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“How running helps me cope with post traumatic stress disorder”

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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TV presenter Charlie Webster was left fighting for her life after contracting malaria in 2016. Here, she talks to Stylist’s digital features editor Sarah Biddlecombe about how exercise has helped her through.

On 4 August 2016, Charlie Webster arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, ahead of the Summer Olympics. The TV presenter had spent the last six weeks cycling a grueling 3,000 miles from the London Olympic Stadium to Rio, as part of a charity bike ride, Ride to Rio.

However, not long after she finally arrived at her destination, Webster was admitted to hospital with a suspected case of infection and dehydration. Then, a week after she had arrived in Rio, a statement was released on her social media feeds to inform her followers that she had actually contracted a rare form of malaria, and been put into a medically induced coma.

What followed was a terrifying ordeal for the presenter, who spent five weeks in hospital battling for her life before she was finally allowed to go home. Since her release, Webster has struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), largely as a result of being fully aware of her surroundings while in a coma - such as being able to feel the tube that was down her throat, and being able to hear her mum in the room with her, but not communicate. 

Here, she talks to stylist.co.uk about her near-death experience, and how sport helped her pull through.

Can you talk us through your experience with PTSD? 

When I was released from hospital, I felt like I didn’t know who I was anymore – it was as if I’d lost my identity. There were so many things not working with my body and I had to relearn how to walk again, and I was having problems speaking.

Everybody saw all of these physical things but to me it was all in my mind… I felt utterly depressed, devastated and confused. I was invited to talk through my experience with a specialist and they diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and helped me find a clinical psychologist to work through it.

My symptoms were really, really bad. I couldn’t sleep because every time I shut my eyes and started to fall asleep, I couldn’t breathe, because it felt like I was on the life support machine again. It felt like I was going to die every time I began to fall asleep, so I started to try and sleep sitting upright – but then I would have horrendous, vivid nightmares. I would wake up panicking and sweating with my heart rate sky high, it was horrible.

I also started to have flashbacks, which is a really common symptom of PTSD. These were physical, and I could feel them. One time I was brushing my teeth and suddenly I felt like I was choking and had the tube in my throat again. I had all of these sensations, and I just cried on the bathroom floor for about half an hour until I managed to get myself into bed.

It happens with anxiety and I had so many panic attacks. It also turned out that I had a lot of PTSD due to what happened to me when I was a teenager, which I have publically spoken about because I speak out a lot about sexual abuse. And it turns out it was all interlinked.

PTSD isn’t talked about enough. We’ve just started to talk about depression, which is amazing, but people still don’t really know what PTSD is.

Were you aware of anything while you were in a coma?

When I was in a coma I could hear so many different things, including my mum. Whenever I could hear her I was so distressed, because the doctors said I couldn’t hear her, but I could. I was so desperate and scared because I thought I was going to die.

Before my mum would even walk into the door of my room in the ICU, I could tell she was on the unit. The doctor said every time she came onto the ward my heart rate would go sky high and all the machines would go off, and I would react. To me, when I was inside there, I was just trying to show her that I wasn’t dead. I could hear the doctor saying I was brain damaged, so I was utterly convinced that I was. Even if my body was dead, my mind was so over reactive – but they thought that it wasn’t, it was so strange.

I heard all sorts of things [while I was in the coma]. I could tell when my mum was sat in the room, even if I couldn’t see her. I could hear her. She wasn’t really directly talking to me because the doctor said that she would scare me. Also, I remember her talking to one of the doctors, who was trying to communicate with me and I just couldn’t speak, but I was desperately trying to communicate, just to tell my mum I was there.

How is your PTSD now?

It’s manageable, but it’s hard. From my experience, it’s not consistent: I’ll have an amazing week and then a really bad week. It can sometimes be really bad after I’ve seen my psychologist because it drags so much stuff up – it sounds contradictory, because it’s really helping me, but you have to go there and deal with it in order to be able to come out the other end.

The nightmares happen a lot less often and I haven’t had a full on panic attack for at least six months, although I do have occasional small ones. I find I’m much better at noticing when it’s about to happen and what I feel, and fighting it.

I’m in a position now where I feel able to be a bit more vulnerable. This is helping me to go inside and deal with what happened to me, rather than running away from it and shutting it off, which as people is what we tend to do because it feels like the only way to cope with it. But that’s why PTSD is so bad – you can have a trauma and then, 10 years later, suddenly get horrific mental health or PTSD symptoms, and not realise it because we’re so good at disconnecting ourselves. That’s something that I’m trying to learn and it’s a process, but a message I’d like to give out is that you can absolutely do whatever you want and be a high achiever and enjoy life, you just have to work through it, face it and not run away from it. Of course, that’s much easier said than done. There are so many things that people can do to help themselves and it’s really important that people realise that. There are so many coping mechanisms.

