"Your Brain is a muscle": The interlink of Mental and Physical Wellbeing, and the Issue of Silence.



For many, November has become a month that is filled with running goals, raising money, and growing facial hair on their top lip (If they can). All of this in aid of Movember. Starting between two friends at a bar in Australia in 2003, Movember has become a globally renown charity that serves to bring awareness of men’s health issues and prevent premature death in men.


Specifically, Movember targets three issues: testicular and prostate cancer, and the issue of male suicide. Just some quick facts provided by the Movember website: testicular cancer is the most common cancer amongst men, and is the most likely to return after someone has been treated for it. Spotting it early is key, given it requires little treatment to remove. The statistics of suicides are harrowing, with an estimated 75% of all suicides being committed by men. By 2030, Movember aims to reduce premature death in men by 25%.


In light of this, I worked this month’s post around mental health, and the issues of silence. With the events of 2020 keeping us mostly indoors, ruining routines and much of our social lives, mental health has become a key topic. A study of 16’000 individuals by Mind.org this year found that 60-70% of people had seen their mental health has taken a downturn as a result of the pandemic. With a large portion of this survey group being women, it’s obvious this isn’t a gender specific problem. Given this demographic is mostly women, there is an implication that speaking up about issues like mental health is still an issue many men face.


Movember has become huge in universities across the UK, with many raising money through sports societies, setting collective run targets, completing physical challenges, or just growing moustaches. These have been hugely successful and raised an unbelievable amount of money, my old University in Exeter raising over £150,000 this year


In planning for this post, I wanted to speak to people who are doing something to help people improve mental wellbeing for people, and I wanted to get their perspective on the issues and how they’ve been able to find resolutions. I spoke with two people who this year have chosen to do just that.


Abhishek Das studies at the University of Glasgow and captains the Lacrosse team, outside of studying and sport, he writes a blog dedicated to mental wellbeing. This has been inspired by his own struggles, and his developing understanding of these issues early in the lockdown. Abhishek has discussed topics such as body dysmorphia and the idea of thought traps. These posts are looking to promote awareness, change attitudes and offer help in improving people’s mental health. Abhishek is from Nottingham and is a friend from school.


Chris Reeves is a Personal Trainer for the Armed Forces, living and working in Stokes Bay in the south coast of England. In August this year he began “Win the Morning Win the Day,” (WTMWTD) which invites people for an early morning walk, chat and (if they so choose) a swim in the sea. This has quickly gained some serious momentum, with groups emerging all over the UK and even overseas, with talks of starting in Canada, Switzerland, and even a group in Bahrain. It promotes improvement of mental health through physical activity, social interaction, and ultimately challenging yourself to go outside your comfort zone, all these central to Chris' personal understanding of mental health. I found Chris and WTMWTD through an article on the BBC and had to get in contact.


This blog details the conversations I had with these two, understanding their experiences with mental health, and how their actions have benefitted themselves and the people around them.


Abhishek

Abhishek talked about how his issues with mental health began at school, something he believes wasn’t helped by his attitude towards mental health at the time.


I had a lot of teasing about my weight and a lot of things. There was a lot of stress, I wasn’t very good at talking about things like my feelings. I saw a counsellor, but he sucked. He’d hand me this chart of pictures of faces and tell me to pick which one represented me. It was after that I just stopped going. Obviously, it was my bad as well because I was 16/17 at the time, so I just brushed counselling under thinking that guy represents all counsellors everywhere. It’s like one human represents the whole human race.


Talking about how his anxiety would stop him from going on nights out and to parties, he says he found the gym to be a place to escape to. However, looking in hindsight, he saw this more as running away from problems.


During my GCSEs and A-levels I started going to the gym a lot and used it as an escape from everything; and I felt good about myself because I’m getting bigger and getting stronger, getting more muscles. But instead of confronting these issues I was running and hiding in my own safe space.


