Recovering from trauma through Exercise - Guest Post by Andy McLeish

Discussing the benefits of exercise for mental health in recovery from trauma, ABS ambassador Andy McLeish explains how exercise helps to clear the mind, be it through a gentle walk in fresh air or challenging the body in a marathon run.

"Trauma changes everything and anyone who’s suffered a trauma in their life will be affected forever by it.  That can be physically but almost certainly will be mentally.  As a young Architectural student I was shy and without knowing it at the time, suffered mentally with anxiety particularly in a social setting.  This anxiety was in all likelihood responsible for a lack of confidence that has always been part of who I am. There are a few things that helped me deal with my wellbeing such as music, travel and regular exercise.  In a sense each helped me reset, but I have to admit I wasn’t really aware that they were doing this, just that I was comfortable and in a good place when enjoying such pursuits.

My own trauma has changed this awareness of my mental and physical wellbeing.  To suffer such an extensive burn trauma and later be told that your survival was in a big part due to keeping yourself fit had a huge effect on me and on those closest to me. My physical recovery was long and painful, but it was never something I ever doubted would happen.  When you’re being cared for so well by medical staff and family, all you have to think about is your recovery and staying determined to push through the ebbs and flows of the recovery process.  I had some psychological help in hospital but I felt ok despite some horrid drug induced dreams. I was fortunate that with my wife Dawn being a teacher, I was not alone when I came out of hospital as the summer holidays had just started so she and my girls Beth and Amy were with me 24/7.  Everything changed though in mid-August 2014.  

Once Dawn and the girls returned to school, I was alone and the mental battle really began. Regular contact with the burns medical team and psychologist helped me but it was the positive effect of exercise that became the most important method of repairing myself mentally. Dawn said to me one day when I was at my lowest that ‘doing my exercises and recovering physically’ was my job now. This really resonated with me and I embraced regular daily physio exercise to fill my day. I was soon part of a twice weekly gym class for trauma which allowed me to recover at my pace but also to push myself towards a goal I had set.    

Every year for as long as I can remember I have trained for and completed the Great Scottish Run 1/2 marathon.  I joked in hospital about how I’d maybe give it a miss in 2014 but I’d be back doing it in 2015.  Recovering well enough to do this became my goal.  Each time I exercised and got nearer my goal, the endorphins flowed and I felt better.  This along with regular psychological contact kept me positive and helped me both understand what was happening to me and how to recover physically and mentally using exercise and only focussing on what I could handle.  Initially this wasn’t anything other than those things most important to me, family being number 1, but gradually I found I was able to ease myself back to a busier life of family, friends, leisure and work.  Each step along the way I focussed on keeping things simple and using exercise to help me reset any muddled thoughts which may be leading towards anxiety or depression.  

One year after my accident, I challenged friends and family to join me in October 2015 doing the 1/2 marathon or 10K if they’d prefer.  This gave a further focus of not just helping myself recover but also pushing others to participate who had never run before.  After what I’d been through there was no way they were going to give up!!  On 2nd October 2015, I was joined by 10 others all of whom ran either the 1/2 marathon or 10K.  Collectively we raised over £3500 for the burns unit.  A year later we ran again raising money for ABS.  

I’m not going to say that life is always easy, but I can say that regular exercise is an excellent way of clearing the mind and assisting mental focus on what really matters.  Every day I do a morning workout for at least 20 minutes.  Some days this is not easy, but it’s having the thought that I’m going to get started that changes everything and gets me going.  Running is a similar thing.  It’s so easy to feel like I cannot be bothered, but by focussing on that simple thought of getting started and before I know it, I’ve got myself out there and I’m in the zone and happy.  

Exercise is so important to me to help my mental and physical wellbeing.  I mostly run but I know that doesn’t suit everyone.  Any form of exercise will help reset the mind though, from the simplest gentle exercise such as a short walk in fresh air to extreme marathons or swims.  For me what it does is bring everything into focus allowing me to act on only the clearest thoughts, which are after all the most important ones. It is easy to fill your head with concerns and for many of us that is what leads to anxiety.  Exercise helps me see clearer when my head is in a muddle.  Sometimes all I need to do is gentle stretching and deep breathing, other times I feel the need to go harder.  I describe it like turning the aerial on one of those olden day TVs when there was interference on the signal to get a clear picture.  It helps me heal my mind, clearing my consciousness to let my thoughts through.  Once this happens, one thought really does change everything."

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