Getting to grips with depression
- 17 August 2014
- From the section Health
Swinging through the air on a rope might seem like the last thing you would want to do if you were feeling down. But for the leggings-clad crew at a trapeze class on the outskirts of London, it is both body and mind that benefit.
I started on what felt like a rather feeble bar - just a metre and a half off the ground.
Reaching up to grip the fat ropes and pulling myself up from sitting took all my strength. I felt a significant sense of achievement (and relief) when I graduated to a move that involved flipping backwards, landing on my feet on a crash mat.
The instructor, Amanda Miles, has been giving trapeze lessons for more than 20 years, so I was in safe hands.
The aim of My Aerial Home is to build fitness and confidence. "Everyone can have a go - we will get you on somehow… you feel empowerment physically, which makes you mentally stronger."
Very few of the 350 million people around the world who have depression will have been prescribed circus skills as a remedy.
Depression affects work and family life - and while talking therapies and medication can help, should doctors be doing more to promote the positive influence of physical exercise on well-being?
Swinging effortlessly through the air takes real skill but for a beginner like me it is back to basics.
Ms Miles is a patient teacher. "The day they can sit on the trapeze with their arms above them and pull themselves up - so I can see daylight under their bottom - it's like all their Christmases at once. They don't start thinking they can lift their own bodyweight - but things do get easier."
Watching the regulars, it looked relatively easy. But it was clear I had underestimated how much strength is required to lift your own body weight. I managed to straddle the bar. It wasn't elegant but I'd made it into the air and it felt like a big achievement.
A vision in purple whose toes grip the rope as she twirls above our heads is Adatka Radwanska. Originally from Poland, she looks like she was born for the trapeze. "The impact on me? It's made me much more confident. It got me from being extremely low and weak to a point where I am ready for challenges. I love it."
The classes are recommended by a charity that helps people with mental health problems or disabilities to return to work. Jo Rixom's own love of the ropes and trapeze (which is actually the bar you sit on) prompted her to offer sessions to people helped by Status Employment.
Data gathered from her clients after they had participated in the six or 12-week courses suggests people reported that taking part had helped them.
Those in the study kept journals and filled in questionnaires. These revealed improved well-being and self-esteem. It also generated practical results. People reported taking up volunteer roles, education or training and even finding employment.
The classes are open to everyone. Ms Rixom said the mix "helped to reduce stigma to see that everyone was just the same and didn't need separating or different care".
Sam Challis, of the mental health charity Mind, agrees about the benefits of exercise. "Physical activity is a natural stimulator of many important 'mood' hormones, including serotonin and dopamine, so after exercising you may feel less stressed and have a clearer head. If you keep on exercising, ideally for 30 minutes a day, you'll notice long-term benefits too."
But he cautions that activities like trapeze might not suit everyone. "Not everybody has a head for heights, and what helps one person may not work for another. People experiencing severe depression may find it difficult to engage in exercise, but may benefit from talking therapies, medication or a combination of both.
"Therapies such as arts therapy, drama therapy and ecotherapy can also have a positive impact, and people with severe mental health problems might find that their symptoms improve to the point where they can engage in physical activity - even trapeze."
Rebecca (not her real name) is one of those who says her mental health has benefited from the group.
Her partner spotted an advert for the classes in a local magazine but it was a year before Rebecca summoned the courage to go along.
At the time she was working a difficult environment where bullying and harassment were commonplace.
She says: "I ended up hitting a very low point.
"I would only dwell on the bad and felt that I had nothing to offer anyone."
Rebecca says she was nervous, but the first lesson had her hooked. She says the "trapeze treatment" has helped to transform both her body and mind.
"I'm physically stronger and my shape has changed. I've since moved jobs and, although life is still throwing stuff at me, actually doing something physical like this takes me away from it all, just for a little while.
Ms Miles has seen similar transformations again and again as women attend her classes.
Rebecca says it changed her whole outlook on life. "The idea of facing fears, such as moving to a higher trapeze, climbing to the top of the rope… trickled in to my daily life and meant that I felt I could cope more with the pressures from work and home."