Action Sport and Mental Health: How To Harness The Thrill Of Experience As Therapy

31 August 2018

Action sport and mental health? Separate notions or a concept that can bond seamlessly for those experiencing both?

Hey, I’m Angelica, Head On Content here at Thrillism. Our Thrillism magazine is all about inspiration,  sharing stories from far and wide, but for this piece, I want to speak to you the reader, hand in hand we can take a journey through an idea that has helped me through some of the darkest of times. This article is for everyone, to see how profound the effect of adventure can be on the spirit.

Without running the risk of this article becoming yet another blog about how difficult things are in “this day and age” for millennials, we won't dwell too much but the statistics speak for themselves. We took the UK as an example, the stats are similarly reflected around Europe: Three in 10, 29% of millennial brits suffer from feelings of anxiety or depression at least three times a week and 15% every day according to the world health organization, those numbers are objectively high.

Mental health is such a broad term. It's funny that in a society that refers to feeling sad about saying, having a tinder date cancel on you or a child when it doesn't snow at Christmas as depression or perhaps when you feel a little nervous before a test, as anxiety. When legitimate, rational human emotion is placed in the same ballpark as genuine suffering and anguish expressed by the sufferers of anxiety and depression.

If you take mental health for its fundamentals, one's mental and psychological well-being, for which common problems include depression, GAD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, OCD, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); then take the ideas of extreme adventure sport-  sports that are both dangerous and exciting, then in my eyes, you have perfect pairing.  

My personal story of anxiety came from understanding, educating myself about every aspect of my struggle and learning to survive. Freeride snowboarding was my coping mechanism. A way of harnessing my potential, focussing my mind and soothing my soul. However to get to this point I had to face my anxiety head on and settle it in my heart, making my anxiety my friend and learning to use it as a way to be more compassionate, driven and strong.

Freeriding became a way for me to switch my mind to a focus that required everything I had inside me, leaving no room for worries or stress. Whatever I was experiencing as I left my place to head to the mountain would disperse the moment I met my friends and we embarked on an adventure. When you consider that freeriding is such high stakes and dangerous act that needs your undivided attention, throwing myself into the practice, centered me.

 "I am not professing that this is a cure, you begin to see that when one connects with nature, gets out in the sun and you raise your heart rate, you can instantly feel better."

This article won't be to break down of how to deal with your personal sufferings with anxiety and depression (the facets of mental health that we will focus on) but more a wondering of whether, like me and our interviewees, you can harness the thrill, love, and dedication of an adventure as a coping mechanism.

I am not professing that this is a cure, that devalues the genuine heartache that we can experience with depression and anxiety, we must also recognize our privilege, many around the world wouldn't be able to consider this an option. When you speak with others, you begin to see that when one connects with nature, gets out in the sun and you raise your heart rate, you can instantly feel better.

Among the most common ways of dealing with feelings of anxiety or stress are listening to music 44% of people, or going for a walk 39%, if these stats (from www.mentalhealth.org.uk) are truly indicative, then heading on an adventure, be it to your nearest hills for a hike or grabbing your skies and heading for the horizon, there could be some mileage in those whole action sport- mental health idea.

Photo by Oliver Sjöström

Photo by Oliver Sjöström

I have long since idolized a few athletes in the adventure sports industry for speaking so openly about their personal journey, therefore who better to speak to than they. We have been truly honored to feature Freeride World Tour rider Jackie Paaso and Surfer extraordinaire Jess Grimwood. They spoke so openly and honestly about their journey when we asked them:

1 When did you begin to discover you experienced/suffered from depression/ anxiety?

2 What have you observed are your triggers?

3 How did you harness your sport as a coping method?

4 What advice do you have for others in our industry of adventure travel?

So let's dive in.

Disclaimer: Some of the imagery can be triggering for some. We are here to share the undiluted unedited opinions of particular individuals but there is ALWAYS someone to turn to, to talk to and support you. We hope you find this article interesting and informative. (Useful links and resources are included at the end.)

First up, Jackie

Jackie Paaso

Freeskier, FWT rider

Instagram: Read more about Jackie on Powder Magazine 

Jackie is a freeskier and rider in the FWT. She has spoken openly about her struggles with depression.  Jackie is also a former mogul skier turned Professional skier,  Xtreme Verbier Champion and SAFE AS Clinics & Safe On Snow Co-founder.

1 When did you begin to discover you experienced/suffered from depression/ anxiety?

That is a tough question. I think nowadays if I think way back I probably struggled a bit with anxiety when I was a child. Nothing major, maybe it was just being shy but I remember a few episodes back when I was around 12 or so. Depression probably didn’t start till my late teens, early twenties.

2 What have you observed are your triggers?

For anxiety, I think it’s pretty simple, crowds. I sometimes struggle in crowds and definitely do better in one on one situations. With depression, it’s a little harder to answer that question. It’s something I’m still trying to figure out these days.

 "It really goes back to that need to move. When I’m doing a sport I can usually escape all the other things that may be bothering me in everyday life." 

I get ridiculously horrible periods each month and just the fact that I can’t move those days like I usually do brings me down. I really need to move. Being inactive is not a good thing for me.

3 How did you harness your sport as a coping method?

I wouldn’t say that I harness free riding specifically as a coping method. It is more all sports in general. It really goes back to that need to move. When I’m doing a sport I can usually escape all the other things that may be bothering me in everyday life. So I use all sports as both a release and an escape at times.

4 What advice do you have for others in our industry of freeriding?

The most important thing would be to remember why you started doing a sport like freeride in the beginning. I hope for most, or all that is was because it’s fun. It needs to stay fun.


