Mind Your Mental Health

by Jeff Whitfield on | 1 Comments


Mental Health

Looking at this blog, you might notice a gap between this article and the previous post. A little over a year has gone by since the last post. There's a reason for that. In a nutsheel, I hit a proverbial wall and needed a break from, not just cycling, but everything. Many of the things I have queued up to write have just been sitting there in a draft state for months. Why? Well, that’s where it gets a little complicated. But, to be frankly honest, the reason is likely one that many of us share: anxiety.

Many things contributed to this: the Coronavirus pandemic, personal issues, parenting, online banter, and more. All of which lead to a huge uptick in stress which inevitably led to depression. End result was that my work and personal projects suffered. I know I’m not the only one whose mental health has suffered. So, for this post, I thought I’d share some of my own struggles and what I’m doing to cope with it. Of course, being that this is a site for cyclists, it would behove me to talk about how I’m improving things in that area as well.

To aid with this, I took the time to look back at a post written by Mark Manson entitled Surviving the Looming Mental Health Crisis. Mark wrote this in early April 2021 so you could say he saw the writing on the wall when the pandemic hit. Since then, he’s written a number of related posts so definitely check them out.

Current State of the Cycling Industry

Back in March 2021, I wrote about feeling the effects of the Coronavirus on my local bike shop. There was lots of uncertainty then with emotions running pretty high. You could cut the tension with a knife.

Fast forward to September 2021 and the vibe at my local bike shop was completely different. In just six months, the uncertainty was replaced with a different problem: how to keep up with the demand. Not only were bikes flying out the door but the demand for service and repair went up too.

In fact, during my last visit to the bike shop I was shocked at just how many bikes were in the queue for service. An area that used to be filled with used bikes as well as new MTB’s was replaced with a holding area for bikes in for service and repair.

Bikes in for service at my local bike shop during the pandemic.

There looked to be around 100 bikes in for service and repair. Based on what I was told, this isn’t even the worst they’ve seen. The service department has been running steady since March and the demand doesn’t appear to be letting up. In fact, the wait time for service is around two weeks. That’s how high the demand is right now. Seeing this makes me feel grateful that I know how to maintain and repair my own bike.

All this demand does tell us one thing: people are desperate to get outside. That may be riding a bike, going for a walk, anything really. From the start, we all wanted to avoid going stir crazy and saw the writing on the wall: this COVID shit is gonna take a while! So people are flocking to either buy a bike or get their bike in tip-top shape for riding. How long this demand will last is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, bike shops are doing what they can to keep up with the demand will keeping themselves, their employees, and customers safe.

The Onset of Depression and Anxiety

But even with the ability to get out and ride, we still can’t avoid the pressures of everyday life. When you undergo high levels of stress, no amount of cycling will help alleviate it. There’s a sense of helplessness and lack of control that comes with it. On top of that, any problems that already existed feel amplified. That’s how it felt for me. It’s the uncertainty of it all that I think really got to me.

Now, I’m not going to go into all my problems. But I will say this: my problems felt inescapable. I felt like I had no choice but to face them head-on. No matter how many rides I went on, my problems were still there when I got back home. I still had to deal with them and couldn’t avoid them. This led to many months where I felt anxiety kicking in as well as moments of just sheer sadness and depression. It sucked big time.

Usually, I could clear my head by just going on a ride. My bike was a place of solace. It was like moving meditation. But with COVID, as the months rolled on, my bike was no longer an escape from my everyday troubles.

Many of you might be reading this and be thinking, “Oh shit! Me too!” We might as well have a fan club with t-shirts, right? So then, what do we do?

Take a Break

For me, the first start was to just take a break from the things I knew I could walk away from for a bit. That included cyling. As much as I loved being on the bike, my motivation was faltering. I struggled just to find the will to get on the bike each day, which in turn added to the stress I was already having.

I also had to walk away from this website for a while too. Having the internal pressure to meet my own self-imposed deadlines would just make the content of the site suffer. I have pretty high standards so rather than sacrificing the quality of the content I chose to just walk awy from it for a bit.

