Sunday, 5 March 2017

It's all in your head!

Each week, one in six adults will experience symptoms of a common mental health problem for example anxiety or depression. (Mental Health Foundation, 2016). Despite an increase in people accessing treatment, around a third of all people with a mental health problem have sought no professional help at all. Perhaps that’s through a lack of provision, people not knowing where to seek help or perhaps some of it comes down to people not acknowledging they need help or being too embarrassed to ask for it. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons out there but hopefully over the next 5-10 years we will see a further shift in perceptions of mental health, as I believe we have done over recent years.
Whilst the above statistics may suggest people are not accessing the relevant services, I certainly feel there is an increased awareness of mental health, certainly in some areas; sport being one of them.
You may wonder what on earth mental health has to do with bodybuilding as primarily that’s what I use my blog to talk about but in actual fact, I think mental health has a lot to do with bodybuilding, as it does every sport out there. A few conversations over recent weeks with a number of different people have prompted me to think more about this and how our mental wellbeing can affect our performance in sport and equally how our performance can affect our mental wellbeing.
NPA Yorkshire 2016 Trained Figure Class 2 - Top 6
As a keen follower of rugby league, it’s great to see the extensive work taking place on promoting positive mental health in the game. Charities such as State of Mind have really led the way in this respect, entering into previous unchartered territories within a sport that is renowned for it’s brutal, no-nonsense, ‘tough guy’ approach. I read an insightful article earlier in the week by Raj Bains who talks about how rugby league is embracing mental health at the heart of the sport and breaking those stereotypes associated with the game. (The article is definitely worth a read
It’s a relief to see so much emphasis being placed on supporting the mental health & wellbeing of sports people as I feel it’s a side that often gets forgotten. We rarely see what goes on behind the scene and even less frequently do we acknowledge those battles that people might face away from the end result we all see.
I was talking to a guy at my gym a few days ago. I used to work with him many years ago, back before my career entered into the depths of the NHS, at a professional rugby league club. A coach at the time, with many years under his belt as a professional player, he is now still involved with the game and we got chatting this week as we have done on many occasions over the last year whilst at the gym, about our training goals, about rugby and about competing. We got talking about the mental side of bodybuilding and how much of this sport comes down to just that. How much willpower do you have? How many sacrifices are you prepared to make? Have you got what it takes in those dark moments when you’re in the midst of a 20 week diet and times get tough, to push through to the very end? I can honestly say from my first season bodybuilding last year, it comes down to your mental approach 100%, or it certainly did for me. Yes you have to train and diet accordingly but if your mind isn’t in the game, you will not get there.
During prep last year I had many ups and downs. I had a few very low points where I questioned whether I could continue and I felt very isolated and lonely on many occasions throughout that 20 weeks. Despite having great friends and family around me and an excellent coach, it’s an individual sport and only you can do what needs to be done. It didn’t help my mental state as I found it hard to be in social situations surrounded by food and drink and going into this year I was genuinely scared and anxious about socially isolating myself again. I’ve made a concerted effort this year to continue my life as normal, so much as I can and so far I’ve dealt with it all much better.
Finding workarounds and still being able to enjoy 'normal' things with my friends, while on prep has helped massively this year!
 There is plenty of focus on preparation for competition. However, there is rarely much focus about the aftermath. For many, this is where the real mental battle kicks in. When you step on stage the image you display is merely that; an image created during a set process and for many of us that image isn’t sustainable, nor is it healthy. I had a love/hate relationship with my show-day body last year. I didn’t enjoy no longer filling out some of my clothes and I didn’t enjoy losing some of those curves that naturally we all have when living a more balanced lifestyle. Of particular concern for me was the hormonal imbalance I experience and the effects that had on my body.
However, all that being said I’m not going to lie I absolutely loved having abs, fitting into clothes that hadn’t fit me for a couple of years and being able to wear crops without a care in the world. It was of great satisfaction knowing my muscles had more definition because there was less fat to hide them away and I just enjoyed the overall feeling of being lean especially after gaining weight the year previous whilst travelling. And slowly but surely over the course of 20 weeks, you get used to being this lean. Whilst I knew I would put on a little bit of weight after my competition, perhaps naively I thought I would remain roughly the same barring a couple of pounds. I was wrong.
After my first show last year, my diet wasn’t as controlled as I would have liked in reverse dieting. I don’t give myself a hard time for this as I’d dieted for 20 weeks and found it extremely tough, so naturally; I enjoyed my food afterwards but within the space of even 2-3 weeks I had lost a lot of that leanness. I was still fit and in shape but of course some of that definition was lost. My body thanked me for this and thankfully my hormones balanced out pretty soon afterwards, mentally I had much more energy and felt ‘back to normal’ again within a few weeks. But it was hard over those following months, mentally coming to terms with my body looking different and carrying more fat than I had been used to. I underestimated how difficult I would find this aspect and I can honestly say it probably took me until about November to truly embrace having curves again and carrying the extra weight, by which point it was almost time to get back on prep for this year.
Moving away from the aesthetics, it’s equally as challenging when competing in sport is no longer part of your life. When you’re in any sporting industry it often takes up a huge part of your life, not just in a sense of time, but in your mind too. It’s your focus day in and day out and for most, the rest of your life revolves around it so it can be a big adjustment when that’s no longer the case and I imagine I’ll find that somewhat challenging when I no longer compete. I suspect most retired competitive bodybuilders continue to live an active lifestyle as it’s something we all love doing, which is partly why we enter into the sport in the first place. But naturally I’m sure it’s a tough challenge mentally when you’re no longer focused on getting your body into such an optimum condition worthy of being on stage. And part of it comes down to identify for some people too. In a conversation I had with a fellow bodybuilder recently she posed the question ‘so who am I if I’m not a bodybuilder?’ and I think that’s a fair point. If you no longer compete or play sport to the level you’re used to, you potentially feel that you lose a sense of your identity.
I wanted to write this post to highlight the struggles that come with bodybuilding and all other sports really. And for it to maybe resonate with some individuals that it’s okay to feel that way and to not feel afraid or embarrassed to ask for support, even if that’s just speaking to a friend about how you feel. It doesn’t always mean accessing professional support; we all have struggles in life from time to time and it’s important to call upon our support network for help as otherwise problems can escalate and become more prominent issues in our lives. I also hope that maybe for some people reading this it will prompt you to think twice before judging other people or making flippant comments towards people’s image or the decisions they make in life. Or maybe just that people can be a bit kinder sometimes to people and understand that people might have battles that you know nothing about – and that doesn’t just apply to sport, that’s life in general.


  1. Great write-up Rebecca!! 👏😎 Loved it, it is certainly a battle within before anything else!! up the good work my dear

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