Ash - mental health awareness week

Good morning SMASH crew, Ash here 

It's Monday and the start of SMASH mental health awareness week (World Mental Health Day is on Wednesday). As many of you are aware, when Sam and I created SMASH, we did so with the core intention of creating a class that would help improve your physical fitness, whilst also paying close attention to your mental wellbeing. We did our research and found there wasn't really a class like that out there and, as they say, if you can't find something in London - chances are it doesn't exist anywhere! We set out to deliver a class that would truly embrace mental wellbeing to show how important it is to nurture and nourish our mind. 

If you read our email on Saturday, you will know that on Wednesday we plan to send an email devised by all of YOU, with your own personal stories and experience with mental health and wellbeing. We want to embrace the belief that the more we talk openly and freely about our mental health and wellbeing, the more help people receive and the less 'taboo' the subject becomes. With this in mind, let me start the week off with my own experience...

I always feel like there is something I should be doing, or I've forgotten to do. My mind is always racing and rarely slows down, except for when I read (which is probably why I read a lot) or meditate. I've looked in to this a lot in the past and, although I can't specifically name studies in particular, the general consensus that I established for myself is that many of us suffer this type of nervous anxiety because thousands of years ago our ancestors HAD to be this way to survive. They would constantly be on the lookout for danger and the opportunity to find shelter and food - this type of nervous anxiety kept us alive! Of course, times have changed and in the last 100 years we have made so many advancements in life that this type of anxiety no longer serves us the way it would have previously, which is why anxiety is a very common mental health condition in the modern world. I also occasionally have extreme night terrors which normally end with me jumping out of bed in a panic and running to another room. The most frightening night terror had me at the bedroom window, ready to open it to jump out! Thankfully the night terrors are now very few and far between but in my twenties I was suffering them almost daily - I believe it's because of my focus on improving my mental health that the night terrors have subsided. 

Around 15 years ago, my Mum had a nervous breakdown. This is exactly how it was diagnosed and, through some later counselling sessions, it was discovered that she had let the effects of many serious and stressful situations build up over the years to the point that her mind 'broke' (this was exactly as it was explained to her). Growing up my Mum was the strongest person I knew because, being a very large family, we had a family life that was often filled with drama and chaos and she was the person who kept everything together - the backbone of our family. There are many incidents I can recall that I think would have contributed to my Mum's breakdown (and probably more that she won't have shared with me) but I'll touch on one that also really stands out in my mind as something that affected me also... When I was 14 we were evicted from our home. My Dad (who split from my Mum when I was 11) was diagnosed with leukaemia and could no longer work and pay towards the mortgage (which we should never have had in the first place but in the 80's it was a lot easier for council tenants to buy their property). I remember keeping the news of our imminent eviction to myself and not telling any of my friends at school because I was embarrassed and ashamed. I could see the pain and immense worry it was causing my Mum and I was anxious every night about what would happen to us. We were told we would have to live in a bed and breakfast until the local council could find us suitable accommodation and that this could take up to a year! To my surprise, the week we were to be evicted, we were given a house! I asked my Mum how she managed to get a house for us when it seemed so impossible in the weeks leading up to the eviction and she said that she went in to the local council office and begged. She literally begged. When they repeatedly said no, she sat on the floor, cried and refused to leave until someone helped us. Knowing how proud my Mum is I can only imagine the mental torture this must have been for her and the effect it will have had on her since. Yes, we got a house (it was in an awful state but it was a roof over our heads) and yes, we were lucky this was 1996 as if she did the same thing now she would just be removed from the building and told to wait her turn, but what effect could a situation like this have on someones mental heath? Especially someone who had lost her best friend, her twin sister, to a heart attack just 2 years before when they were 39. Past events can have a massive effect on our mental health and it's so important we talk about them when we can - this is why it's so important that we make it easier for people to be open, and share how they are feeling. If 20 years ago we had talked about mental health like we are beginning to now, maybe my Mum would have been able to get help sooner. If she had learnt skills of how to strengthen her mental health as a child or teenager, could she have coped better when it was needed? Life's journey may still have been a bumpy one but maybe the walls of her mental health wouldn't have coming crashing down as drastically as they did if the foundations had been a little stronger and more stable...

I've shared in previous emails about how I discovered mindfulness. For those new to the community, around 4 years ago I was going through a really tough time in my life. I had been through a break up and I felt incredibly lonely. My younger brother's mental health had deteriorated so badly that, through the help I was offering, my own mental health got worse. My night terrors were at an all time high and I considered 'running away' somewhere but had absolutely no idea where. I even considered switching off from everyone and having no contact for however long it took to 'pick myself up'. I felt like a burden on those around me, even if that's not how it came across at the time (I can hide my feelings well...). It was recommended to me that I try mindfulness and my eyes would definitely have rolled backwards as it was the type of thing I would not have been open to in the past. However, I asked myself what I had to lose, bought my first Mindfulness book and the rest is history. Mindfulness has saved my mental health and wellbeing - and I am not exaggerating! Sure, I still have a busy mind and suffer from nervous anxiety and the occasional night terror, but now I feel that I understand my mental health and what I have to do to strengthen it and protect it. Through my mindfulness practise commitment, I have learnt that I can slow down the frantic pace of my mind by taking 10-20 minutes each day to focus on my breath and body with no judgement or expectation. It's worked wonders for me and it's the reason I am able to enjoy my work so much now! Mindfulness doesn't solve depression or anxiety or any other type of mental health condition, but it does help you manage it better and gives you more understanding of how your mind works and who you truly are. This type of understanding feels like a superpower once you embrace it.

My Mum (who has given me permission to share her story!) is much better now, although she does still have times when her mental health deteriorates - in particular suffering panic attacks. 18 months ago I bought her the annual subscription to the Calm app and I'm proud of her for doing the Daily Calm every day, she says it has definitely helped! She is certainly more aware of how important it is for her to look after her mental health and wellbeing and I encourage all of you to have an honest conversation with your parents over their own mental health. For many of us, our parents are from a generation where it's looked at as a 'weakness' to openly admit any form of mental health suffering - what can you do to change this perception? Can you encourage your parents to open up and share their own experience? This can be very difficult for some but even baby steps are a step in the right direction.

Through SMASH, Sam and I have the unique and wonderful opportunity to promote the benefits of looking after your mental health and wellbeing. We are a work in progress, just like everyone, and because of all of you who attend class and share your stories with us, we are improving day by day. As a community we are moving forward every single time that we are honest, open and truthful and society needs more of this! Imagine a world where every child is taught about mental wellbeing in school. Where employers offer mental wellbeing benefits as part of employment packages. Where going to the gym is considered beneficial for your mind as much as your body. Where we can all discuss our mental health openly without fear of prejudice or judgement. Where we can seek help and not feel shame. That world can be a reality... and it starts with us