Little did I know that it would be a year before I got back into it. But after hearing a story on NPR I knew I could walk away and still come back to it at a later date. The story involved a lady who walked away from a pretty prominent media job. She was told at the time that she would not be able to come back if she did walk way. However, some years later, she proved everyone wrong. More importantly, she proved to herself that she could come back to it. That's the part that impacted me the most. It gave me the confidence in knowing that, even if I do walk away from things, they'll still be there.

Hell, for the past year, I'm constantly reminded of that. Many readers have posted comments and questions on various posts over the past year. Receiving them and staying engaged to that capacity felt like I still have my foot in the door to some extent. It also gave me a sense that what I created has had a positive impact...which definitely helps boost my confidence.

So, if you feel like you need to walk away from things, just know that you can. There's nothing wrong with that. You can always come back to it later when you're ready.

Riding Out of a Dark Place

I’ve read a good many things about how to cope in this time. But most of what I’ve read seems to encompass a few basic things:

  1. Develop better habits
  2. Create a routine for each day
  3. Build and/or repair relationships
  4. Mind your health and wellness
  5. Get help if you need it

If there is any benefit to social distancing and working from home, it’s that it gives us time to reflect. We now have more time to think about our own well-being and focus on self-improvement. Part of that involves looking at the habits we’ve formed, how we go about our day, the relationships we have, and how well we’re taking care of ourselves.

Developing Better Habits

I’ve formed some pretty nasty habits over the years. Many of them involve how I spend money as well as how I spend my time. COVID certainly shined a huge spotlight on these problems. As such, I had to take some time to develop way better habits, learning how to budget both my money and my time in ways that are more productive and beneficial to me.

That includes the time I spend with my family. The time I spend with my son is the most precious so knowing when and how to cast aside time on work and personal endeavors is a habit worth forming. Basically, the one habit I’m developing is knowing how to plan my days. That requires sitting down and figuring out what’s important and when to concentrate on it.

Along with that, it doesn’t do any good to plan things if you’re not capable of sticking with the plan. I have a tendency to get…SQUIRREL! Umm…distracted. As such, I have to learn how to stay focused on things and not allow myself to veer off in unplanned directions. Yet another habit to develop.

Then there are other little habits to work on. Not biting my nails. Brushing my teeth regularly. Eating a good diet everyday. Getting regular exercise. You know…all the shit you were supposed to learn when you were a kid. Live and learn!

Which leads me to the next major habit I need to work on: building a daily routine.

Routines for Sanity’s Sake

Virtually everyone with tips on how to cope with depression almost always say the same thing: building everyday routines can help save your sanity. It sounds so obvious to the point of being annoying, right? “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know! Please don’t preach to me!” And yet many of us still haven’t clicked to the idea that maybe we need to actually do just that.

Much of my routine is very much tied to many of the habits I’m trying to form: meditation, eating better, focusing on work, getting better sleep, waking up at regular times, and more. That includes my son, who coincidentally does so much better when he has a normal routine.

And, like my son, when my routine is off I can feel it. Once my day gets borked it’s not uncommon to feel off. Without that routine I might feel like I don’t know what’s going on, what I’m supposed to do, or what my focus should be. So, yeah, building a routine for the things I’m doing in my life not only helps me but also helps those around me.

Better Connections with Others

I also found that staying connected to co-workers, associates, friends, and family members has helped. Facebook is certainly one way but a few of my friends have taken to apps like Discord and Slack to have ongoing chats about things.

Plus, because I have Crohn’s disease, I’ve been paying more attention to support groups. Lately, my local Crohn’s support group has been doing once a month Zoom meetings. Even though it’s a virtual meeting, that sense of connection is there. The camaraderie of the group is just the sort of thing I need from time to time.

