Exercise and Mental Illness

*Before we begin I would like to make it abundantly clear that I am not an expert on mental illness, I’m just here to write about some of my personal experiences of it. I’m going to marry my anxiety/depression with my lifestyle as someone who plays competitive football (soccer) on a regular basis and, as of January, goes to the gym two to three times a week.*

*As stated above I am by no means a medical expert, so if you think you might need help/advice then please go to your doctor. (I really should take my own advice but who has the time!)*

Retrospectively I believe I have always dealt with some form of mental illness. I didn’t notice it, at the time, in high school but looking back there was definitely a degree of anxiety and stress that existed back then. By the time I reached university it was in full flow. I transformed from this happy, go lucky, little Glaswegian to this suffocated, self-doubting, unmotivated, capitulated person. I was going through life simply existing. I always feel weird talking about this time, because while all this ‘negative thought process’ was taking shape I was forming some of the greatest friendships and creating some of the best moments of my life. And I never forget that that was the case. Truth be told though if I hadn’t met the wonderful Christine McMahon in that daft work-experience course during my 3rd year of university  then I honestly don’t know how worse I would have got.

I felt very isolated at university and, for the first time in my life, I felt very alone. My best friend Natalie was always there for me, except in 2nd year and the years following when we were on different timetables and that’s when I started to spiral. I struggled to make friends because I was so shut down and closed off. There was a sadness surrounding me, it’s no wonder people stayed clear.

It had got to the point where I was basically speaking to my Mum regularly about life and “how we just get a job – in an office – we work there until we’re 65 (probably 70 by the time I get to retirement) and then we die – that’s it Mum – that’s my working-class life”. I still have strong feelings about the working-class hero and the lifestyle that is made for them, but I also have strong feelings towards the teenage/going on 20 year old me who had completely given up on life.

I am incredibly happy to say that I am now, generally speaking, able to stay on top of my mental health. I exercise, I listen to music, I play my guitar, I write (A LOT) and I am a much happier person for doing so. It would be great if I consciously didn’t have to do these things in order to keep my head above water. I mean I do love playing my guitar, and from a young age the first thing I did when I came home from school was turn on my speakers and crank up the volume. Old habits die hard because I still rush home from work just to hear the same old songs I’ve listened too since I was a wee bambino carefully and meticulously listening to and remembering every word of Elvis Pressley’s ‘30 #1 Hits’ album. I’ve been doing this for so long that most of this self-care is subconscious thought and action, but I do have the odd reminder where I’m very aware that this is how my mind copes with it all. Consciously, I’ve even thought of bringing my guitar to work for some respite through the day but that always seems a little far-fetched; even though there hasn’t been a day gone by since 2013 that I haven’t reached for my guitar. It gives me peace. Music, my guitar and my writing is my own little self-care package. Exercise to a degree is part of that package but, I have discovered, it can come with its own complications.

Exercise is a different kettle of fish; and it’s one which I haven’t quite mastered. I don’t know if perhaps the nature of sport demands a mental strength that I’m maybe not prepared to cope with, at this time or all the time, but it’s definitely a relationship I would like to dissect.

Last night at football (soccer) training I completely lost myself. I was filled with self-doubt, I repeatedly told myself I was no good, and I felt an incredible sadness come over me. Last night has most definitely been the worst manifestation of my depression/anxiety. I hated every minute of the training session – through no choice of my own and through no one else’s fault (i.e. my team mates and/or coaches). It really makes me angry too because when I rocked up to training I was joking with my friends about the potential dangers of listening to Bob Marley in the car because I was totally zoned out and loving life. I was absolutely fine when we had our pre-training team talk, I was happy as Larry going through the warm-up and then we stepped into the first possession drill and IT just happened. The scariest part for me is that I can’t put my finger on why it happened? For me, there was no reason. None, whatsoever.

When this anxiety comes out of nowhere and, appears, to happen for no reason – that’s when I get really scared. My greatest fear comes to life when I don’t feel in control of my own mind.

