Peer Support…

I have been discussing this a great deal of late. In relation to exercise, nutrition, wellbeing, mental health, young people and fighting illness.

I am firm believer in the notion that human beings are not designed to function ‘alone’ on a continual basis. Yes –  we all need to learn to be comfortable in our own skin and just ‘be’ at times, as this encourages mindfulness, builds our resilience and helps us re-set when needed. However, having ‘alone’ time should not be a kind of solitary confinement that goes on for days, weeks, months or years as this can develop really dangerous thought patterns. I know this from personal experience. Sometimes my own head is a minefield of thoughts, that if I listen to on loop, will cause me unnecessary worry and certainly not help me with the strength and courage I need. I actually have a running joke with a close friend of mine, that in the shower each morning-  I run a chat with Leanne A and Leanne B – and they often give each other a good ‘talking to’!!! Leanne B can be a right, proverbial pain in the ass I tell ya!!! She’s even more feisty than Leanne A and she never bloody agrees!!! B*t*h!!!!

Achieving goals and finding our way through tough times is so much easier and more achievable, when we have the support of like minded peers, who empathise and understand where our minds and bodies are at that point.

With trauma and illness, I think this is utterly critical to the power of the mind in the healing process. When I was ill, my friends were nothing short of amazing –  angels. They listened, they held me and they watched over me. I will never forget it and be grateful to them, beyond words, for eternity.

However, I am often asked by people supporting a brain tumour, or cancer patient, how they should help them, or what advice they should give them. I say two things – the first –  is just be there to listen, hold and watch over them. The second  – is always, to find them a support group for that illness, where they can talk to others who know ‘exactly’ what they are going through. They need peer support. They are not expected to be an expert or deal with the (often) very tough conversations needed around the illness, treatment, thoughts and feelings, or the enduring after effects. Peers going through the same thing can be an absolute lifeline. This is where social media is truly wonderful. I had several support groups on Facebook I joined, where I could talk to others who knew what I was going through and could openly talk about fears, experiences and coping tools.

When it comes to fitness, especially those starting out, needing motivation, trying to reach a new milestone, try a new discipline, or even just as another method of training interspersed with their normal routine…. working in a group situation can be so rewarding – physically and mentally.

As I’ve mentioned – I have been training all my life , but I hit points where I need extra motivation, to try something different, or I am just really, really sick of my own company!!! 😂 I need a break from Leanne A and B – in the gym both of them drive me nuts!!!

This past month I’ve been going to a bootcamp –  a group of about 8 of us. Each of us has a different fitness level and different goals, but with a fantastic PT who knows how to get the most – mentally and physically  – out of all of us. We’ve been going 3x a week at 6.30 in the morning and the results I’ve witnessed in those around me, have been amazing. We have a quick chat before we start and then all sit and chat afterwards , so the group can ask questions about their own journey, ask the PT for advice (both fitness and diet which is how it should be) and share them with the group. This is the key to so much of it in my opinion – total peer support. We have become a tight knit group, who truly support and encourage each other. It’s really lovely. I’ve seen people’s bodies and positivity literally transform in front of me…. how cool is that! As that was their goal… its so uplifting to see. I’d like to say I look forward to every bootcamp morning … that I wake up beaming with radiance… and bounce out of bed….. but that would be a complete lie!!! I wake up at 5.30am, crawl down the stairs to the coffee machine, wipe last nights mascara out my eyes and contemplate the agony that awaits!!!! But I am an honest fitness junkie – there are NO gains without sweat and serious hard work. Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying!!! If you want results, you have to work for it. Back to mental focus and achievement.

You can achieve this in group classes at gyms or studios (yoga/barre etc) too…. but in truth, there is less of that group interaction at the end of the session on the whole  – but I still think it is a worthwhile addition to any fitness regime. Running clubs are another great one as you always have a good chat at the end too and they can be really social. In my case, that will normally be because I am so knackered from the run, I literally can’t leave in a hurry, cos my legs are like jelly and I can’t make it to the car!!! You have that sense of comraderie – even on those days when you feel like total crap and think you can’t do any training – the group dynamics and peer support encourage you to find your way through. Learning to train on those days when you don’t feel on your best form is actually really important for your mental focus. I don’t abide by the concept of only exercising on days when you feel like it – sorry … thats reality again! As for a lot of people, that would give them the excuse to hardly ever train. We have to dig a little deeper than that, as that drive can be applied to the rest of our life.

And that’s the key to it all…. being with like minded peers can help us overcome challenges we may struggle to on our own. I think this is something we should embrace and encourage more.

Young people need this more than any group I think – especially 15-25 year olds and I suppose in a way, high school and uni are designed to encourage and foster this. The only issue these days though, is the ‘group’ dynamic has become even more ‘exclusive’ and even more ‘clique-y’ … with social media creating ‘movements’ and ‘communities’ that are sometimes encouraging, but sometimes damaging and very judgemental. ‘Fitting in’ has always been an issue to young people, but I see it as worse now than ever.

I am working on a health and wellbeing project around NZ’s youth – and specifically trying to improve the quality of their future, by prevention rather than always reacting once situations have become dire. Something we are seeing and reading about all too often.

In some of our discussions with teenagers, we have talked about  ‘peer support’. Too often, adults (whether they be teachers or parents) dictate to teenagers how they must live their life (some of this is needed… I’m a parent and a realist!) without really putting themselves into the mind of a teenager when they do it. And this is even more poignant when it comes to issues of the heart and mind – and specifically  their emotional and mental health. We want to encourage healthy conversations between parents and teenagers, but what we have discovered is that the support teenagers can garner from their slightly older peers – maybe 2 years – can really make a difference, especially with mental health. We call this ‘lived experience’. Relatability is crucial to teenagers and in a world dominated with social media and instant gratification online – having a 55 year old school counsellor (who only discovered Facebook a year ago, believes snapchat is that new speed dating ‘thing’ and instagram is something you send to a friends wedding abroad!) try and get a teenager to ‘open up’ , talk, ‘toughen up a bit’,  is just slightly ludicrous in my opinion – and theirs! I will attack the subject of ‘they are just attention seeking’ in another post – but this fallback response to every teenagers deepest issues really upsets me.

Having peer support is an actual lifeline to young people… conversely, not having it can be very dangerous.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m having a rough week… nothing cheers me up more than seeing my friends – even if it’s just one. Its the easiest smile I can get and always lifts my mood.

So if we apply that concept to other areas of our life, like our health and wellbeing, we are likely to achieve  more rewarding and long lasting results. We can celebrate our successes with like minded peers around us and that’s a very powerful tool – to building ours and our children’s self confidence and self worth.





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