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Rose blogs about her journey from fearing to loving cycling, and how exercise benefits her mental health.
Rose (@rosestokes) is 29 and has an anxiety disorder. She manages this with exercise and therapy and wants to promote the benefits of exercise for mental wellbeing.
I am not the world’s most obvious cyclist. In fact, until a couple of years ago, cycling was a distant memory to me, something relegated to childhood memories and “other people’s lives”.
However, after being diagnosed with a panic disorder two years ago following a traumatic event in my personal life, I decided to take action. As part of this, with the help of a very supportive cognitive behavioural therapist, I built enough confidence to tackle the root of my chronically low self-esteem: my obesity.
Initially, I viewed cycling as a means to an end; I was dieting and needed to move my body regularly, and my journey to and from work was 45 minutes of unused exercise potential that didn’t eat into my social life (excuse the pun). So I bought myself a bike - a pretty one, of course, not a functional one - and set about cycling to and from work a couple of times a week with a good friend.
"Exercise provides a habit, and a sense of routine that can help you to feel more grounded when everything else appears uncertain."
The first time that we arrived at work I felt how I imagine people feel completing a marathon: totally and utterly exhausted, but incredibly smug. I had a spring in my step all that day, mostly from the endorphins, but also from my jelly legs. It was almost impossible to coax myself back onto the little black seat at the end of the day - “People do this TWICE a day?!” I yelped. Funny, then, that cycling has now become so integral to my mental wellbeing.
When you go through difficult periods of your life, you sometimes feel lost at sea, and exercise is the sort of raft you can cling onto in the hope of stability and peace. It provides a habit, and a sense of routine that can help you to feel more grounded when everything else appears uncertain. Over the past couple of years, I have lost a lot of weight, and my mind more times than I can count, but one thing I have never lost is my drive to push myself physically even though it’s challenging.
"I had a spring in my step all day, mostly from the endorphins, but also from my jelly legs."
It’s through this process, through cycling, running and swimming long distances, that I have learned the value of defying the negative thoughts that float across your mind, threatening to derail your good intentions and sense of peace. Every single time I embark on a new challenge, my brain begins its usual routine of trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn’t put myself through something so difficult. But by regularly proving my negative inner voice wrong, I have become much better at quashing unhelpful thoughts when they pop up in other areas of my life: at work, in my personal relationships or in the middle of the night when anxiety comes a-knocking. It’s not a quick fix, but rather a way of retraining myself to push past negativity and build my confidence.
"By proving my negative inner voice wrong, I’ve become much better at quashing unhelpful thoughts when they pop up in other areas of my life."
With this in mind, I have decided to cycle from Peckham to Paris with my housemate, Amanda - partly to challenge my inner saboteur, see some lovely scenery and eat some pain-au-chocolats, but mainly to raise money for Mind. I wanted to support Mind’s efforts to break down stigma and improve access to care for those suffering with poor mental health.
Since the traumatic first day of cycling into work, my legs and my two wheels have taken me on many adventures, from London to Brighton, to Windsor, and around the hilly landscapes of Dartmoor. My bike has also replaced my oyster card as my primary means of transport around the city. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process, but also a lot about the value of padded leggings, the incredible power of bananas and that there are actually three gear ranges on my bike.
This journey will challenge my mind as much as my body, and will hopefully be testament to how far you can go when you stop listening to the negative voice inside your head. By my calculations, it should be around 350 km in physical distance, and a hell of a lot further in mental, but who’s counting?
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Blogs and stories can show that people with mental health problems are cared about, understood and listened to. We can use it to challenge the status quo and change attitudes.