Hand Balance for the Mind

First Published, 28th June, 2014

There are many people who live with physical limitations. They have disabilities or injuries which prevent them from doing certain things. However, we see a lot of people overcoming these limitations, particularly in our little world of movement, through hard work, determination and consistent training. For me this is inspiration, and reminds me how lucky I am to be able to do what I do.

Everyone experiences ups and downs in their life. We all know what it’s like to feel anxious, stressed or constantly worried. It pulls you down and everything takes more effort. But these kinds of feelings can become out of control and unmanageable. Sometimes as debilitating as if you couldn’t walk. These are some of the limitations that you can’t see. The illnesses that we suffer from that are invisible. So what if you are battling something on the inside, which is complex, time consuming and exhausting? Then go and train?

Training is something that takes mental strength. But imagine if it took mental strength just to find the mental strength to have enough motivation, energy and desire to make your body move. You are no longer contending with connecting your body and mind, you are contending with connecting your mind to the present, to a quiet empty space where there is just the smallest bit of room for it to communicate with your body.

One of my closest friends Laura suffers from Generalised Anxiety Disorder, meaning being in a constant state of anxiety. Alongside this she experiences symptoms of Panic Disorder, mild Depression, Agoraphobia, the fear of being trapped in a physical or social situation that is perceived as difficult to escape from, and Emetophobia, the fear of feeling or being sick. These are all anxiety based mental illnesses.

She has been experiencing and dealing with anxiety on a daily basis since she was 7 years old. Like a lot of mental illnesses it took years before she was properly diagnosed at age 13, meaning that for a long time she wasn’t given the support she needed. As she grew up she became too scared to leave the house and sometimes even her own bedroom. She was home schooled until she was 16 and didn’t experience any form of social life, apart from making friends over the internet.

She was offered therapy and started on medication in order to help deal with her anxiety. Even after a mental health diagnosis the process of finding the right treatment is time consuming and tiring. Every day she was dealing with the psychological and physical symptoms of her illness. Most people don’t realise that at times anxiety can be as much physical illness as it is a mental illness, with symptoms such as shaking or trembling, tightening of the throat, nausea, hyperventilation or abnormal breathing and a racing heart. Part of the reason for medication was also to combat the physical symptoms of her anxiety.

“My life was a constant round of anxiety, therapy, learning and teaching myself things at home, and pottering about in the house.”

Laura decided she needed to find a new focus to help improve her anxiety and her quality of life. This is where movement first became part of her life. Her journey began two years ago when she started yoga after a friend suggested she try it. Yoga was something she was able to do from home, meaning it wouldn’t cause any kind of anxiety for her. It was slow and gentle so her heart rate didn’t elevate, which is one of the physical symptom of anxiety that she constantly tries to avoid. At the time she started she was severely agoraphobic and yoga became one of the key factors in helping her with her recovery.

“My goal was simply to learn something new, to find a new direction in life, and find a form of exercise that could be done within the home, not trigger my anxiety, and would tone my body.”

This is what led her to hand balancing. Starting with head stands she realised she enjoyed being upside down and it made sense to try the same thing, but on her hands. It was training with me and seeing my love for handstands that gave her the final push to start training them seriously five months ago. Learning about GMB also gave her inspiration and she started working through their guide to handstands.

“I loved being upside down and wanted to spend as much time as I could being the wrong way up.”

Training has slowly become more and more important to her daily life. Every day is a challenge for Laura. Basic things that we wouldn’t think twice about doing like going to the shops to buy food cause extreme anxiety. Walking and cycling anywhere are a struggle and require a lot of preparation and energy. Many days she finds herself housebound when her anxiety is just too overwhelming. She still takes medication as a prevention and also when symptoms become unmanageable, which can affect her state of mind, emotions and energy levels. So her training creates structure and gives her something to look forward to and focus on. Despite the anxiety, she works from home as an assistant editor for Guinea Pig Magazine and is also studying for a degree in psychology. She is incredibly motivated, not just with her training, but to make her whole life as wonderful as possible and not to hold herself back. This attitude is what enables her to continue to work through her illness.

She told me that when she is in a handstand she feels “normal”… No one is normal, but feeling calm and grounded is something we all look for. The way handstands make her feel is essentially that.

“I can’t over think or over analyse anything, which is what is so destructive, when I’m hand balancing. Handstands are all about focus and balance and creativity, and the combination of those makes me happy.”

The progress Laura has made with her hand balancing is exceptional. I have been fortunate enough to be part of it, training with her and giving her advice. But the majority of the work she has done on her own. With an illness that can sometimes make it impossible to function she has continued with her training regardless. Her main goal now is to achieve a consistent free standing handstand. Although she enjoys playing with shapes, particularly anything involving bending her back, she knows the importance of nailing the basics. She is working through the GMB Vitamin programme to help improve her overall ability to move well, learn something new that challenges her and start building strength in areas that she doesn’t normally train. Gymnastic ring work and climbing are also part of her training. She has gained a lot of flexibility through her yoga and so stretching is a crucial part of her daily practice.

As she describes, the mind and body are inextricably linked. You can feel so sad and everything slows down, you are consumed by negative thoughts and feelings and everything else in life feels impossible. Our state of mind can hold us back from training just like an injury. But you do have a choice. Most mental illnesses involve being managed with medication, therapy and having a strong support system from doctors, friends and family. It doesn’t just stop there though. If you can create a strong healthy body, it helps create a strong healthy mind, even if your mind sometimes trips you up. I look at Laura and see how much her physical strength has improved her confidence, her happiness and most importantly her resilience and ability to cope with her anxiety. She sets an example of someone who plagued with fear at times is actually fearless, and she pushes herself to do what she loves.

Whether we suffer from a diagnosed mental illness or not we can all become trapped by our minds. The important thing is to be able to recognise when this is happening and deal with it. Sometimes it’s the problems that can’t be seen that are the most detrimental to a persons well being. You often can’t see when someone is suffering.

Being upside down is a feeling, a time to be mindful and a way to relax. It’s an outlet for stress and worry and a way to calm down. I know how much handstands have benefited my life, and the way they make me feel makes every bit of effort so worth it. Every one deserves to be happy and healthy.

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This is why we hand balance for our minds…

If you want to learn more about Laura then check out her blog where she writes openly and honestly about her experience with mental health:

http://believementalhealth.wordpress.com

Or check out her facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/believementalhealth?fref=ts

Mental Health Resources:

http://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/

http://www.nhs.uk/

http://www.mind.org.uk/

http://www.emetophobia.com/

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