How Exercise Became My Therapy

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If someone had told me two years ago that I would be sharing my fitness and mental health story, I would have fainted! Back then I was ashamed of having a mental illness because of the stigma that surrounds it. I hope in my lifetime I see this change because now I embrace it and actually feel proud of my mental health journey. It’s taught me how strong I am and that I can conquer anything this world throws at me with a little help from exercise (well actually a huge amount of help from exercise). I lost my childhood to mental illness, I don’t want others to suffer like I did.

Florence SharmanMy mental health journey began when I was eight years old.

I was a very happy child without a care in the world and so much to look forward to. I loved school, adored my friends and was a real adventure seeker. However one night my life changed – I woke up in the middle of the night confused, blind and nauseous. My lip had dropped, I had pins and needles and a numbness throughout my body. I was rushed into hospital with a suspected bleed on the brain or possible brain infection. To this day I can clearly remember all the tests that were carried out on me, but the doctors remain puzzled about what had happened.  I stayed in overnight but was discharged the next morning with no diagnosis, it was almost as if nothing had actually happened. The truth is my life had changed in a flash.

I went from this happy go lucky little eight year old to being completely housebound and terrified of everything. I was excluded from my primary school – they simply didn’t know how to deal with someone in a mental health crisis. I was at risk of being sectioned but my mother fought hard to ensure this did not happen and I was home schooled from then on. My teenage years were tough and my depression worsened. I felt so different from everyone else my own age – I didn’t have friends, I wasn’t socialising, I wasn’t doing anything that other teenagers were doing.

I was excluded from my primary school – they simply didn’t know how to deal with someone in a mental health crisis

Over time I have been diagnosed with five mental illnesses – depression, OCD, panic attacks, PTSD and ADD which is a physical illness as well as a mental illness. Those symptoms that I experienced as an 8 year old often return and it can be terrifying. The hardest part is not knowing when it might happen. We have since discovered that all my mental illnesses stem from a trauma in the first few months of my life. I spent a large amount of time in and out of hospital and required life-saving surgery following numerous episodes where I had stopped breathing.

Life is very different now. I am a 20 year old working in marketing, a proud mental health campaigner and a fitness fanatic. There was no magic cure or wonder medication to get me here. Florence Sharman - Sporting Heads I tried therapy numerous times but for me it simply didn’t work. Society tends to put you in a box, give you labels and assume certain treatments or medications will work for you because they worked for others. It’s never that simple – we are all individuals who need an individual treatment plan. I put my recovery down to four things – time, love, putting no pressure on myself to get better and you guessed it FITNESS.

Fitness has been my saviour and continues to save me time and again.

My family are extremely sporty and my mother was desperate to find something to help me when I was in my darkest hour. She looked for an activity I could fully focus on and so I was introduced to yoga at the age of nine. My yoga teacher became a huge part of my recovery. She gave me well being tools through yoga postures and breathing techniques. She also taught me that it’s ok to be me and it’s ok to seek help. I would spend hours doing yoga in the fields, it became my paradise and I suppose my therapy.

I look back at those early days and realise that yoga, the countryside and my horses became my life. Being at the stables or on a long walk became my safe places. They were (and often still are) the times where I can truly be myself, forgetting all my worries and escaping from any dark and irrational thoughts.

Perhaps now that has been replaced by the gym as the place where I feel most confident. HIIT sessions, weight training, sprints or even a home workout. Getting my heart rate up, my endorphins flowing and my sweat on – that is my new sanctuary. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t do some form of exercise, even if it’s just a long walk in the countryside with the dogs. I feel my mindset change once I have worked out and I notice when I haven’t exercised, my mental health issues creep back in. It isn’t just the feeling I get during and after a workout though, it’s the community within the gym and the buzz from being surrounded by like-minded people.

Flo Sharman - MQ ambassadorI have now accepted that I will always have my mental illness but I no longer let it burden or ruin my life. I’m not ashamed nor embarrassed about it, it’s made me who I am and for that I’m grateful and proud. Don’t get me wrong, there are many times I wish I didn’t have mental health issues and I often regret losing my childhood because of them, but I have now found the power of my voice.

At the age of 18 I became a media ambassador for Rethink and Time for Change and am honoured to be a key ambassador for MQ. The first time I spoke in public about my mental health journey was on ITV’s Lorraine two years ago and the reaction has been great. I just wish my campaigning had a wider audience so I could share my story further. I really want to make a difference and get mental illness treated in the same way as physical illness.

If you’re suffering in silence please speak out.

Seeking help and talking isn’t failure, it’s true bravery. Try and find something that can become your coping mechanism to help you through your mental health journey. Exercise can help in so many ways and can work wonders for the mindset. Even just a long walk can be a great starting point. When I don’t want to train, I remind myself how amazing I will feel afterwards and how much it can help my mental health.

Always remember to just BE YOU. Never change for anybody, love your flaws, be proud of your imperfections and show off your uniqueness. That is the most powerful thing you can be. A quote I live by is “Be who you are, not who the world wants you to be’.

As fitness and mental health have become a huge part of my life, I do a crazy fitness challenge each year to raise money for the amazing MQ. It is a fitness endurance event which involves 100 burpees, 100 sit-ups and 100 plank jacks every hour for 12 hours (I did warn you it was crazy). You can find out more on my Instagram or justgiving page, any donations would be so appreciated. You’re helping fund vital research into mental illness.