Having found solace in the gym during exams, Abhishek found himself taking this same mentality with him when he left home to start at university. Now living independently, he talked about developing issues with diet at university and how he was only living “to lose weight and look good.” At surface level, this appeared to work for him.


I was getting so much praise a few years ago for losing a ton of weight, people saying you look good and you’re in good nick. But behind the scenes, if you looked at what I was eating it was nothing. I was going hungry and getting angry all the time, but on the surface I was getting so much praise… Everything good I wanted people to say they said it and I thought “great now I’ve got to maintain this or no one will appreciate me.” It sounds stupid saying it out loud now but it’s true. When your mind is in that state of starvation it’ll play tricks on you.

Abhishek said the ultimate turning point came at the start of the first lockdown this year, when all gyms were closed, and he lost his escape. After years of keeping himself to a strict routine, he realised he had spent the last years obsessing over physical appearances, not realising he had abandoned a physically and mentally healthy lifestyle. It was following this revelation he worked to change his mentality to one that was much healthier and more productive.


The last 5 years, I just realised “woah the only thing I’ve had an interest in was looking good” and I realised I’ve actually got a lot more to me.


Alongside this revelation, he started seeing a counsellor again, and used the lockdown to work on improving his mental health and attitude towards the subject. Ultimately this led him to start his blog, writing from his own experiences to help raise awareness and prevent people falling into the traps he saw himself fall into.


Chris


Chris has grown up with rugby league and football rather central to his life. Working as a personal trainer for the armed forces, he sees himself as fitting into that typical “lad” stereotype who stays silent on personal issues such as mental health. He understands this silence to have been detrimental.


I’ve been like that it’s taken me to a place I didn’t want to go. I really suffer with my mental health because of guilt and certain things in my life and it’s probably because I didn’t talk more.


When the lockdown came, there was little work available for him as a personal trainer. Staying at home, he explained the collapse of his routine: spending time watching Netflix, drinking and not surrounding himself in the positive and motivated environment he had previously lived in. Realising this routine was becoming unhealthy both physically and mentally, he knew he had to get moving again and get back on track.


It was an ex-rugby league player that inspired him to begin.


He was doing this Instagram posts of training in the morning saying “win the morning win the day” and I thought what a great saying it’s so true. I messaged him asking “where’d you get that saying from?” and he said he just robbed it from one of the Rugby League lads and he let me rob it. I went up to Liverpool to see my best mate and said the saying to him and he said I better listen to the “Leg it” podcast with Andy Grant who’s an Ex- Royal Marine and lost a leg in Afghan. He did a podcast with Mark Scano who’s doing some great stuff in Liverpool with different projects, one of those was the “awake” programme which was getting up and working out on the beach, doing a bit of meditation and then getting into the sea. I think at one point he had 500 people on the beach.


Back in Stokes Bay, he made a post on Facebook and Instagram in August, inviting his anyone for a walk and a chat at 5am on a Friday. If they wanted, they could also join him on a dip into the cold sea. The first Friday, Chris amassed a crowd of 60 people who, while socially distanced, all participated to win the morning. The next week that doubled to 120, and since then Chris has seen a healthy turnout every Friday.


Being a physical trainer, Chris has always understood the benefits of a physical challenge and stepping outside of the comfort zone. Waking up much earlier than usual and plunging into an icy sea was now that challenge, and since starting this he has not only noticed his own mental wellbeing improve, but has seen and heard of how other who take part have also seen themselves improve. The statement became fact: winning the morning meant winning the day.


I understand that this isn’t for everyone, but I really think it’s important to move in the morning, whether it’s a walk, exercise, yoga. I have a journal to set my goals out for the day, I think stuff like that is really important for your mental wellbeing and set you up right for the day.


Body and Mind: The Interlink of Physical and Mental Wellbeing


Trips to the gym were an escape for Abhishek because they made him feel good about himself. He knew that, through lifting weights and doing exercises, he was getting physically stronger and improving. We agreed on the logic of it, noticing how the gym is one of the first places people go to improve themselves.


