everything from major wars to women’s rights. That’s no small degree of benefit from the mind of one human being.
Mental illness should not be the end-all of anyone’s story. There are people with mental illness so severe it eclipses their ability to function in the world. We now realize these people are not possessed by demons as it was once thought. They are simply part of a broad spectrum in human evolution, defined by a brain chemistry that might only respond so far to the drugs and treatments the human race has developed.
Billions of people in the world wrestle with degrees of mental illness and rather than stigmatize the entire enterprise of alternate brain function, we should be looking to positive results and more tolerance for the minds of those with predispositions to anxiety and depression.
See, none of us is perfect. That’s true in both a biological and spiritual sense. You can either say “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” indicting the whole world in effect, or we can quote John Lennon and say “All You Need is Love,” and release care and concern into the world. It’s amazing how many facets there are to a worldwide story like this.
As for you and me, people who run and ride, we do our personal best to keep ourselves mentally healthy and find the positives. Hardly a day goes by in which that isn’t a good idea. See you on the road. Or the trail. Or in the pool. It’s good for the body and the head.