For any kind of athlete you will have no doubt been told at some point in your sporting career: “If you feel pain, stop.”
This is all well and good when it comes to preventing injury or further physical pain, but what should we do when we’re faced with non physical pain, like a heartache or grief?
The last few years have truly tested me mentally and emotionally, more than I ever thought possible.
My personal battle with grief
In April 2014 my mum was diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite two rounds of surgery and chemo/radiotherapy over the subsequent three years, in April 2017 her diagnosis was upgraded to stage 4 (metastatic) lung cancer.
Two weeks after this diagnosis my dad had an aneurysm out of no where and died suddenly at age 65.
I was three weeks out from my first comp of 2017 when all of this happened and despite wanting to just give up, I pushed on knowing how much more miserable I would feel if I did throw it all in. I went on to win my first overall title at that show, with my mum proudly cheering for me in the audience.
Over the subsequent months I watched on as my mum wasted away from cancer, fighting hard to stay alive a little longer so her grand kids (my babies) would remember her. But sadly she lost her battle last month at age 68.
Once again, I was a mere three days out from my WBFF debut which I had been working towards all year and it took every bit of strength and courage I had in me to get on that stage and put on a brave smile. But somehow I did it, hopefully doing my parents proud once again.
The loss I’ve experienced has on many occasions left me feeling numb and empty, with only a few things bringing me any kind of solace: My own beautiful family and the satisfaction I get from improving my health and achieving my personal goals despite the hardships life has thrown at me.
Training has now become therapeutic for me and on the days when I’m most overcome with sadness and emotional torment I force myself to train as I know I’ll always feel better after a workout.
Left: Maria competing in her first show in June 2016. Right: Maria competing at the WBFF last month.
The benefits of exercise for mental health
Some of the benefits of exercise for mental health which I’ve experienced include:
- Improved sleep. And good sleep helps regulate your moods.
- Improved sense of control, coping ability and self-esteem. People who exercise regularly often report how good achieving a goal makes them feel.
- A distraction from negative thoughts and an opportunity to try new experiences.
- An opportunity to socialise and get social support if you exercise with others.
- Enhanced mood. The levels of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, stress hormones and endorphins change when you exercise.
- Increased energy levels.
- An outlet for frustrations.
- Reduce skeletal muscle tension, which helps you feel more relaxed.
Exercise can be very therapeutic in times of grief and emotional stress. This is Maria earlier this month lifting a PB of 130kg.
How to deal with grief
Grief can be utterly consuming and can spiral out of control if we let it. But I’ve chosen to channel it in a positive way.
Life is always going to have ups and downs, some much more significant than others, but with the right mindset, support network and action plan, even the biggest emotional hurdles can be overcome. My best advice for triumphing through hardships:
- Set goals – No matter how big or small, having something to strive towards each day can help take your thoughts to a positive place and give you some purpose
- Be open about your struggles – Talk with family, friends and colleagues about what you’re going through. Most people genuinely care and are there for you.
- Distance yourself from anything causing you further pain or negative energy – This can be one of the hardest as it’s never easy to cut ties or walk away from certain people or situations, but I’ve found it to be the most rewarding.
- Do things that make you happy – Whether it’s the gym, a massage, getting your hair or nails done, shopping or travelling. Do whatever puts a smile on your face and do more of it!
I now have only two weeks to go until my biggest comp of my career thus far, the WBFF World Titles in Las Vegas. Whatever the outcome, just to make it to the world stage will be my triumph despite the adversity I’ve faced.