You see it a lot people get broken up with and then go to the gym and start working on themselves and endorphins make them feel better. A lot of gym work, exercise or new activity because of how physical activity is healthier on your mind and helps you out a lot.

It’s irrefutable that improving physical wellbeing also improves mental wellbeing. While the endorphins released during and after activity prove this link, it also shows in the results, looking and feeling stronger will obviously boost self-confidence and comfort in your own body. However, Abhishek noted this link with caution.


A lot of people throw themselves into these things like exercise, and know it makes them feel really good but want to feel that good all the time.


As mentioned before, Abhishek can speak to this with his own experiences. He mentioned once being at a point where he wouldn’t be comfortable going on holiday without knowing there was a gym nearby. His desire to be in the gym and workout was relentless because he always wanted to feel the way he did in the gym.


Whilst the gym was helping him improve, he admitted that his undying dedication to it had formed into an addiction. Whilst many would see this as a healthy addiction, he was quick to note that healthy or not, an addiction is an addiction. Despite the benefits, he was losing aspects of his life to a self-prescribed need to go and work out. It was only when these were taken away from him that he was able to see this and find new alternatives.


In realising this, he also learned about the key differences between “good body” and “healthy body,” with the latter being far more important than the former for mental wellbeing. What also contributed to this “healthy body” was diet. Abhishek spoke about his experience with diet plans to improve his physical appearance, with many starving him of essential nutrients. He emphasised the need to follow a diet that aligns with you, that you can be comfortable following. All the while keeping sure that diet is balanced.


Regarding comfort, he also emphasised the importance of doing physical activities that you enjoy, explaining that it’s not just weightlifting that will make you healthier.


Lifting things up and down isn’t for everyone, people like to run or play golf. It’s about doing an activity that you enjoy.


Speaking about his present attitude, Abhishek supported working out with the intention of just getting your body moving and emphasised the importance of knowing why you’re doing something like exercise.


Just be aware of what you’re doing something for, is it to benefit you or escape? I mean you can’t exercise forever. I say I’m going to do this task right now to get me moving.


Chris explained the personal trainer motto was “healthy body, healthy mind”


When you move your body, going outside or doing a workout, your body is producing endorphins. With those you’re going to be more proactive, more energetic. So there’s an easy link there, why wouldn’t you want that to feel healthier. You’ve got potential for fat loss if you need it, potential to look better and therefore feel better. There’s just that element of challenging yourself.


He admitted that, when doing exercise, he’s tough on himself. He gave an example of when he would sprint to a lamppost, and if he found himself slowing down at any point, he would force himself to redo the exercise again. While he doesn’t advocate punishing yourself during physical exercise, the premise of pushing yourself beyond limits is a pertinent idea that Chris believes is key in improving and maintaining physical and mental wellbeing.


I use the term “mental robustness.” Your mind is like a muscle and if you challenge yourself or get outside your comfort zone then you’re never going to get stronger. People say to me “I don’t want to go on the walk I’m not a morning person, I don’t like the sea” well guess what, I’m not a morning person and I don’t like the sea either. But I do it because I know it challenges me. Even running this challenges me because I know I’ve got to be held accountable. I know I’ve got to check in with the leaders and all the ones we’ve set up. That’s a mental challenge, some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard and rightly so. We need to keep challenging ourselves all the time. You need to start being comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how we develop.


Ultimately, he believed though no one person will struggle with mental wellbeing in the same way or to the same degree as someone else, everyone needs to give themselves a fighting chance to work to improve themselves.


You need to give yourself a fighting chance. If you’re sitting at the sofa, watching crap, eating crap, drinking and taking drugs or whatever people do to heal the pain, you may feel like you’re healing yourself but you’re not. Guess where you’re going to end up?


If you go, I’m feeling bad but you say “I’m going to go for a walk to make myself feel better” you physically will feel better.


That’s what I say to people who say “I couldn’t get up in the morning”: just try it. I haven’t met one person who hasn’t tried it once and not come back.


