"And so, I cycle." How Cycling Improves My Mental Health
Guest contributor Erin Ferguson
This blog post discusses mental health. If you or someone you know is struggling crisis support services can be reached in Australia 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.
When Pedla asked me to write a piece on mental health for Movember, I was very quick to agree to it. I then spent weeks avoiding it, the way you’d awkwardly avoid an ex if you accidentally ran into them at a bar. As the weeks went by, this blog sat like a knot in my stomach, something I needed to do, but I wasn’t really equipped to do. 2022 promised so much after two years of lockdown, but it somehow managed to be one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging years I’ve had. How can I offer any sort of perspective on mental health if there have been numerous times in the last 12 months when I have not been OK?
I want to start with a statistic we’re all used to hearing – the one we hear at our Corporate RUOK? Morning Tea. It sounds something like ‘On-in-six Australians are currently living with anxiety or depression or both”. 3144 people died by suicide in 2021 (ABS, 19 October 2022), and it’s the 15th leading cause of death among Australians. One in two of us will experience a mental disorder at some point in our life.
8 categories of mental disorders
But what does that actually look like? The World Health Organisation has 8 categories of mental disorders:
- Anxiety disorders;
- Bipolar disorder;
- Post traumatic stress disorder;
- Eating Disorders;
- Disruptive behaviour and dissocial disorders; and
- Neurodevelopmental disorders.
I should be very clear that when I speak about mental health in the next few paragraphs, it is my own that I’m talking about. I am not a mental health professional, and nor is my relationship with my own mental health going to be the same as anyone else’s.
In early 2022, for the first time, I sat down with my GP and quietly told her that I thought I needed some help with my mental health. Let me be very clear – 2022 was not the first time in my life I needed help, but it was the first time I sought it. Who knows, maybe if I had gone and asked for help in 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, etc I would have learned strategies to better manage my mental health, rather than doing what I did do, which was ignore it, deny it, avoid communicating, change jobs, burn relationships. Nevertheless, my GP was kind and considerate and we had a chat, she agreed I needed some support, and sent me on my way. I sat at home and looked at my mental health plan, cried and then hid it away. But I did go and get help.
I learned a lot of things about myself in therapy – things that I think on some level I already knew, but having someone hold up a mirror to me about my best and worst traits was very illuminating. I’ve made changes, I feel more motivated and some days I feel a bit more in control – it’s a work in progress and I expect it will be for the rest of my life.
I watched Hannah Gadsby’s masterpiece Nannette a few years ago, and if you haven’t watched it yet, there’s some homework. In Nannette, Gadsby speaks of stand-up comedy as relying on tension and release. While I’m no comedian, the concept of ‘tension and release’ perfectly encapsulates the way that cycling contributes to my mental wellbeing. In some ways, at its core, cycling is an activity that revolves around tension and release. The feeling of lightness at the top of a climb, the end of an effort, but also at the bottom of every pedal stroke. It’s a repetitive release of tension from body and mind.
For me, my days create tension. I work a stressful, detail oriented and occasionally confrontational job. Sometimes the stress is motivating, other times it is suffocating. In the absence of relieving that tension, I find I carry some of it with me to the following day. And so, I cycle. At the end of the work day, most days, I try and fit some time in on the trainer to wind down and switch off from work. At the end of the week, I hopefully have weather on my side and can escape a little bit further from home. I can do other things too – I’ll walk my dog or I occasionally have dalliances with running. But I am my best self when I find a way to burn some energy off at the end of the day.