Fitness and Lifestyle

Exercise, Anxiety and Me: How Triathlon Has Improved My Mental Strength




We have our falling outs, my brain and I. In 2014, during my final year of University, I got diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. Having a name for how I was feeling was kind of a relief in itself, and on reflection it made me realise that anxiety was something that had been with me for a fair few years before that.

Anxiety is, unfortunately, extremely common - Anxiety UK figures suggest that it affects approximately 3 million people in the UK. Everyone's experience of it is different, making it hard to describe and hard to understand. For me, anxiety manifests as an intense sense of self-doubt, repetitive negative thoughts that make me question my ability - and my right - to achieve anything. It makes me overthink every action and interaction (that silly thing I said 3 years ago? Still worrying about it), explore everything that could possibly go wrong and pick away at anything I see in myself that falls below the mark. It'll throw up 1001 things I need to do/solve/improve, but leave me feeling so overwhelmed and doubtful of my ability to achieve any of it that I'm left feeling inadequate and powerless. And then there's the frustration and guilt about feeling this way. I'm so thankful for the wonderful people and opportunities I have in my life, I frequently think to myself "with everything going on in the world, who the hell am I to feel like this?" which in turn adds to the whole low self-esteem, feeling like a crap useless potato thing. I end up getting anxious about being anxious. It's hard to accept that I'm not consciously choosing to have these thought patterns, so I can't control it. But I can fight back and stop it from controlling me.

There's also the physical effects of anxiety. The only way I can think to describe it is that sensation of real intense fear or nervousness before something that scares you - an exam, an interview, a dentist appointment... Except with anxiety (in my case at least - others have specific triggers) there's nothing specific in that moment causing it and so there's no set time that the feeling will subside. You know that once whatever you're nervous about is over, you'll go back to feeling better. With anxiety it could last minutes, hours, days. My anxiety can range from a low level bubbling where my mind whirls around a little bit too quickly and I'm trying to think about 100 things at once. To a full blown 'attack' where my heart feels like it's racing, I run hot and cold, my lungs feel like they can't get enough air in, my stomach does backflips to rival an olympic gymnast and my tear ducts spring a major leak. Thankfully for me this doesn't happen too often, but the thought patterns and the worry about anxiety creeping up on me are always lurking. After being diagnosed in 2014, I got given some tablets as a short term fix to get me through my exams and trotted off leaflet in hand, fully intending to sort it out properly and never quite getting round to it. It kind of becomes the new normal.

I've mentioned before how taking up triathlon has helped me get back some mental toughness and find my way back to myself. We're entering into Stinking Bishop realms of cheesy here, but the journey to the start line of my first Ironman 70.3 really was so rewarding and it gave me the mental strength to start kicking anxiety up the arse. I've found with triathlon training that as my physical strength has developed, so too has my mental strength. I've gone from 'I could never' to 'yes I can' and triathlon has helped me to get there. Every race I've completed, every hard session I've pushed through. Each time I've gone out and achieved things that have surpassed my expectations of what was possible. It's all felt like building blocks which have linked together to help my mind grow stronger, to help shut down the anxious thoughts more often and to help me believe I can.

That's not to say it's been straight forward. So often the advice regarding mental health is to just 'exercise more' - but it's not that simple. I'd say I'm pretty fortunate in that my anxiety isn't too severe - it's a pain in the arse at times but it's certainly not debilitating. For some people, just getting out of bed in the morning takes a huge amount of effort. Telling people to 'exercise more' as if it's easy, without acknowledging the support and strength required to get to that point, isn't helpful. I can remember times where my training became another thing to be anxious about. I once found myself sat on the bottom stair, in full running gear with tears in my eyes and panic in my chest. Held captive by this intense self-doubt that made leaving the house and completing the run seem impossible. However, as I carried on training these blips became few and far between. Some great advice came from a wise man named Morph on training camp: create a mental filing cabinet. I put the awesome sessions in there to remind me that I can do it. I put the not so great sessions where I pushed through anyway in there to remind me that I can be strong. Things get tough, I get tougher. And some stuff just goes right into the shredder - learn from it then move on from it.

Triathlon helped me to discover the power of 'yes I can'. It showed me in a tangible, quantifiable way how my mindset could impact on my performance. I realised I wasn't going to be able to achieve what I wanted to without first believing that I was capable of it. Being able to actually see - in the form of average bike power or running pace - how I was sometimes letting my mindset hold me back pissed me off. It gave me the fire in my belly to say 'shut up brain yes I bloody well can'. Improving my mental strength kind of became a 4th discipline along with the swim-bike-run whilst training for Ironman 70.3 Zell am See. Triathlon gives me a focus and a goal to really work on my mindset. My desire to be a better triathlete is strong enough to fight back against my brain's anxious tendencies.

It'd be unrealistic to say that triathlon has 'cured' me - the way my mind works is part of who I am and I can't out run anxiety. But what triathlon has given me is the strength, experience and perspective to be able to cope with it more effectively. Plus it's helped me find my alter-ego "race Jenny" who is brave, feisty and tenacious and who I want to channel a little bit more in everyday life. I still have my moments where my brain seems to speed away in perpetual motion and I feel weak. But then I open that mental filing cabinet, look back on what I've achieved in triathlon so far, look forward to everything still to come and I remember that I'm strong.

We're all dealing with things. Whether it's mental health, physical health or just life's little challenges. It's important to remember that no one is perfect. Asking for help does not make you a failure. We are all strong and we are all capable. Be patient and kind - to yourself and to others.

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