Anxiety and Training

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By Fiona B

Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. People with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and often affect their daily life.

GAD is a long-term condition which causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.

People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. GAD can cause both psychological (mental) and physical symptoms. These vary from person to person, but can include feeling irritable or worried and having trouble concentrating or sleeping.

In previous blog posts, Kel discussed her depression and how it has affected her training. To carry on talking openly about mental health and parkour, I’d like to address training with anxiety.

My anxiety manifests itself in several ways but the key ones are crippling self doubt, inability to trust myself, fear of social situations and, at my worst, panic attacks and a fear of leaving my flat. Most of the time, my anxiety is like some kind of background noise in my life. Imagine mild tinitus: it’s there and it’s irritating, but it’s not making too much of an impact. Most of the time I can tune it out. When it gets bad however, anxiety can take over my life: it’s all I think about. It’s very difficult for me to overcome, and it makes me feel like a failure of a person.

Obviously, my anxiety can impact my training from time to time. So, while everyone’s anxiety is different, here are some gems that I can pass to you in the hopes you’ll learn something. Even if you don’t have anxiety, its changed the way I approach my whole training, and maybe it can offer you a new way of thinking too.

  • All fear is real fear – I do not accept the distinction made between real fear and silly fear. If something makes you feel afraid then it’s a real fear. All my fears are real, and they all have real affects. They may not follow a logic that everyone else recognises, but all fears have a basis somewhere, even if they are distorted or projected elsewhere. You can’t talk yourself out of being afraid, but hopefully you’ll be able to do something despite being afraid. You have to face that fear to overcome it; you can’t just make it go away by telling yourself it’s silly or illogical. Just admit you’re afraid and deal with it. This leads on to the next point…
  • Respect your fear – You can’t talk your fear away, not all the time. You can do things despite your fear, but it’s often still there, and you should respect it. Spending time berating yourself and your brain is not productive. Please don’t do it. I am guilty of doing this, I call myself all kinds of names when I’m afraid of doing something I think I should be able to do. But, this doesn’t help. If anything, it makes me feel more pathetic. You’re not weak or silly if you’re afraid of something. Respecting your fear doesn’t mean never try and overcome it, but there’s no need to abuse yourself over it.
  • It’s Okay To Ask For Help – It doesn’t make you weak or incapable. Everyone needs some help now and then, and some more than others. You’re not a burden. You’re a person who maybe just isn’t very well at the moment.
  • Cut Out The Bad – People, situations, training patterns: whatever isn’t working for you, and is actively making you sad/stressed/in pain, get rid of it. Never feel bad about it. Shit happens, life is hard and training sometimes means doing things that suck for a long term win. But, as far as possible, you should fill your life/training with good things that make you happy and help you to progress. Don’t keep the things in your life that that pull you down, especially if you’re feeling fragile. Remember, this includes people or friendships- there are people whose influence is not helpful or may even be harmful to you, whether this is their intention or not. You don’t owe them anything, and if they’re causing you stress, avoid them.
  • Don’t Define Yourself By Your Training – When I’m feeling anxious I’m totally off my game. I find it difficult to get in the head space to progress in my training the way I’d want to. When I’m feeling pretty stressed I tend to think quite lowly of myself, and a bad day of training can add to this. While it’s great to progress your training by breaking loads of jumps, this isn’t always a useful way to think about parkour, or even practise it. While parkour can come to shape and define us, don’t attach too much self worth to the idea of being “the best”. Having the biggest jump doesn’t make you a better person.
  • Change Your Training – If you have to! So my confidence is low, I don’t trust myself – this means I’m not breaking a lot of jumps, but I’m trying to not let it get to me… To avoid entering a vicious cycle of bad emotions creating bad training, sometimes you might need to change how you train. For me this means lots of conditioning and weights – negative emotions and self image don’t impact this kind of training for me as much, so when I’m not feeling up to other stuff, I can spend my time getting stronger. This works for me because I enjoy it, it’s useful and I still feel like I’m training, rather than wasting my time feeling bad because I can’t do anything. At some point fears have to be faced, but if you’re not mentally up for something it’s best to come back to it when you are. Training is an amazing way to help you get better, don’t turn it into something painful.
  • Stay Safe – I get stressed out by new and unfamiliar places/people/situations. So when I’m feeling anxious I limit the places I frequent to those I feel safe and comfortable in. When leaving your house is scary. you need to minimise other stresses. I like to train at Glasgow Uni because I’m in my fifth year of study there, I know the campus really well, and it’s pretty near my flat. When I’m scared it’s nice to have a training spot that’s familiar – don’t be ashamed to admit to needing specific things to help you train, especially when you’re not feeling good.
  • Don’t Stop Training – Hobbies are a great way to distract yourself and get out of the house. Sport and exercise is a fantastic way to sweat out a lot of bad feelings. Sometimes parkour will be hard, and it has nothing to do with the physical obstacles you’re facing. Parkour has been an amazing help to me but the times I’ve needed it most have been the times I’ve wanted to give up. For me, parkour overall has a very positive impact, and its got me through stressful times. That’s not to say it’s never caused some stress, or made me cry, or feel like shit. If the decision is right for you to take a break or walk away, don’t feel bad about it. You should always look after your health. But sticking with it helped me, and I think it could be of genuine benefit to others who feel anxious.

