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Depression and Anxiety and the benefits of connection and exercise

Depression and Anxiety and the benefits of connection and exercise
Published 5 October 2017
Dallas is a Uniting Communities Mental Health Support Services worker.

Dallas is a Uniting Communities Mental Health Support Services worker.

In the lead-up to Carnival in the North, she is sharing her mental health story. Photo: Getty Images Dallas' story My name is Dallas and I work for Uniting Communities within Mental Health Support Services as a lived-experience worker, also known as a peer worker.

This means I have personal experience living with mental illness – which also encompasses being a carer of loved ones with a mental illness, a survivor of domestic violence, stalking and homelessness.

Mental illness can be utterly debilitating and isolating, even for those who seem like they have it all together.

It’s all in your head I know my experience is probably no different to anyone else’s, in that when I first told someone I cared about that I had been diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and PTSD, the reaction was less than supportive.

I was told it was all in my head, I was looking for an excuse to be lazy and that I just needed to snap out of it.

Like it is that simple. Flick of a switch. Why didn’t I think of that?

I didn’t tell anyone else, or accept support for a long time after that.

Depression and anxiety doesn’t always look the way it is depicted on television.

We have all seen the stereotypes, yet very few of us are able to identify when we develop these conditions ourselves, and often blame ourselves when we didn’t see the signs in a loved one who attempts suicide.

Depression and anxiety can be smiling faces, laughter, energy focussed on caring for others and meeting your obligations at work, with your kid’s school, with family, or with your studies, while your personal life is completely shattered beyond your own recognition.

It can be making plans but cancelling at the last minute, always being "too busy" to catch up with friends, yet sitting at home alone, feeling like no-one wants to see you. You make decisions in a haze, but you don't always remember making them.

Your finances are a mess, your idea of cooking is a toasted-cheese sandwich or two-minute noodles, and your immune system is non-existent.

You're always tired, yet can't sleep because the anxiety has your brain analysing every damn thing.

You let things slip because you don't have the energy or emotional and psychological capacity to deal with it.

Exhausting It can be exhausting living with mental illness.

Trying to act like everything, is everyone else's idea of normal, when your own form of normal is wanting to spend all day in bed, yet forcing yourself to do the opposite because your anxiety kicks in.

You worry about how you're letting people down, how much extra work you're going to make for others, you even worry about whether anyone will even notice if you don't show up and do what you're supposed to do. More often than not, you won't know when someone is fighting a war within themselves.

You can't see the inner turmoil, the true face behind the mask that is put on for others to see.

There can be multiple 'reasons' why someone has depression and anxiety, or there can be absolutely none at all.

Mental illness doesn't discriminate. It attacks the young, the old, the rich, the poor and everyone in between.

Whether you have a 'reason' for the depression and anxiety which curls up and makes itself at home within you, is not relevant or something you have any control over.

It just arrives, bashing down the foundations of your very being.

No shame There are many ways in which people cope and manage with mental illness. Having a mental illness is not a death sentence, it is not something to be ashamed or scared of.

Therapy, medications and support services like the one I work in are all hugely important in recovery.

Regardless of how you choose to improve your mental health, successful recovery all has one thing in common. Connection.

Connection is important, because through connecting with others, we learn about them and contribute to the world around us, which enables us to discover who we are.

Positive connection helps us to heal and love the parts of ourselves that we aren’t always able to see, but that those around us know to be true.

For me, it was a shift in seeing myself as a worthless, unlovable failure that deserved to be treated the way I was, to seeing myself as someone with valuable life experience, who has been continually told I was unlovable, not because it was true, but because of the insecurities of another.

Through rebuilding relationships, forming new friendships, and expanding our social networks, we empower ourselves to be who we want to be.

I know me saying this probably has many of you thinking, “yeah, as if it is that easy?!” It would have been my reaction it eight years ago if I’d heard someone this.

The reality is it’s not easy. It is challenging to, firstly, trust yourself enough to be who you are and acknowledge your illness to yourself.

Learning to trust others, allowing the mask to drop, to let yourself be vulnerable is one of the most terrifying things you can do.

Learning to open up to others, to let them know when you are struggling and in need presents risk.

It also gives so many rewards. It allows you to live, to both give and receive support, to have deep meaningful relationships which let you know someone has your back, even on the worst days.

Support Yes, there were the people who told me it was all in my head, and I assumed everyone else would have the same reaction. I was wrong.

