While it is evident that your emotions can influence how you move, it is less obvious that your movement can, in turn, influence your emotions. When you are exhausted and upset you may walk more slowly. On the flip side, you may run around or become absolutely paralysed when you are anxious.
However, current research indicates that the relationship between your brain and your body is a two-way street, which means that movement can also influence your brain.
Being physically active entails spending less time sitting and more time exercising our body. Many people find that physical activity, either alone or in conjunction with other treatments, helps them maintain healthy mental health.
This doesn't have to mean running marathons or training every day at the gym. There are lots of different things you can do to be a bit more active.
Of course, there are the obvious benefits...
- Better Sleep - Exercise, movement and training will make you exhausted, meaning towards the end of the day, your body is more inclined to switch off and rest.
- Better mood – physical activity releases hormones that make you feel better in yourself and give you more energy.
- Managing stress, anxiety or intrusive and racing thoughts – doing something physical releases cortisol which helps us manage stress. Being physically active also gives your brain something to focus on and can be a positive coping strategy for difficult times
Parkour, as a sport, allows participants to practise in their own environment. Unlike many sports, where you may be required to practise in a specific location and/or setting. Parkour is basically possible in almost any location/space.
No money, no investments, no upfront costs, and no requirement to travel or make a journey anywhere. You just need yourself & a pair of trainers and you're good to go.
In this particular piece, Parkour is going to be the sport of focus. Why? Although many sports have proven to benefit mental health in many ways, I believe parkour and its original philosophies and ideas actually have a major role in dealing with mental health.
Parkour came from the Parisian suburbs in the late 1980s as a subversion of Georges Herbert's La Method Naturale military discipline technique. It pushes the boundaries of space and opens up new ways of movement, thinking & living.
It's a way of looking at any situation and knowing in your heart that no hurdle in life is insurmountable. Because everyone is different, no two people will come up with the same solution, but there is a way through for all of us.
This can very much be applied to the premise of mental health.
I am going to dive into three topics in this article, and I will explain how parkour can be used as a tool that is way past the physical feats you see on the internet, social media, television or when you're out and about.
The three areas of focus include:
- Developing a relationship with the environment
- Understanding fear
- Improvement of self efficacy
Developing A Relationship With The Environment:
Viewing your environment differently opens up a world of challenges and obstacles, which at first, can be daunting.
Parkour is an individual journey, an adventure. We were encouraged to break a challenge, that is, to overcome a personal barriers, such as jumping from a wall or jumping between rails.
The personal character of parkour progression is a rare thing to experience in a world where we are constantly encouraged to compete and compare ourselves, particularly with the rise of social media, influencers, celebrity status and bullshit reality TV shows.
It's about pushing yourself, but more importantly, it's about trusting yourself and being proud of yourself when you hit those targets, challenges or missions.
A strong point I want to raise here is becoming in tune with what you are physically and mentally capable of. With training and practice, you become very in tune with your mind and your body. Athletes/practitioners of the sports are some of the most analytical people I know, they can very easily work out and understand where their limits are, what it is that is bothering them, and whether to overcome the challenge by breaking it down or simply walk away, ready to face it another day.
This is something as of late that I have been applying to my life in everyday scenarios. As someone who struggles with heavy anxiety, depression and waves of imposter syndrome, applying the way I have learnt to look at my environment and challenges whilst practicing the sport has allowed me to almost utilise it in the same way when I hit challenges in my daily mental state.
I am very quick to understand if a situation is going to be too much for me. I can weigh up the risks, look at the scenario and use the 10+ years of practice of breaking down challenges and adapting it into my day to day routine. This has become a huge benefit in my life as of late, and has actually allowed me to lead a more positive few weeks, both in training and within my day to day.
This feeds very easily into my next point, which is
Parkour heavily involves fear. There's no denying that. On most training sessions, you will most likely run into a mental battle where you have to overcome & break down challenges.
But what exactly is fear? According to Performance Mentor Gary Grinham, who works with top tier extreme sports athletes, fear is just a label we were given for a distinct set of feelings, and when we attach a different label to the same feelings we get a different result.
Early humans needed the fast, powerful responses that fear causes, as they were often in situations of physical danger;
however, we no longer face the same threats in modern-day living.
Despite this, our minds and bodies still work in the same way as our early ancestors, and we have the same reactions to our modern worries about bills, travel and social situations. But we can’t run away from or physically attack these problems!
The physical feelings of fear can be scary in themselves – especially if you are experiencing them and you don’t know why, or if they seem out of proportion to the situation. Instead of alerting you to a danger and preparing you to respond to it, your fear or anxiety can kick in for any perceived threat, which could be imaginary or minor.
When tackling fear, Grinham has five points of consideration;
1. Picture and accept the worst possible outcome
The most crucial thing you must do is reconcile and accept the worst-case scenario. If you can't, you shouldn't go any further. Once completed, you will be able to perform freely and without fear. You will never provide your best performance if you are worried. At all times, you should be thinking about and envisioning a happy, positive outcome.
