PT and Strength Coach, currently working for the NHS and living with Bi-polar

Emma Wallace - May.10.21

At Reflex Nutrition, we value mental health just as much as physical health. We've been chatting to our PTs, influencers, colleagues, friends and family to get some real life stories and break down the stigma attached to mental health!

We wanted to share them for Mental Health Awareness Week in the hope of starting a conversation, breaking down barriers and coming together as a community to support each other.  Here's Emma, a Reflex PT, with her story.  

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I'm a qualified personal trainer and strength coach currently employed by the NHS. My role predominantly focuses on supporting physiotherapists and occupational therapists with exercise rehabilitation treatment for psychiatric inpatients.

I've chosen to work in this unique environment as I am/have been part of this specialist population... I'm diagnosed with bipolar disorder with traits of EUPD and have twice been hospitalised because of it. So mental health is a topic close to home. I hope my work goes some way to improving patients' experience of hospital life and provides them with skills to live an improved lifestyle upon discharge.

How does MH effect physical health for you? 

The body and mind are intrinsically linked. Fact. You can't go far with good physical health but poor mental health (or vice versa) at some stage a psychological or physiological breakdown would occur. There needs to be as much of an equilibrium as possible, and finally this is starting to be recognised in mental health treatment plans, it certainly is in mine.

When I'm well I'll do some form of exercise 6 days per week. Some days will be intense (a couple of CrossFit sessions a week), others will be steady heart rate sessions (a long bike ride, slow run or hike), I'll always include 1-2 strength sessions and the remainder or the time will be dedicated to movement based meditation (think yoga or mindful walking in nature). If I stray too far away from this there is a notable decline in my mood and mental health as a whole. 

Do you change your training based on how you feel mentally just like you would based on how you feel physically?

Yes for sure. It's often underappreciated how much of an influence mental illness can play havoc with your physical presentation. For example, when I am depressed, I lack physical strength and therefore CrossFit is often off the cards for a while, instead I'll try and include more aerobic exercise such as cycling.

Likewise, when I am manic I feel like I have endless energy and want to train for hours on end (I don't have more energy, it's psychological). In this instance, as per my treatment plan, I am advised to reduce intensity and duration of exercise so it'll come in gentle forms such as yoga.

This is the case for patients at the hospital I work at too. Mental health can alter physical presentation so we must be adaptive for each person. There may be a physical rehabilitation plan outlined for a patient but this might have to be altered slightly depending on how a person is responding to medication, how they are sleeping, whether their mental capacity is affecting their motivation and understanding and so forth. 

On your social channels you speak a lot about how getting out in nature helps you manage your mental health. What is it about nature that you find helpful and why do you think it’s so important as a wellbeing tool?

Nature, running water, the colour green, are all scientifically proven to reduce anxiety and feelings of depression, there are heaps of studies showing it. I've not exactly done a study on myself, but I can tell you that if I don't spend time outside I begin to feel anxious. Nature, and specifically the forest near where I live, hold a special place in my heart. I lost my girlfriend to suicide just before the UK winter Covid-19 lockdown so the outdoors was all I had for some escapism from the darkness. Getting outside provided momentary solace and therapeutic properties in a very upsetting and stressful time. It still continues to do so.

When you don’t feel like exercising, what helps you get moving?

Understandably during the time mentioned above my motivation to get out of bed (let alone exercise) was at an all time low but my main driving factor came in the form of my four-legged best friend, Cookie, my two year old Cocker Spaniel. Dogs are so good at clocking our emotions and when things got dark she more or less demanded we got outside. Each time we began to walk (or on more energetic days run) together, things began to change in my mind for the better.

Another thing that keeps me exercising even when I lack motivation is routine. I think this is a tactic that many of us can employ. We certainly encourage it with the inpatients and can see a big difference when it's taken up. For me I like to include exercise in my evening wind-down routine to get me ready to sleep. I'll try to dim the lights and practice a bit of really slow yoga and deep breathing exercises to calm my body and brain ready for bed. I definitely notice how my sleep is affected if I do or don't do this...

You’re a big advocate for MH.  What would you suggest people can do in their day to day lives to help break the stigma?

We've come a long way but we have so far to go... One thing I think all of us could do better is be more mindful of our language. Mental health language is commonly used in a derogatory way which unconsciously reinforces stigma. Here are a few examples:

"What a psycho!" - used to describe abnormal behaviour, but belittles those who experience psychotic behaviour.

"I'd rather kill myself!" - often used as a banterous way to say no to something but obviously stigmatises suicide and suicidal behaviour.

"That's so bipolar." - a phrase thrown about to describe a swift change in mood, but is uneducated and degrading in regards to a serious mental health condition.

There are so many more where these come from... language has notably improved in other key areas of concern (for example race and sexuality), now let's try to be mindful and respectful of our language in regards to mental health. With 1 in 4 experiencing mental health problems, 1 in 5 experiencing suicidal thoughts and self-harm increasing 62% since the year 2000; you never know who could be struggling. We need conversation to be open and constructive, not degrading.

A big thank you to Emma for sharing her story with us. If you'd like to stay up to date with Emma you can follow her on Instagram.
Whether you're concerned about yourself, a loved one or one of your clients - There are mental health charities, organisations and support groups can offer expert advice! More information  here.