There were far more people who acknowledged and supported me in my recovery.

My positive connections started at home.

In addition to therapy and having a support worker, I worked on my relationship with my children, I got to know the family I had been disconnected from, I reconnected with old friends, and I severed the negative relationships which reinforced all of the destructive thoughts I had about myself and my life.

I started studying, made connections with other students and lecturers, and started to accept invitations to study, and eventually just to have a catch up.

I started taking my children out to play groups, enrolled them in preschool and started accepting offers for playdates.

I met people, some who are now dear friends and still in my life, who have supported me to become the person standing here today. Other people are no longer in my life and that is okay too.

Exercise your body and mind Another component to recovery is being physically active.

I know a lot of people, especially people with mental illness, can find the idea of exercising terrifying. I was exactly the same.

It was hard enough for me trying to live my life, do my day to day things, without adding in an extra chore to do.

And, to me, that is exactly what exercise was - a chore. I didn’t want to have to wash the extra clothes and towels.

I made excuses why I couldn’t fit it into my life and, believe me, as a full-time single parent, who also works full time, it isn’t hard to use time constraints or lack of childcare as an excuse.

In addition to keeping you physically fit, regular exercise can be an important tool for managing your mental illness.

Research has shown that exercise releases the feel-good chemicals in your brain, such as endorphins and serotonin, which helps lower depression levels.

Regular exercise also helps to balance out the stress hormones, like adrenalin, which can lower anxiety.

Exercise can help improve sleeping patterns, and as someone who has battled insomnia my entire life, I can tell you, after a 12-kilometre bike ride, I have no problem sleeping.

Regular physical activity is great for boosting your energy levels, and if you have a gym buddy, a walking group, attend exercise classes or see a personal trainer, it can also help weaken feelings of loneliness.

We have all, no doubt, seen the multiple ads on TV, or in the doctor’s office, telling us the recommended activity level is 30-minutes per day.

You don’t need to do this in one block. You can start small: three 10-minute walks, push the kids on a swing, or weed the garden.

Do something you enjoy, or have enjoyed in the past. If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t keep doing it.

If possible, and where practical, invite other people to join you, or find a group you can join.

A huge part of me attending the gym four to five days a week was having a trainer prepare a program that we assess every six weeks, and change up to keep interesting.

Another support for me is having a friend at work to attend the gym with, who can help motivate on days where either of us are struggling.

Routine Creating routine is almost as important, if not more important for me, than the actual workout.

Even if I don’t have the energy to go, or mentally I am just not in the right headspace, having the routine is what keeps me going.

Once I am there, even if I don’t do everything I am supposed to do on that day, or I do everything but with only half the weights, once I have finished my session, I am glad I went because of all those lovely little chemicals bouncing around in my head.

It is important to see your GP before starting any new exercise routine, and seeing your GP can be a great way to get support.

Depending on your situation, they may feel it beneficial for you to see an exercise physiologist to help you get started.

An exercise physiologist is a qualified health professional, who can help you set up a workout routine that takes into account any injuries and limitations you have.

An exercise physiologist can be accessed through a care plan and, having seen one myself (due to injuries after a car accident), I know I would not be able to do the exercises I now do, had I not had this referral.

Connections Having social connections and a support network is invaluable.

It can be daunting to go from having no one in your life to opening up, and letting people in.

It’s not easy learning to trust because you need to learn to trust yourself and your decisions as well.

It’s not been an overnight process. For me, it has been close to eight years and I still have bad days - that will probably never change.

It is important for me to keep things in perspective, be open to others, reach out for help when I need it, acknowledge my barriers and find ways to work within those limitations to succeed rather than use them as an excuse not to try.

I focus on the things I do have the power to change. I may not like that I have a mental illness, what has happened in my life, what is happening, or what my options are, but I still need to make a decision in order to live my life in the best way that I can.

Choosing not to do anything, is still a decision.

Joining a gym can be pricey, but many councils, including the City of Playford, provide free workout equipment in local parks and offer free exercise classes in some of its parks.

More information about these can be found through contacting your local council, and on their webpage.

Many community centres also offer low-cost exercise classes, there are free exercise support groups on Facebook, and you can always talk to your neighbours, family or friends and start a walking group.

We all need back up, life is tough. It’s even tougher on your own.

Look at what you want out of life, make the best choices you can and, eventually, your small choices will add up to create the big changes you strive for. For more information about Carnival in the North, click HERE.