Last week I attended a talk at Look Mum No Hands on the relationship between cycling and mental health. It was an interesting and insightful discussion with members of the panel sharing their personal experiences of mental health issues and cycling. It’s really positive to see that mental health is being discussed more openly. There are so many blogs, podcasts, events, books and social media accounts dedicated to a topic which was just not spoken about up until recently. The stigma is definitely starting to shift.
Cycling (and exercise in general) is often recommended to anyone suffering with mental health problems as a form of medication. The benefits are certainly well-documented. It can improve your state of mind, widen your social circle, get you outdoors in nature and boost your endorphins. Interestingly, there is a study which shows that men are more able to talk openly about their issues whilst cycling side-by-side someone, rather than speaking face-to-face.
However for anyone suffering with severe symptoms, cycling may be the last thing they want to do. For those in the depths of depression, it can be a struggle to even get out of bed, wash and dress. At the opposite end of the spectrum, cycling solo can be used as a way to withdraw from company and become more insular.
Getting on your bike more often is not a quick fix solution or cure-all. It does provide a temporary escape, but you still need to have other methods of coping with life off the bike.
The panel also discussed the way that cycling is portrayed on social media and how this can be detrimental to mental health. People tend to present their highlights on social media- it’s all about capturing the perfect image which shows us riding further, faster, harder, in the best locations and the best kit. We compare ourselves to an unrealistic online personal and that exacerbates the pressures we put on ourselves.
I was particularly interested in the discussion around the insecurities and self-doubt we all experience as cyclists. Cycling can be very daunting- many of us worry about being unable to keep up in a group ride or feel as though we don’t fit in at an event. It’s also common to have fears around technical elements of riding like climbing, cornering and descending.
Jools Walker recently blogged about her fears leading up to Ride London– her experiences mirrored mine so closely that I could have written the post myself. I was lucky enough to get a place in the ballot last year and trained towards my first century ride with excitement. However as the event got closer, my anxieties started to get the better of me. I convinced myself that the ride was beyond my abilities, that I wouldn’t be able to handle the hills or the crowds of riders on the roads. I worried I’d have an accident or a mechanical failure. I love riding sportives, but somehow I had built this event up in my mind to be a negative experience before I’d even started.
Unlike Jools, I didn’t manage to put the thoughts to the back of my mind and didn’t make the start line of Ride London. I stayed home that day regretting my decision while my husband and friends had a amazing time riding 100 miles around London and Surrey. It’s the one and only occasion that I’ve allowed self-doubt to stop me doing what I wanted to do. I have unfinished business with Ride London. It sounds cliche but I need to feel the fear and do it anyway- one day I will cross the finish line of a century ride.
Cycling and fitness have had a huge positive impact on my wellbeing. Whilst I don’t suffer with depression or anxiety myself, I do appreciate the importance of looking after my mental health and recognising negative thoughts before they take over.
What is your experience of cycling and mental health?