2. Visualise a successful outcome
Communicate with your unconscious mind (UCM), because it is your UCM's responsibility to get you what you want. Imagine a successful outcome, and your UCM will deliver. If you exclusively visualise a bad outcome, the UCM will grow confused and believe that this is the outcome you want because you constantly portraying it. Always concentrate on what you want to happen rather than what you don't want to happen.
3. Bin the idea of failure
The potential of failure is the most common source of anxiety. Failure is not a real thing; it does not exist. Man invented the concept of failure at some point. Do you suppose primitive man remarked "I keep failing" when attempting to light his first fire, or did he declare after the 100th attempt, "I'm 100 steps closer to being warm?" Failure and success are two distinct perspectives on the same thing. Failure does not exist; only information on how to improve does.
4. Face your fears
When you believe that there is no such thing as failure, everything you do is feedback. It's time to sit down with a pen and paper and make a list of your anxieties, then address them one by one. Again, once your mind expands, it cannot return to its original state. You will also get desensitised to the concept and actuality of dread.
5. Embrace the challenge and results will come
Accept and enjoy the physiological changes. Accept them with open arms. Tell yourself that these are the sentiments of a winner, that they allow you to focus and maximise your potential by converting hundreds of hours of effort into results. These are the kinds of feelings you only get when it matters.
Due to Grinham's job working with extreme sports athletes, this information obviously is heavily marketed towards athletes who are riding their bikes down the world's largest mountains or jumping out of a balloon on the edge of Earth's orbit.
But when it comes to feelings of anxiety, using what is listed above can also be hugely beneficial in working to overcome it.
Anxiety is a word we use for some types of fear that are usually to do with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future, rather than right
What you’re afraid of and how you act when you’re afraid of something can vary per person. Just knowing what makes you afraid and why can be the first step to sorting out problems with fear.
Much of what parkour teaches you is learning how to deal with fear. For example, taking that jump from a low wall to a high one, or taking the challenge to a metre, two metres, or a storey off of the ground.
Whilst faced with these challenges, those who practice the sport are thoroughly analytical. The first thought comes from Granham's first point. Picture and accept the worst possible outcome. If you cannot accept that as a potential, you aren't ready.
From my own experience, about two years ago I used to get really bad anxiety attacks when going into a shop and going to the checkout if there were more than two people behind the counter. It was starting to effect going to the shops for simple items.
In this situation, I thought of the worst possible outcome. What could it be? Was I worried about saying something wrong? My card declining? Being judged for what I was purchasing?
In reality, all of these "worst possible outcomes" were very slim because I was already prepared.
I thought back to previous conversations with shop staff, that usually went "Hello... Is that all... Would you like a bag? Have a nice day." That was, 8/10 times, the extent of the conversation. In my head, I realised saying anything wrong in that scenario was marginally slim, and most likely not ever going to happen, and if it did, I could just apologise or laugh it off.
My card declining? This one was easy to sort out, before going to the shops I would look at my bank account and make sure I had the money in my account before I left. That was eliminated.
On the thought of being judged? I wasn't buying anything outrageous, it was either food, or an item of clothing. Nothing incriminating, nothing that warrants a judgement.
I also apply this when I am training. If i ever take on a challenge, let's say at height, I have to look at every possible scenario.
When I go to height, I have to make sure I have gotten rid of every possible risk. Am I going to hurt myself if I fall? What are the chances of me falling? Could I save myself? Am I ready for it? - These are questions that I ask myself, and if applying Granham's methodology, if I have any doubt, I walk away.
Whilst doing that, the other four will fall into place. By eliminating those worst possible scenarios, the other four methods present themselves, and before you know it, I am walking out the shops absolutely fine with no issues.
Improvement of self-efficacy
Self-efficacy is the belief we have in our abilities and competencies.
Albert Bandura, a pioneer humanist and father of the concept of self-efficacy, defined it as “people’s beliefs about their capabilities to produce designated levels of performance that exercise their influence over events that affect their lives”
How we think and feel about ourselves is determined by our self-efficacy. Consider someone who wants to be a doctor but is unsure about his medical and academic abilities. He makes every effort and does his absolute best, yet at the end of the day, he is dissatisfied because he lacks confidence in himself. This person requires self-efficacy – a strong sense of self-confidence.
All aspects of self-efficacy have an impact on our thoughts, feelings, actions, and motivation. It mostly functions through cognitive and emotive channels and is vital in forming our perception of life experiences. Bandura felt that our social skills, cognitive abilities, observational learnings, and social backgrounds all contribute to the formation of our self-system. This self-system is the foundation of our personality, and self-efficacy is an important component of it.