And finally, Jessica

Jessica Grimwood

Surfer

Instagram:  View Jessica's edit on Vimeo

Jessica is a surfer and adventure lover, Jess has spoken openly about her issues with depression and using surfing as a tool to come back from the brink of suicide. A truly inspiring human who works as a firefighter, with so much knowledge to share.

1 When did you begin to discover you experienced/suffered from depression/ anxiety?

After I experienced my first fatality on the job (as a permanent firefighter in Sydney city), I noticed I immediately found it hard to sleep and get the images and smells etc from my mind. I was diagnosed with PTSD almost 6 years later after continuing in my career and accumulating many more traumatic incidents.

2 What have you observed are your triggers?

I have worked really hard on uncovering my triggers and being aware of them so I can understand my emotional reactions, although i constantly uncover new ones that are sometimes so abstractly related.

 "I started to get back into the water more and really just enjoyed the experience of cleansing the ocean offers you."

For me, triggers are specifically past job-related. They can be anything from a smell, going to the same areas where I have been too traumatic or fatal jobs. Sounds, people...really anything that can be absorbed by my senses and make your mind time travel straight back to that stressful and traumatic time. Almost like what happens when you look at an old photo and you get the same feelings and memories come back of all the details or smells and sounds of that specific moment in time. For me, they are almost always disturbing and nightmarish.

Some specific examples are, screaming women or people sounding distressed, the smell of burning chemicals or plastics and organic materials (like hair etc).

3 How did you harness your sport as a coping method?

During when I was suffering and at my worst with severe PTSD i was not able to even surf and did not enjoy it at all because I was so exhausted that I didn't have the energy to put into it and anything that went wrong even the slightest thing would set me off as I was at coping capacity already. I have surfed since I was very very young, religiously and mostly more than once a day so not surfing at all was a big clue to my mental state.

Once I began seeking help and treatment and slowly recovering, I started to get back into the water more and really just enjoyed the experience of cleansing the ocean offers you. The more I surfed just for the joy of it and only when I was really feeling it the more I got back in the water and I totally became obsessed again.

 "If you can always just remember how lucky we are to be involved with the ocean and why  we first fell in love with the sport that's a start."

I was in the ocean every day after I had a stay (was locked up for a "suicide attempt" I don't like to call it trying to commit suicide as it sounds like its a crime and it shouldn't be classified like that in my opinion) in a psychiatric ward and realised how lucky I was to be able to still get to the ocean once I was out. I don't think I've missed a day really since. Then I just got into exploring all different types of fun craft and surfing different spots and with my friends.


4 What advice do you have for others in our industry of surfing?

There are more and more sports people really struggling with mental health stuff and I see it literally more and more every week. Also being back into competing for surfing I can notice a lot about other competitors that tell tales of some pretty gnarly anxiety. I think pushing yourself in any sport or in any way with a sport competing or not can be tricky and then add in the current social media stuff that goes on I feel it could be easy to lose yourself and feel a lot of pressure.

If you can always just remember how lucky we are to be involved with the ocean and why we first fell in love with the sport that's a start. Then obviously the personal journey of staying true to yourself and doing what feels right to you regardless of everything else. Surfing is a personal expression of your relationship with something much greater than we could ever imagine, not just a sport or way to becoming insta-famous. My friends and I always just say "you do you." Stay real.

A final word

You can take away whatever you need from this article, many will interpret it differently, some will say that simply the act for being active is beneficial, others will say that distracting the mind is important but no matter your school of thinking, we can all agree that being in nature, smiling and surrounding yourself with either amazing people or finding bliss in solitude can restore your vitality.

It was one of my favorite writers Andrew Solomon that said “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality and my life, as I write this, is vital”, Andrew is a father, a husband, a writer and a public speaker, his life like yours is vital.

Depression and anxiety do not define you. In fact Like Andrew and the fundamental principles of his vitality, can be yours, you are alive, you have the possibility to take control of some aspects of your mind, restore your vitality by heading outside, picking up your snowboard, your surfboard, your hiking boots, your bike, your flippers- I could go on. And do what you love. Let that love for your sport, that love of movement and adrenaline fill your heart with excitement. That's vitality, that's your lifeline.

Tips for coping right now

1) Try not to think about the future – just focus on getting through today

2) Stay away from drugs and alcohol

3) Get yourself to a safe place, like a friend's house

4) Be around other people

5) Do something you usually enjoy

See more tips from Rethink.

Worried about someone else?

If you're worried about someone, try to get them to talk to you. Ask open-ended questions like: "How do you feel about...?"

Don't worry about having the answers. Just listening to what someone has to say and taking it seriously can be more helpful.

See Samaritans' tips on how to start a difficult conversation.

Rethink also has advice on how to support someone who is having suicidal thoughts.

Resources

UK

Samaritans UK & ROI  (24 Hour service)

Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 90 90 (UK - local rate)

Hotline: +44 (0) 8457 90 91 92 (UK minicom)

Hotline: 1850 60 90 90 (ROI - local rate)

Hotline: 1850 60 90 91 (ROI minicom)

Website: samaritans.org

E-mail Helpline: jo@samaritans.org


Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM, for men)

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) 

Call 0800 58 58 58 – 5pm to midnight every day

Visit the webchat page


Sweden

Nationella Hjälplinjen

Box 22335

104 22

Stockholm

Hotline: 020 22 00 60

Website: nationellahjalplinjen.se

Hours: Mon, Tues, Wed, Thurs: 05:00 - 22:00

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