It’s so cliché but it really is like a dark cloud just swirling round your wee head telling you that you’re no good. It’s relentless. I can’t really put it into words but in simple terms it’s a battle with yourself, and it’s one that no matter the outcome you’re always on the losing side. I am very fortunate to say that this intensity of anxiety doesn’t happen to me often; in fact it’s pretty rare but nevertheless it’s still very frightening. I think the scariest thing for me is that I have dealt with a more consistent bout of depression before, back when I was in university. I hated my day to day life as a student. I always had a passion for learning, and for the most part it was my thirst for knowledge that got me through, but I really had little motivation to do anything else other than drink alcohol – which let me tell you is not, always, a good tonic for depressive thoughts. I get really scared because I think I might revert back to this state.

Back to the football field where my anxiety materialised, I am going to talk you through exactly what happened to me last night. There are several stages to my mental illness, and I think I went through every single one of them over the course of a 2-hour training session.

So as I said before, IT hit me during the first possession drill of the night. First stage: anger. I lost the ball, someone took it off me and I just screamed ‘fuck!’. A couple of my team mates reacted to my aggression – not understanding that my mind is in a whirlwind of self-doubt – and so comes stage two: paranoia. I think that my team mates are laughing at me, and in that moment I don’t trust them. I’m suspicious of my friends – who I’ve known and loved for over a year. I love these people, I don’t want them to be afraid of me, I don’t want them to think I don’t trust them because I DO (even if my anxiety doesn’t). And so comes stage three: guilt. I feel guilty that I felt that way about my friends. “They’re good people”, I tell myself. “Why are you being like this?”, I tell myself. And therein lies stage four: self-blame. I feel bad. I am a bad person because I thought badly of my friends. “Nothing has happened to you today. I’ve had a good week. Why are you sad right now?” These critical and questioning thoughts circle round my head continuously over the 2-hour session. I feel like I don’t deserve to be sad. By the time we reach the last 20 minutes my breathing has become heavy, I have my hands resting on my knees, I’m decked over with my head staring at the ground and all I want to do is scream. FULL CIRCLE. We’re back to anger. By this point I have stopped trying and I admit defeat (the worst stage). A couple of my team mates have noticed that something isn’t right. They do the right thing and they ask me “Lindsay, are you okay?”. I can’t express to you enough how important that question is, and how grateful I am that you asked me that question. And please, even if I didn’t give you an answer, or if I shrugged you off and shut you out, know that I didn’t do that from a place of anger, or dislike –  I did it because I can’t cope with the vulnerability of the whole situation. I hate my friends seeing this side of me. I don’t think I’ve ever let my family see that side of me, some of my friends will read this and not have a clue that this is even going on with me and that’s okay. Because that’s the way I needed it to be.

I’m reading this back and I’ve just realised that I’ve told a BIG FAT LIE. Christ, I might even have been lying to myself all these years. I love football, I really do but I think it’s just dawned on me that football isn’t an escape for me as it is for so many other people. I think I’ve just had an epiphany.

I suffered massively with anxiety and depression in high school. I’ve only just realised that this anxiety didn’t manifest in the corridors of All Saints Secondary but on the field at Lennoxtown, Barrowfield and the concourse at Celtic Park. When I was 16 I achieved a dream that I had since I was 5 years old. I signed a contract to play for Celtic Football Club. I played football (soccer) at the Celtic Girls Academy, and even made it into the Reserve Team, for two seasons all in. It should have been the happiest time of my life. In stark contrast it was one of the worst times of my life, and I’ve never been able to explain why this was the case and I think there’s proof in the pudding here that it filled me with such a negative energy that I actually managed to block it out for a while there.

Dear God, I can’t believe I managed to ignore that crippling self-doubt that plagued me from the age of 16 to the age of 18 for so long. It makes me incredibly sad that I suffered from mental illness at a time in my life when I’d achieved my childhood dream. There were great people in that club, and that team. I still remember my team mates fondly, but I doubt they think the same of me because similar to my time at university I was shut off and sad – all the fucking time! I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I feel sad that those girls never got to know the real me, because the real me is pretty funny and in all honesty once I get going you can never shut me up but I don’t remember having any particularly long conversation with anyone at the Celtic Academy – which is such a shame. I was young, and I didn’t understand that I was ill. I didn’t even recognise it at the time. I suppose I thought I was just shy. Which I can be, that’s for sure. But it was just an excuse (or a false truth).