Chris’ understandings fall onto the simple premise: just try. At the end of the day, you won’t be able to say you’re not a “morning person” without trying it first or won’t know your physical limits without trying to push them and trying to be uncomfortable. To try is the best thing you can do to give yourself the chance to improve your physical and mental wellbeing.


Honesty, Outspoken, and the Issue of Silence

The goal that is central to Movember is to get more people to be outspoken about their health issues, whether it’s cancer and getting the medical and emotional support needed, or speaking about struggles with mental wellbeing. Speaking on these issues is the best thing we can do to combat them.


I asked both Abhishek and Chris what they thought on the damaging effects of silence were, and how they can approach being more outspoken and honest about their issues.


Before speaking, Abhishek was quick to make clear how broad the term "mental health" is and how everyone experiences and deals with it in entirely different ways.


Mental health isn’t a one for all. I mean they’ve created psychology a subject, there’s so many different things and every human is different.


The first thing he did talk about was the importance of introspection and to grant yourself the time to be honest with who you are and what you’re feeling. He suggested a good place to start would be with something such as the Myer Briggs personality test, which provides an indication of certain elements of your character such as whether you’re more introverted or extraverted, whether you make decisions based on emotions or logic, and so on.


Though he was quick to throw caution that these tests “aren’t your destiny,” they provide a good start on understanding your own strengths and weaknesses as a person.


While strongly advocating that introspection, he made clear that being vocal about your mental wellbeing was just as important, not just in improving your mental wellbeing, but to also better understand it.


After seeing a counsellor again this year, he explained to me the eloquent way they described awareness of mental health as a “gate.”


She said having awareness of your thoughts is like a gate. The word mental health is such a broad term, and there are so many aspects when it comes to it. Some of those aspects are thoughts, reactions, emotions, and those are three separate things you have to be aware of. It’s like opening a gate, and once it’s opened it won’t be closed, and you’ve got to keep working on it.


This is to say that awareness of mental wellbeing is awareness of all the aspects of your mental state. Whilst he admitted that staying aware of this at first was draining, Abhishek said he was quick to adjust to this new mentality and soon was able to move forward with a mindset much more attuned and aware of thoughts, reactions and emotions, likening it to exercise.


To be aware of [your mental wellbeing] and understanding it is really tiring and that’s one thing people have to get to know. It’s just like when you first go to the gym and your body is in bits after the first month... It takes effort and motivation but once you’ve made it through it’s easy to adjust.


Becoming more outspoken and honest on the subject, he had noticed changes in the people and the types of social media content he had surrounded himself in.


There is a lot of people speaking on the subject, but I’ve only realised this since I’ve started becoming more aware of mental health. By being aware of that, you’ll tend to put yourself in the environment centred around that subject. Since I’ve started promoting well-being and writing the blog a lot of people come to me a lot of the time because people know I have an interest in it. Also my Instagram feed has changed and they look at aspects of mental health. It’s just like people interested in football will have an Instagram feed full of footballers and football news.


In realising this, Abhishek said he began to believe that mental health should be treated as a life skill, in the same way as cooking, cleaning and the various jobs we have to do to keep ourselves in check.


What has got to change is that mental health isn’t an interest or hobby to being a life skill… It’s like cooking, people need to learn to cook because they need to learn to live on their own.


With regards to actually discussing your own mental wellbeing with people, Abhishek noted the importance of having a close group of friends who you can trust to support you.


You’ve got to also look at your friendship circle and have a space where you feel comfortable about talking. You’ve also got to decide what kind of a friend you want to be and who you want to have around you. You have to know who you can call when you need to call people.

With the combination of introspection and a supportive circle of friends, Abhishek noted the greater ability to give labels your problems and issues. With labels, you provide yourself with a definitive that allows you to understand what is wrong and you can work on resolving that issue.


It takes a lot of courage to go and say, “I’m sad.” But it makes it clear as day.


