How to Manage Your Mental Health: Leon Taylor (Full Transcript)

Leon Taylor

Following is the full transcript of former competitive diver Leon Taylor’s TEDx Talk: How to Manage Your Mental Health @ TEDxClapham conference. This event occurred on June 17, 2018.


Listen to the MP3 audio while reading the transcript: How to manage your mental health by Leon Taylor @ TEDxClapham


Leon Taylor – Former competitive diver

So my mum and dad still refer to me to this day is a bit of a pain in the backside. And probably, for a good reason, how many parents have we got in here? Give me a quick wave. Loads of you.

Well, I was a hyperactive child. I drove my parents up the wall with my endless amounts of energy. I wouldn’t sleep. I needed constant attention and no matter what my parents seemed to do, I wouldn’t rest. A few of you nodding, sorry about that.

My parents had no idea what to do with me. So they took me to the family doctor to see if there’s anything that he could do.

Now I’m not sure what available labels there were back then, but the family doctor labeled me as a problem child. And he said to my mum and dad, he can’t cope with Leon. I can always take him off you and sedate him, and that he proceeded to share with them some other drug related interventions that they might want to consider.

And for whatever reason, my mum and dad bulked at this. They decided that they would find another way. So they gave me away to other people to look after — mum and dad’s friends and family but that didn’t work, because everyone got very busy and they were left — my mom and dad were left with their problem child at the end of their tether.

You know, there’s a picture of my mum and dad on their wedding day, they looked young, healthy, vital. And there’s a picture of the three of us less than two years later and they looked as if they’ve aged 25 years. So my parents decided to fight fire with fire and they decided to attempt to tire me out. And that’s where my life of activity started way before I can even remember.

I was swimming from day dot. I went to mother and baby gymnastics before I was one-year old. That turned into tumble tots. And I was taking part in any physical activity that was going, and every sport that I was able to do at the age that I was at.

And magical things started to happen. I became easier to manage, and I’m glad my parents went down the physical activity route, because my dreams of going to the Olympic Games started when I was six years old.

I watched the Olympic Games on the TV in 1984, and I told my dad then that I wanted to go to the Olympic Games.

I used to get the Guinness Book of World Records at Christmas, and I would write down in my best handwriting: my time next to the world-record holder to see how many minutes I needed to take off.

And I’m glad my parents went down this route, because when I was 9 or just before I was 9, I started diving. And that was one of the many sports that I tried, but actually within a short space of time it was clear to me that diving was the sport for me.

Ultimately, I followed my Olympic dreams in the sport diving competing at 3 Olympic Games and even winning an Olympic medal in 2004. And none of that would have been possible if my mum and dad hadn’t chosen physical movement as my medicine.

So it’s widely known the negative effects of inactivity on someone’s physical health and the associated risk of disease. But what’s really concerning me is the link between inactivity and someone’s mental health.

Now can I just check with you here today in London just by a show of hands, how many of you know someone close to you who has suffered — always suffering with in some way their mental health? Just give me a quick indicate… Wow! Pretty much every hand went up. This is a huge issue today.

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You know, in a recent index of over 300 diseases, mental health problems were the largest cause of the overall disease burden worldwide. Here in the UK, a 2016 official survey showed that nearly 20% of those 16 and over are suffering with symptoms of either depression and/or anxiety.

And there’s a huge percentage of the population who don’t necessarily have a diagnosable mental health problem, but who are suffering with their mental health. It seems that stress and overwhelm are so commonplace in today’s society, and although stress in itself is not a mental health issue, it’s often the starting point for many.

Could you imagine what our world would be like if we had very few mental health issues? What would it be like if we could drastically reduce the number of people who are suffering?

Well, I believe we can. I think there’s something that we can do even more of and is simple. I’d like to argue that we spend too much time stuck in our heads and not enough time in our bodies.

Thinking isn’t necessarily the solution to our problems. Thinking is often the cause, especially when we get stuck in a pattern of over-thinking.

Over-thinking leads to psychological stress. And according to the World Health Organization, stress is a global health epidemic.

So what can we do?

We can move more. We can physically move, because, you know, physically moving changes absolutely everything. And when I say everything, I mean our experience of the world and what else is there. Fascinating things happen biochemically in the brain when we move.

The first thing that happens when we begin to move physically, the human nervous system recognizes this as a moment of stress, and in order – as it thinks you’re about to fight or flee from an enemy, and in order to protect you, your brain releases a chemical — a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Fancy name, BDNF for short.

BDNF repairs the brain, protects the brain, and it also plays a key role in creating new neurons specifically in the hippocampus area of the brain. Alongside this, another chemical is released, one that you may be more familiar with: endorphins.

Endorphins are often attributed to the high that we feel after moving physically but their role is to dumb down any discomfort that we might encounter from fighting or fleeing from that enemy.

So essentially it’s the chemical mix of BDNF and endorphin which explain why things are often clearer and we feel more at ease after moving physically.

But how does this show up in the real world? How do we experience this?

Well, moving physically in the short term immediately changes our state. Thanks. Immediately changes our state. It boosts our mood and it releases the buildup of stress in our human nervous system.

And over the long-term, consistent physical movement changes the structure of our brain. It boosts self-esteem and decreases the biological reaction to psychological stress.

Psychological stress is clearly the enemy to our mental health. And it’s physical movement that is our best weapon to respond. This isn’t new.

Cicero who was around over 2,000 years ago, arguably one of Rome’s greatest orators said this: “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigor.” And he was right. And it seems more applicable now than ever.

There’s a whole body of research showing that movement is an effective intervention on more serious mental health issues. In 2013, there was a study into depression that showed that meditative movement — in this case, it was Yoga, Qigong and Tai Chi were effective in reducing symptoms of depression in all participants in that particular study.