Now, eventually, we’ll be able to start venturing out and meeting people again. Thanks to the distribution of a COVID vaccine, that day will likely come sooner than we think. Once that happens, I definitely encourage others to get out and start meeting others sooner rather than later. One big way you can do so is by joining a local cycling group and doing group rides. Pending a vaccination, once things warm up a bit, I’ll definitely be doing that.

Staying Healthy

The past year was pretty rough. I didn’t do much in the way of any workouts or riding, much less anything that one could call “healthy activity”. About the only activity I was doing was moving out of my old house and into another one. The reasons are pretty personal but, regardless, it was pretty stressful and a complete energy drain. It took time before I felt like I could start back on a more healthy routine.

Just like any habit, eating right and getting proper exercise requires routine. And it requires a lot of work. I would say it even requires a bit of mindfulness due to the amount of attention and awareness that proper diet and exercise requires. It’s just not a mindless thing really. So taking time out to be fully in the “now” and aware of what you’re eating and what kind of activity you’re doing really helps.

As such, I’ve taken time out to figure out what my routine should be. It can be hit and miss at times and, yeah, I have days where I have to push a workout back a day or two. Which brings up a really good lesson: Do your best to stay healthy but don’t beat yourself up over it. Perfection isn’t a good goal to have so forgive yourself if you have to miss a workout. All that does is create more stress which just makes things worse.

Set some goals that you know are easily achievable and go from there. Little by little, I’ve worked my way back to a fairly normal exercise routine with regular strength training and some bike rides sprinkled in. For me, doing something is better than doing nothing. Even if I accomplish just 30 minutes of doing anything, a simple stroll on the bike around the neighborhood, a stretch routine, anything really. If I’m moving and doing something then I’m accomplishing my goal. Bigger goals are in the works but I’m not going to overload myself with lofty goals. Instead, I set smaller ones and work my way up from there. Layer on only what I know is achievable. Even then, if I miss the mark I don’t beat myself up over it. I do what I can and leave it at that.

It’s not just physical health either. Mental health is just as important. I’ve been spending quite a bit of time building up a meditation routine…which has been super tough over the course of the past six months or so. My mind has been wandering. Lots of squirreling to say the least. But that’s all part of the process. I’ve had to take time out to get in touch with my thoughts and the feelings associated with them. While I can’t always control my feelings, I can control my thoughts and reactions to things. With everything going on, it helps to know that while I might get emotional about things, I do control my own actions.

So, yeah, doing my best to stay healthy both physically and mentally. Which leads to one last point.

Seek a Professional

I finally got to a point where I didn't feel I could maintain the first four points. I couldn't develop better habits because I was too distracted to even pay attention to the tools I was using to do that. Routine went out the window as well simply because I wasn't motivated to stick with it. Even building relationships was hard. Because I had an uptick in Crohn's symptoms, I didn't feel comfortable getting out of the house to meet with friends...even without the ire of COVID in the air. My diet was shit, I wasn't exercising regularly. Simply put, I was a mess! I knew I needed help.

So I sought out a psychologist and started having counseling sessions. It took some time, but it helped immensely. Just talking things through helped. But, more importantly, with my counselors help I was able to identify the patterns that led to my depression. This prompted a visit with a psychiatrist in order to take my treatment to the next level. It's still a work in progress but I do feel I'm making some headway. I'm starting to feel a bit more like...well...me!

When in doubt, if you don't feel like your normal self and can't seem to make any headway in improving your life, do yourself a favor: seek some help. There's nothing wrong with talking to someone about your problems. Otherwise, your symptoms will only get worse.

Tempe Nosce

One of the most memorable parts of the movie The Matrix is the sign the Oracle has up in her kitchen that says “Tempe Nosce”, which means “know thyself”. I’ve held onto that little bit of philosophy ever since I first saw that movie.

Like I mentioned earlier, mental health is extremely important. Part of what helps me stay that way is being in touch with who I am as a person.

If there’s one takeaway from all of this, remember this one thing:

You are not alone!

Keep calm and pedal on!

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This heartfelt article offers a candid and poignant glimpse into the author's personal journey with mental health challenges.