    This isn’t a definitive list of ways to deal with anxiety while training, it’s just some that help for me. It’s taken me a while to work out how I want to train, and I wish that could have come sooner to save days of frustration. Remember if you are struggling with anxiety, or any other mental health issue, you’re not alone, and there are people/places you can reach out to if you need help. Train safe pals, and don’t doubt that you’re still strong.

Training and Mental Health (part one)

The view from where I’m standing…

I have depression.

Looking back, it has been a part of my life for a long time, probably since I was about 13 or 14. It has affected me in various ways, and led to some less-than-healthy behaviour over the years. Since finding parkour, I can honestly say that it has been (among other things) the most powerful and effective force in my life for dealing with depression. I’m writing these blog posts partly to offer some small pieces of advice gleaned from my own experiences with depression, and how it affects and is affected by my training.

I’m also writing because I hope this may start one or two conversations about mental health. I know first-hand how beneficial parkour training can be in combating depression. I also know that the issue doesn’t come up in conversation all that much, certainly not compared to how much we chat about DOMS or shoulder mobility or other physical issues; and this is despite the inestimable importance of mental focus, and health, in our training.

So, what is depression? It’s usually defined as a persistent state of low mood, but this doesn’t really convey how debilitating depression can be. Symptoms are complex and interrelated; they can include (but aren’t limited to):

– continued low mood or sadness, feelings of hopelessness, apathy

– loss of motivation, in work, training and everyday tasks

– loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable

– difficulty concentrating

– thoughts of suicide or self-harm

–  changes in appetite, rapid loss or gain of weight,

– changes in sleeping patterns: sleeping very little or far too much, sleeping at weird or inconsistent times of the day.

– feelings or worthlessness or guilt, and inability to control negative self-talk

– avoidance of social situations

– unexplained muscle fatigue or weakness, aches and pains

– feeling tearful, crying for little or no reason

– feeling angry or irritable for little or no reason

Changes in behaviour that match these symptoms could point towards depression, so watch out for them in yourself and your friends. So, what should you do if you think a friend may be suffering from depression (or any mental illness)?  You should talk to them about it.

The point of talking with those who may be suffering from depression is not to take on emotional responsibility for other people’s problems, nor is it to act as a proxy doctor or therapist. That is not the role of a friend. The aim of talking is to open up a safe space for your friend to admit that, yeah, something is wrong.  Unfortunately, depression and mental illness still do carry heavy social stigmas. People will often “put up” with depression for fear that others will see it as a weakness, judge them for it, tell them to just “get over it.” I know I did for years. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.) If you start the conversation, your friend may let go of their fears of being judged as weak or ridiculous, and begin to address their illness.

Because mental illness is not weakness. And it’s not going to just go away. It is not something that you should put up with either.  You are stronger than that, even if you don’t know it yet. 

If you saw a friend limping on a swollen ankle, you wouldn’t ignore it. You’d ask them how it felt. You’d tell them to address the problem, and help them if you could. I’ll return to this comparison, because depression is like a sprained ankle in many ways. Sometimes you can identify how and why the problem arose; stressful life events or loss of a close relationship. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s a diminished capacity that passes quickly, if given the required care. Sometimes it’s a chronic recurring problem, which needs to be managed vigilantly.

Just as most of us get injured at some point, mostly minor things but sometimes not, most of us will have some experience of depression or other mental illness, to varying degrees, at some point in our lives.

In a community that focuses so much on strength, the nature of mental strength can so easily be misunderstood. Mental strength is not some kind of hyperbolic toughness, or the cerebral equivalent of brute force. That’s not what we identify as strength in the physical realm; otherwise we’d all do nothing but deadlift all day. The key components of mental strength, in my opinion, are flexibility, adaptability, agility, humility, perseverance. It’s exactly these qualities that come to the fore when recovering from depression; it seems odd to say, but in my experience, taking on depression and working to overcome it has made me stronger in all of those areas. We aim to be strong to be useful. Pretending there’s nothing wrong is no use to nobody.

I worry that some of the rhetoric surrounding parkour may discourage people from speaking about their mental health, precisely due to those social stigmas that paint depression as some sort of silly affliction for the weak-willed. This is the most heart-breaking part, because I know it’s so far from the truth. These ideas are not generally held or defended by individuals; stigmas exist like a kind of cloud of illogic and negativity, and guesses at what others might think. They are only kept alive in darkness, and can potentially disappear if we simply speak openly. I know that the parkour community is a supportive one, and that speaking to my training buddies will not be met with scorn or censure, but with care. I want everyone else to know that too.

We need to ensure that the discussion of mental illness is just as open and socially encouraged as the discussion of physical illness or injury. The question “How are you coping with depression?” should be asked and answered as freely as the question  “How’s that ankle recovering?”. I feel this is particularly important for our community because I know that parkour training can be a catalyst for change in the lives of people with depression. The discipline can provide a structure for those who feel helpless, the community provides support for those who feel hopeless, and the daily achievements and progressions give confidence to those who feel worthless. The experience of flow can approach meditative focus to calm the mind and the physical exertion is a key to recovery as well.

As I said, I hope this can be the beginning of some open conversations, and I know we can all help each other. In a blog post to follow, I’ve written some snippets of advice for those who may be struggling with depression.

By Kelley

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For more information on depression, and how to help others or where to find help for yourself, check out:

Scottish Association for Mental Health – www.samh.org.uk