I can’t believe I’m only realizing this now, 5/6 years on. Madness!

I think it’s safe to say football and my mental illness have a rocky relationship to say the least. Football demands a lot of mental toughness – perhaps I don’t have it, or perhaps I have it but just not on a consistent basis. A lot of this toughness is about maintaining certain mental attributes. You MUST maintain self-confidence, you MUST maintain motivation, you MUST bounce back from mistakes immediately and you MUST maintain a positive attitude. I get all those things, and understand their place in sport but for someone like me that is an incredibly demanding list of mental attributes. I think in many ways the sport that I love and choose to play is crippling me. Don’t get me wrong if you step back and look at the bigger picture the things I learned, especially at the Celtic Academy, have stood me in good stead my whole life and trust me I never forget that. I always maintain a high standard of myself in everything I do. But I’m no wonder woman, and I have my flaws and my weaknesses. FYI: that’s okay.

I read this tweet recently that was discussing this concept called ‘toxic positivity’. It was dispelling the phrase “Don’t be negative” as something that had come to mean don’t think critically, don’t feel negative feelings, don’t focus on bad experiences, don’t ask for help and really, to get down to it, don’t be anything but a happy person. This isn’t possible, nor does it force you to be a positive person with a positive life. As a human race, can we please STOP REPRESSING AND/OR IGNORING negative thoughts? Let’s begin to think critically about our own sadness. Understand it, because in doing so you will have a much better understanding of yourself.

In all honesty I’m not entirely sure why I’m writing this and I know when I post it that I will once again be filled with the negative thoughts that plagued my football session last night. But it’s important. People have to know. More importantly, people (my friends especially) have to know that it’s okay not to be okay – even if it’s for a couple of hours out of your entire day. We have to speak about these things otherwise we can’t make things better or we can’t make people more comfortable. I don’t have all the answers, in fact I have very few answers, but I know that silence on the issue is no answer at all.

I can’t look back on this time and feel like I’ve wasted it worrying about my mental illness, or living with it, or complaining about it. This is a time where I have great friends, an incredible tribe of women (and men) behind me willing me on in life, I have fresh ideas, I have an incredible job, the best boss, a fantastic co-worker (office bestie), I have my physical health, my Nana, my parents are supportive and healthy and wonderful and hard-working, me and my brother are getting on like a house on fire (when we haven’t always in the past), there’s little to no drama in my life and I’m doing some cool, courageous things in spite of my mental health!! In fact, all of the above is in spite of my anxiety/depression.

Back to the freaking point of the article, exercise has definitely been a great tool which has helped me to live with my mental illness. I have met new friends through exercise, I have gained self-confidence, I feel physically fit, I am (for the most part) happy when I’m working out, I feel accomplished and overall it gives me a positive outlook. It’s sad that one laps inspired me to write an entire article but you know what it’s also pretty empowering that after going through all that trauma that the very next day I can pick myself up, take to my key board, write down my thoughts and share my experience with the public domain. There’s pros and cons to everything; exercise has its positives and it has its negatives pertaining to each individual. You do you. Take care of yourself and take care of each other, and eventually everything else takes care of itself.

Notes to take from this:

  1. Sometimes you just have to be unashamedly sad.
  2. You deserve to talk about your feelings.
  3. Think critically about our own sadness – begin to understand it.
  4. Self-care is ESSENTIAL.
  5. Talk about LIVING WITH mental illness – don’t suffer from it.
  6. Stop telling people to be more positive and/or grateful – end ‘toxic positivity’
  7. Ask people if they are okay.
  8. Seek professional, medical help.
  9. Understand that it’s okay not to be okay.
  10. Silence is not an answer.
  11. Live your best life in spite of your mental illness.


*Again, this is a personal experience; I don’t wish to put anyone off using physical activity and exercise as a way of living with mental illness because I fully support that it can be a very positive experience and a beneficial lifestyle choice*