Opening the Curtains on the Window of Tolerance: Cycling through PTSD

Jami shares her experiences of cycling through PTSD

Words by Jami Blythe

Mental Health Week has been dotted with articles and posters to raise awareness about stress, depression and anxiety, as well as related issues. It’s been so refreshing to read about the journeys other people have taken or are just starting and we can only hope that the bravery that goes alongside sharing our experiences will open the door to more.

Read Sarah’s story about cycling through depression here

Well, when I say ‘open the door’, on this occasion, I mean ‘open the window curtains’. Allow me to explain more…

Recovering from PTSD

Having been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after years of working on the front line of the emergency service response, cycling has played a crucial role in my own journey – but it hasn’t all been smooth pedalling.

After being referred to NHS Talking Matters following a mental break down last November, I embarked on an online course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Suffering burn out, for me, had stopped me in my tracks. My routine, thought processes, appetite, social skills and general lust for life all came tumbling down. Much like Humpty Dumpty, I didn’t know where to start in putting myself back together again.

Treating the CBT as a daily essential, I started to build a new routine and resolved myself to socialising with at least one person and doing something with my bike – whether cycling, reading about cycling, watching cycling or doing something mechanical, every day. Not working reduced my sense of purpose and having read so much about the health and wellbeing benefits of cycling, I knew that it would do me good to keep pedalling each day. The alternative was to shut myself in the house and spiral further downwards into a darker depression. What I hadn’t reckoned on, however, were two surprises that would hinder my good intentions and determination to get better more quickly.

The first came along immediately after enjoying a good workout on my bike. The rush of endorphins during exercise, proven to have all sorts of boosts to mental health were brilliant. Whether I was inside on my turbo or out on the road breathing in the fresh air and finding respite from my problems, when I unclipped and dismounted my bike, the slump or ‘come down’ was all too much for my fragile mind to handle.

I would step into the shower and cry for what seemed to be no reason. This happened on every occasion. The harder the workout, the worst it felt. I googled, trying to find an explanation or cure for what seemed to be the withdrawal symptoms of being on my bike. Now, I love my bike, but not that much! Finding no answers, I tried eating as soon as I stopped in case it was sugar related, blending a sweet smoothie, or making a cup of tea. Nothing worked.

The snow drifts limit everyday life

The second surprise was the start of the snow. Living in rural Northumberland meant that we became cut off for days on end. Much like the rest of the country, the Arctic temperatures and bitter wind put stop to any ideas about venturing outdoors. The roads were a no-go and the drifts too high for fat tyres.

Instead, I turned to Zwift to find my daily fix. Signing up for the virtual cycling world, I started to enjoy a training plan and training alongside other people from the four corners of the world. Trying to keep up with Marcel Kittel on a segment or playing cat and mouse with Pascal from France kept me coming back for more. I started to look forward to getting on the bike and as my mind began to recover slowly, so too did the symptoms of the mental slump I experienced after every ride.

Searching for sun in Mallorca

After weeks of cycling indoors and eventually back onto local roads, my partner and I booked a last minute break to the cycling island of Mallorca.

Hand Luggage Cycling Getaways: Palma, Mallorca

Resolving that the sun would boost my vitamin D levels naturally (I took supplements through the winter), we hired bikes and found some routes off the beaten track to explore. Whilst the weather was glorious and the untrodden roads amazing, I quickly realised that being in another country doesn’t cure all your woes – you only take the same mind away with you.

Conquering Cap de Formentor in Mallorca

Determined to face my fears of twisty descents and steep ascents we planned a ride to the popular Cap de Formentor lighthouse on our last day. This iconic route is shared with literally hundreds of cyclists every day. The previous year, I had nearly been beaten by an overwhelming yet irrational sense of doom on a technically tricky section of the 30-mile loop. I lay awake the night before and the nerves worked my stomach into knots. The physical sensations I experienced this year were the same as the last, only this time I had built up a set of tools to overcome and manage the demons that thrived on occasions such as this. You can read more about cycling in Mallorca on my blog.

The Window of Tolerance

It was only later, in my third session of NHS face to face counselling and the start of Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing that I learned about the ‘Window of Tolerance’. The theory, termed by Dr Dan Siegel, suggests that a zone of arousal exists in which we are able to receive stimuli, process, respond and function in a health way to the demands of everyday life.

Rational thoughts, good memory and an ability to reflect calmly are all ‘normal’ occurrence. Each individual’s window is a different size and one which I imagine to have the curtains drawn at different levels. For those suffering from extreme stress or a more limited ability to process everyday information, such as those with PTSD, operate between zones both above and below this window. Above this zone, being ‘hyper-aroused’ means overwhelming feelings of anxiety, chaotic responses to seemingly non-noteworthy situations, outbursts of anger or rage or the ‘fight or flight’ response that is so often talked about.

On reflection, the come down I felt after cycling and the exaggerated sense of danger I experienced when cycling Cap de Formentor was undoubtedly feelings of hyper-arousal. Conversely, being ‘hypo-aroused’ – the zone which sits below the window of tolerance, around about the area of a window planter, provides feelings of dissociation, a lack of presence such as staring into space, an inability to concentrate or memory loss. I don’t mind admitting that I left the oven hob switched on, three times in three days. I also ‘forgot’ I was getting married and nearly booked a cycling event on the same day as my wedding until a friend saved me from an embarrassing conversation with my fiancé.

The role that cycling played, and continues to play, in my recovery has been a long one and a relationship very much of love and hate. On the one hand, I knew that the physical benefits of cardiovascular exertion, pumping oxygen to my brain, breathing in fresh air and the general feeling of well being that cycling brings to you could only be positive and helpful to healing my mind. On the other hand, the feeling of despair that I was so broken even cycling couldn’t help me, the overwhelming fear of crashing down a sheer cliff face into the Balearic Sea, or falling from my pedals on a steep incline into the path of a car, all increased my already high feelings of anxiety.

Keeping the curtains open

Sharing Mental Health experiences is tough, particularly when you’re so unsure of your state of mind and carry a sense of existing vulnerability.

For some, in the darkest days, the curtains are well and truly closed on the ‘window of tolerance’ as depression takes grip and keeps them shut. On other days, working on building a toolbox of resilience to use in future means we can prize them open enough to let some light in.

Learning about theories and listening to the battles of others arms us with more knowledge, which ultimately equals enough power to leave the curtains open for longer. In my case, cycling has helped my routine and sense of well being I feel when riding with others in our beautiful part of the world. It does, however, mean that you have to be willing to try and keep the curtains open for long enough to see the full vista that’s in front of you. Eventually, the horizon gets wider and you can afford the odd curtain twitch knowing that it’s just temporary.

So, whether your curtains are closed, half open, or fully pulled back, happy Mental Health Week to one and all.

For more information on mental health and how to seek help, the NHS has a wealth of helplines available here.

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