Do you have a set fitness routine?

No, every week is different. Personally, I think when it’s too structured you can put too much pressure on yourself, and then you have this guilt relationship if you don’t do something. That works for me because otherwise I can get utterly obsessed, so making it spontaneous helps me go on what I’m actually feeling that week. I always try and make sure I get outside and get some fresh air. It makes a huge difference to my mind and invigorates me, even if it’s just going for a little walk for 15 minutes.

Running in particular has been helping me so much, although initially I wasn’t allowed to run due to the physical problems I had. Exercise is the one thing I’ve always used to cope with stress and mental health issues, so as soon as it was taken away I found it so difficult. Instead, I started to read and write, which helped me too – it’s about finding different coping mechanisms. Now, I make sure I get fresh air every day, and do some form of exercise. When I’m feeling really bad it’s so hard to do it, but if I just manage to get my trainers on and get myself out, it really makes such a difference.

How do you stay motivated?

I tap into the end game of how I’ll feel after I’ve been for a run. I can’t do it every time – sometimes I’ll just phone a friend or do something else, or write myself a post it note. I’m becoming a better, deeper person because I’m learning so much about myself, because I’ve had to.

Sometimes I really feel like I can’t do it, and then I remember that feeling. I don’t want to give in – I’m so determined to keep going, and claw myself back from where I was before.

Tell us more about the post it notes… What do you write on them?

All sorts of things – go for a run today, do some yoga. Persistence is the most important thing. The stakes are high. I stick them around my house. When I don’t feel great, I find tactics to make me get stuff done – for example, “write the book, this is what I want to do”.

I’m terrible at telling myself off so, rather than bullying myself, I try to keep things positive. I have a really loud and critical inner voice sometimes. Exercise massively helps to quieten that down – it shuts it up a little bit. One difference in me now is that when I’m going out to run I’m doing it to make me feel good. It releases endorphins and makes me happier. Rather than going out there thinking ‘I have to run this far, and do this time’, I’m exercising purely to feel good about who I am.

Do you turn to different forms of exercise depending on your mood? 

I shake it up all the time because I get bored quite easily, and I like to do different things and entertain myself. I used to box a lot when I was younger – I was quite an angry teen, mainly at the self-critic in my own head.

Exercise really helps me manage things. We all have things we’re scared of and if we don’t deal with them then they can come out in negative ways. I did some yoga at the beginning of the year, and sometimes I need to run or go outside. The latest thing I’ve gotten into is meditation. There was a moment recently where I was feeling really anxious and I did 10 minutes of it and it absolutely completely changed how I was feeling.

I was having one of those head fogs that sit at the front of your head between the eyes, and stop you being able to think. I was trying to get a piece done but I couldn’t concentrate, so I sat down for 10 minutes and the pressure at the front of my head just went and I could think straight. There are so many incredible things we can do, but we don’t promote the connection between the mind and the body enough.

What would be your advice for anyone struggling with PTSD?

Tweet me! We can open up the conversation – other people always join in, and then we can try to help. When you hear other people’s stories it makes you feel like you’re not on your own, and there’s something so powerful in that togetherness and collaboration. Everyone has been through adversity and helping each other is so important.

Other than that, look at yourself and try to think of something that makes a difference to you. Just doing some meditation, or stretching, or going for a walk, will stimulate your mind and you’re your breathing, and that’s a massive thing in PTSD. Address what it is that makes you feel the way you’re feeling. With PTSD, that tends to be a traumatic event – so going back to that trauma and trying to work through it, and making your brain realise that you’re not there anymore, is the most important thing. We can have all of these coping mechanisms but unless we deal with the root of what’s going on in your brain, then it’s really hard to overcome it.

Why are you passionate about working with Sport Relief?

It’s really important to me to try and be a voice of Sport Relief in order to promote their message, and help people across the UK and Africa open up about mental health issues. We need to realise we are a global community, and that it’s our responsibility as humans to not let so many people die of malaria. 

I can say from my own experience of malaria how horrific it is, and how important it is that we try and cure the disease.

Ever since I was a child I’ve used exercise to help with my mental health. If it wasn’t for running I really don’t think I’d be here today. When I was recovering out of hospital the one thing that really helped me was walking: it helped me feel so much better about myself and put me in touch with my body.

Charlie Webster will be speaking at Sport Relief’s event, Sweat, Tears and Triumph, at the Science Museum tonight.

Main image: Rex Features