Modern mental health interventions are mostly focused on increasing self-efficacy in order to promote wellness. Because self-efficacy influences practically every element of our well-being, psychologists suggest that it is critical to assist clients in realising their self-worth and strength in the face of life's obstacles and upheavals.
Bandura recognized four salient sources of self-efficacy and asserted that it is by the interplay of these factors that we grow significant belief or disbelief in ourselves.
Success has a direct impact on how we perceive ourselves. Success in an activity raises confidence and enhances the likelihood of completing comparable activities in the future. We develop a sense of 'mastery' over it. Failure, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It shatters our confidence and fills us with self-doubt.
Building efficacy through self-mastery necessitates resilience in order to moderate success expectations and accept failure positively. People who achieve success after overcoming hurdles and recovering from a breakdown have a strong feeling of self-efficacy. In parkour, this can be applied to that one challenge that you visit on most training session.
A prime example for me was in a recent trip to London, visiting the Imax running precision, a challenge I have wanted since I first started training 10 years ago.
In my time training, I have visited Imax six times, looking at the running jump each time. The five previous times, I couldn't commit to the jump. I was too scared, worried I didn't have the mental or physical capacity to commit to it. Walking away from the challenge on those five occasions, however, was me telling myself I was not ready, and that I needed to work on my mental game in order to prepare for my next visit to Imax. Though it was disheartening, I took the failure as a drive to work on my weaknesses & to come back stronger.
So I started working on and mastering my precisions. Not only the precisions, I also spent a lot of time working on my bounce backs, just in case the worst possible scenario was to happen. By doing this, I was able to break down the Imax challenge, which you can watch here.
The second source of efficacy roots from seeing others around us, especially people who we can relate to. Watching similar people succeed or hearing their success stories motivate us to believe that if they could, we can too. In parkour, this can be seen as someone "unlocking" a challenge. You normally hear practitioners looking at challenges together, and when one of them first goes for the challenge and either completes it, bounces it, or doesn't quite make it, the term "unlocked" usually gets thrown about. This shows that the challenge is possible, especially if the people training together are part of the same training group of a similar ability.
Role models have a vital role to play in building self-efficacy. Those are the people we follow, admire, and want to replicate. Their actions, principles, and achievements indirectly teach and persuade us to repeat the same. We are more willing to put in efforts and work in the direction that they show us.
A prime example of this within parkour could be Storror, the parkour team who have amassed over 7 million YouTube subscribers and have had many viral hits showcasing their awe inspiring stunts all over the world. This could also be the people you train with or your parkour coaches.
The only challenge of this source is that if the role models are wrong in their ways, it is likely that their failures destroy our self-efficacy or we too get tempted to go astray.
Emotional and Physical Experiences:
Our present mental and physical states influence self-efficacy to a great extent. For example, a depressed person, or a person who is fighting with a rough disease, is less likely to feel very confident and optimistic about themselves. I experienced this recently. When I was out training and I was in these down and negative mindsets, my performance and approach to challenges was awful. I would find myself getting very annoyed and frustrated easily. I wasn't able to do any of the tasks that I deemed in my ability, or that I had done multiple times before.
Negative experiences and stress make us vulnerable whereas positive experiences and happiness make us feel good about ourselves.
Bandura (1977) said that the cues that we receive from our mind and body at any given moment and the way we perceive these cues shape our sense of self.
Parkour practitioners who are able to manage anxiety and prepare for risks actually take fewer reckless risks in their training. This suggests that, as a person becomes more able to manage the mental and physical challenges of parkour, their training becomes safer rather than more risky. Furthermore, this ability to manage challenges – known as ‘self-efficacy’ – was highly correlated with the amount of time spent practicing parkour.
I have noticed when I am training parkour more frequently, anywhere between 2-4 times a week, I am able to manage my anxiety a lot better. I am no scientist, professor or health care professional, but I believe the exposure of breaking down these mental blocks in my training really helps my brain get into a good state of being able to manage and alleviate the anxious and destructive thoughts and feelings in my head. When I am not training as frequently, those thoughts seem to get a lot worse. It almost feels, to me, that practicing parkour, and what it involves mentally has a direct correlation to how my mind approaches mental challenges in my day to day life.
Who knows, maybe this is just a bunch of mumbo jumbo and I maybe be one of the only individuals to notice or understand this correlation, but there could be space in the future to research more into the effects of parkour & mental health and how the both correlate together.
At the bottom of this article, I have linked some of the resources I have used, as well as some mental health helplines incase you are struggling. Please do not suffer alone.
And as part of our mental health campaign, we continue to donate 20% of all of our profits to MIND charity, that supports mental health.
Mental Health Resources, U.K.:
Home | Mind, the mental health charity - help for mental health problems
Samaritans Helpline: dial 116 123, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
SANEline: call 0300 304 7000
National Suicide Prevention Helpline UK: 0800 689 5652
Mental Health Resources, U.S.:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)
Mental Health Resources, EU:
Mental Health Europe (mhe-sme.org)