Though Chris agreed that there has been great progress in regard to our attitudes towards mental wellbeing, he still believes there is an unconscious bias that is still causing the issue of silence.


People are still afraid to talk about it. If you think you are sound of mind and mentally healthy, I think those people are scared to talk about it with the person who’s suffering. It feels like a taboo subject.


You know if I snapped my ankle, you wouldn’t be bothered about how I did that, I’d just say I did it during football. You can breach that subject quite easily. But when it’s like “I suffer with depression” you don’t really want to ask “why are you depressed” because it might trigger or bring someone down. The lack of talking about it is a problem and there’s a stigma attached to it. It’s getting better all the time, but I think it’s going to be like this for a while.


With attitudes towards mental wellbeing changing only relatively recently, there are still many that still have difficulty understanding it the way we do today. Chris recalled his struggle in trying to get his mum to understand his own issues with mental health.


I had to explain it to my mum. I was diagnosed with clinical depression a couple of years ago and I had to explain it to my mum. She didn’t understand it, she was just like “you just need to dust yourself down.” And I was like “doesn’t really work like that mum” I’m not just waking up feeling sorry for myself, it’s a chemical imbalance in my head.


“Well when I went through a divorce I was this and that and that, but I just dusted myself down”


But that was a trauma. With this, I don’t choose, this is inside me. But she didn’t get it and I really struggled with that.


I ended up showing her the video “I’ve got a black dog.” When I first watched it during my mental health first aid course, I had to leave the room it really hit me hard. That was exactly how I had felt for years, I just didn’t know how to label it. I sent that to my mum and she got really emotional about it, thinking she’d not supported me. It’s just an awareness piece and you weren’t aware.


Talking about the issue of silence, Chris alluded to the book “Chimp Paradox.” As a way of understanding the damaging effects of silence, Chris asked me to imagine a chimp that was kept caged up, with its owner prodding it every passing day. Kept in long enough, I was asked to imagine what I’d imagine the chimp’s behaviour towards its owner once freed from said cage. Describing a violent and angry chimp that bites its owner, he explained this to be an analogy for not giving yourself the time and space to be honest with your own mental health and issues surrounding the subject.


If you keep your emotions in a cage and only visit it now and then, whilst you’re getting angrier and angrier and angrier, you’ll get out the cage and it’ll be a mental breakdown. So what we can do is exercise the chimp, put it on a lead and take it for a walk.


As well as supporting having a trusted circle of friends and having that introspection, Chris also advocated discussing your issues with a stranger.


Try a number, there are all those numbers online. You might be more open and honest with them because you don’t know them and they’re not judgemental.


Chris concluded with the dark and unfortunate truth that it’s the silence that is killing people, and our best chance to move forward is by promoting honesty and outspokenness on the subject of mental health and mental health issues.


Closing Gratitude


A big thanks to Chris and Abhishek for taking the time to be interviewed and discuss these important issues. I’ve linked Abhishek’s blog along with Chris’ Instagram page and website below this. As well as that, I have included some important numbers and websites for if you personally struggle with any issues discussed in this blog.


Win the Morning Win the Day (WTMWTD) is forever growing, and Chris is always enthusiastic to getting this to your hometown. If you are interested in running a WTMWTD weekly event, don’t hesitate to contact him with the idea.


Thanks again to you, the reader. These are posted on a monthly basis, and will be continuing for as long as possible.

Win the Morning Win the Day Website

https://wtmwtd.org/

WTMWTD Instagram

https://www.instagram.com/wtmwtd/

Abhishek's Blog

https://mentalhealthbetterself.wordpress.com/

Leg It Podcast, referred to by Chri

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWoCyImTwCV8Dzjv6PrS-lQ


Samaritans: 116 123 at any time.

Anxiety UK: 03444 775 774

Mind: 0300 123 3393

Calm (Campaign against living miserably, for men aged 15 to 35): 0800 58 58 58.


[having failed to retrieve photos for this, all photos were licensed and provided by free adobe stock]