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Mental Distress vs Mental Illness and the role of Sport and Exercise

With mental health in sport being in the spotlight recently, it seems to be a good idea to tease out what we mean when we talk about it, as well as the differences between mental distress and mental illness; how they’re experienced; and how sports and exercise can help to protect us from both, while promoting well-being. We’ll do our best to explain some of these concepts.

Basically, mental health refers to a state of well-being that includes the person feeling as though they can cope and thrive in their work; form and maintain meaningful relationships; and contribute to their community. A state of well-being normally consists of becoming fairly energised, feeling somewhat relaxed, and having an ability to experience pleasure in one’s life.

Mental distress, on the other hand is when someone experiences feelings and thoughts that get in the way of them experiencing well-being but don’t overly affect their ability to function in the world. Mental distress can include physical stress symptoms; problems in daily routines; as well as feelings of being anxious, overwhelmed, sad, frustrated, angry, and irritable. Although this state of being can be unpleasant, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is mentally ill.

A mental illness, or disorder, however, refers to when a person is experiencing some form of mental distress that causes them not to be able to function in one or more areas of their life such as work, school, and/or their social relationships. Mental illness often requires professional or medical interventions to help. These interventions can include psychotherapy, medication, or even well thought through and trusted retreats.

Occasional mental distress is part of being human and alive. It's our ‘job’ to get to know ourselves when we’re feeling good, as well as when we’re feeling down. This doesn’t mean that we should seek out mental distress, it just means that when we feel low to try to reframe these feelings as being part of our natural life rhythm or something in ourselves to be aware of or to understand. Becoming aware of the differences between powerful emotions, as well as of what triggers them can be a very meaningful experience. So, how does sport and exercise support mental health, while protecting us from mental distress?

Firstly, sport and exercise creates movement and blood flow. As soon as this happens, those feel good hormones we call endorphins are produced and we tend to experience a feeling of well-being.

Secondly, sport and exercise is also normally participated in through groups or teams. Even exercising in a gym or yoga studio can open one up to the possibility of social community. Research shows that this sense of community and the social support that’s created from it can promote mental health and well-being. Furthermore, relationships that are formed through shared goals and interests often end up being experienced as deep connections between people. Feeling connected to others and ourselves is a protective factor against both mental distress and illness. Social isolation and disruptions in relationships are often reported as being major triggers in the onset of mental distress.

Lastly, sport and exercise can help direct people towards the achievement of goals, which can result in a sense of purpose and meaning for themselves. Being able to direct your will towards something and then achieve that something seems to be built into what it means to be human. Being able to achieve goals through our physical bodies can be very rewarding!

All in all, it’s good to understand what we actually mean when we talk about mental health, distress, and illness. Being armed with knowledge about this subject can be empowering to oneself and to others. And, finally, having some information about both the positive psychological and protective benefits of participating in sports and exercise will hopefully motivate us to do more of it.


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