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A few years later, a separate study showed that regular yoga practice as an intervention — and it must be regular — was effective in reducing the symptom severity of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. Even in some cases so much so that PTSD diagnosis was no longer valid.

A different type of movement intervention was used to combat anxiety disorders. It was shown that aerobic exercise actually was a fantastic intervention into those who were suffering. Those with anxiety when they experienced a physiological change that they are fearful of, for example, an increased heart rate, when it’s through aerobic exercise, it helped make the fight flight response, their stress system less reactive, and therefore building a resilience and a tolerance to such symptoms, resulting in infrequent, less frequent, less intense anxiety episodes.

And finally, Fritz and O’Connor in 2016 showed that 20-minute bouts of medium intensity exercise successfully reduced symptoms of those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD. And that’s certainly reflective of how movement was used as an intervention when I was younger.

So what would happen if we reclaimed our mental health by moving more? Well there’s two actions that you can all take.

The first one is when you find yourself in a context where you’re stressed, whatever that is, maybe you’re hunched over the laptop, maybe it’s a completely different context, when you’re stressed you’re poisoning your body. There’s chemical changes taking place. Cortisol is going through the roof. Adrenaline’s going through the roof.

And if you don’t change that, then you’re poisoning your body. The thing that you do is get up and go for a walk, if that is available to you. If you’re physically not capable of that, even just changing your posture and the rhythm of your breath is enough to change the chemicals in the brain and move you from stress more towards wellness.

The most important thing here is we disrupt this constant pattern. We disrupt the buildup of stress and do this as often as you can.

And the second long-term solution is a challenge. I challenge you to find your movement, your physical movements – sport, activity, doesn’t matter what it is. But there’s something very important at play here. And I learned this the hard way.

So clearly diving was my movement and you’d think that someone like me who used to train for seven hours a day, six days a week, would be one of the most mentally well people around, because of all of that movement. But that wasn’t the case in my experience.

In the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000, I ended up fourth, and I knew that it couldn’t get any closer to my dreams. That next year, things started to go south. I had a reconstructive shoulder surgery on my right shoulder.

I had seven months of painstaking rehabilitation, then I made it back to fitness only to have to go under the knife once again for a second shoulder reconstruction on this same shoulder, and then I fell into a ditch.

For the next eight months life wasn’t fair. I fell into a depression. I was training and training and training obsessing on all of the detail doing exactly what I needed to do and I was stuck because something was missing.

I hit rock bottom. I’m stood on a pool side away from the crowds with tears rolling down my face; my shoulders are hunched, and I’ve given up, because I’ve tried everything.

And it’s often the way there’s a point where it turns around, and it was my mentor that came up to me at that time and he gently put his hand on my shoulder. And he asked me a question. He said, “Leon, remind me why do you do this sport?”

“Because I enjoy it.”

He said, “Well, I haven’t seen you smile for the past eight months.”

And that was it. The reason I chose the sport in the first place over all of the sports I went into when I was young is because I enjoyed it. And because of the stress and the pressure that I put myself in, I was stuck in that negative spiral.

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I made one change when I went back to training the very next day. I put a smile on my face, and it was like that — it was a forced smile to start with but that negative spiral very quickly started to go the other way. I found the joy in the movement once again. Every single training session, every single dive, every single weight I lifted, I found — that didn’t make it easy but I found the joy in it and that negative spiral went the other way and I was back on track after my Olympic dreams.

So my challenge to you, this is an exercise for exercise sake. This isn’t forcing yourself to go to the gym. This isn’t movement for movement sake. This is find your movement, the movement that fills you with joy.

So I challenge you to be creative, walk, run, swim, dive, play tennis, kick a football, even head off to one of those early-morning sober raves, that’s the thing, you should try them, whatever you need to do but the magic ingredient here is enjoyment.

So what would happen if we moved more and what is possible for movement as an intervention?

Well, number of years ago I was asked to work with a young man as an executive coach. I was to be his performance coach and on paper things were looking amazing because he was a high flyer, accelerating through a massive organization here in London. He was already almost at the top of the very tree.

But in reality, things were very different. When I sat down with him, I discovered the things were very dark. He was suffering with bipolar disorder. He was under the care of a psychiatrist, and over the past five or six years, the symptom severity of his bipolar disorder had slowly been increasing and therefore the medication he was on subsequently was being upped and upped and upped. And he found himself to a point where it was tearing him, his young family apart and he was right on the edge.

We made one intervention. I asked him: What do you love to do movement wise?

He did tell me a story how he used to love to run when he was younger. So he built a series of behaviors and habits around running. He started to go running frequently. Before long, in a number of weeks, he’d already joined a local running club.

And this journey went on. In six months down the line, he ran in his local half marathon with his wife, his children, extended friends and family cheering him on, the most momentous day. And over that period, the symptom severity of his bipolar disorder had been reduced so much that he was taken off pretty much all of his medication.

The side effects that were plaguing him had faded away and from a mental health point of view he was in the best place he’d been for over a decade, because running was his movement.

So there’s a beautiful quote that I’m going to leave you with from Thomas Jefferson, who said this: “Exercise and application produce order to our affairs, health of body, cheerfulness of mind, and those make us precious to our friends.”

So in this world of stress, overwhelm, and overthinking, we need to get out of our heads and back into our bodies. We need to physically move more, because if we don’t, the children of this world will continue to model our behaviors of stress and inactivity. And this mental health unwellness will continue to rise.

So here today let’s start a movement for movement. I challenge you to reclaim your mental health by finding your movement –the movement that fills you with joy and do it as often as you can.

Thank you.

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