Eloise Stark – Rowing for Mental Health
Mental Health is slowly finding it’s way into the open thanks to the willingness of people who have been through their own battles with depression, anxiety and isolation to share their experiences. A couple of weeks ago we featured the launch of Rowing Together for Healthy Minds, a new initiative supported by mental health charity MIND and we look forward to following their progress. This week we feature an article by Eloise Stark, a student at the University of Oxford who rows for the Wadham College W8+. After obtaining a degree in experimental psychology, Stark is now studying for her PhD in psychiatry whilst working as a tutor at the Oxford Recovery College, a mental health partnership.
Rowing for Mental Health
I began my rowing journey by learning to scull in P.E. lessons at school on the River Ouse in Bedford. I enjoyed it a lot, but never took it further at that point. Later, when I started my undergraduate degree in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford, I decided to get back in a boat and join the biggest sport in Oxford, made popular by the yearly-televised boat race against Cambridge, the hordes of students wearing their college’s rowing “stash” around town, and the lure of free pizza at the taster session.
Studying at Oxford is intense. In a typical 8-week term during my undergrad, I would have written approximately 16 essays, completed 8 statistics problem sheets, been to hours of lectures and tutorials, and spent my every spare hour in the library. Yes, I had studied hard for my A-levels, but this was an altogether different experience characterised my both depth and breadth of study.
Wadham College rowing in all weathers, come rain or shine – or indeed snow
In order to cope with the long hours in the library and the constant barrage of knowledge, rowing became my balance. When I spent all day exercising my mind, I yearned for physical exercise and something to focus on that didn’t involve learning all regions of the human brain, or memorising how Pavlov trained his dogs to salivate to the sound of a bell. I also struggled with anxiety and needed something to focus on completely that could take my mind off the constant worry and give me some peace of mind.
Rowing gives me a structure to my day and my week. I have to be organised and efficient to fit in our nine sessions a week of training. My sleep is very important in order to balance rowing with study, and rather than the typical student timetable of bedtimes in the early hours, I aim to get a good eight hours of sleep every night. Good sleep is vital for my mental health in allowing my body to repair, my brain to consolidate memories, process information and to stave off anxiety and depression.
Rowing is a huge motivation for me. I am not rowing just for myself, although this is also important, but for the other eight people in my boat and my hugely dedicated and inspiring coach, Rod Andrews. The Oxford college rowing system means that you start each year in the position that your crew retained the previous year. So as well as rowing for my current crew, I am also representing the previous years’ of strong Wadham women who have put in the hours of training, thousands of strokes and herculean effort to get my crew to this position. I am proud to be a Wadham woman, and I want to do my crew, my coach, and our predecessors proud too.
Teamwork dreamwork! Staying connected on and off the water
The social aspect of rowing is something that greatly benefits my mental health. We have a great time while training: laughing at the jokes that emerge, going for sushi after ergs, celebrating our successes and commiserating our defeats. We support each other unconditionally. It is always a nice surprise to see your crew mates wearing normal clothes and makeup, not clad in lycra and sweaty! I have met several of my best friends through rowing, and I know that we will continue to discuss “that time when…” until we are old.
I’ve never felt more attuned to the seasons and the weather since I started rowing. The average British person spends just 8% of their time outside during the week, which is less than two hours a day. Most of this time is spent walking to the shops, or to the car. As a rower, I can tell you about the sunrise each morning – how beautiful it was, or how the clouds obscured the red skies and burning sun. I can tell you how the wind feels against my skin today, which direction it is blowing in or whether there is a wind chill. I can explain how the sun felt on my skin or whether the rain was heavy.
And being outdoors has huge benefits for our mental health. The Japanese have extolled the virtues of “forest bathing” since the 1980s, where they began to advocate for immersing oneself in nature as often as possible. The benefits are numerous. Being outside in nature relieves stress, leading to reduced cortisol, which can last for days following the outdoor exposure. The immune system also works best when challenged regularly – staying indoors doesn’t expose our bodies to germs and allow us to strengthen our germ-fighting power. Children with ADHD show improvements in their attentional capacity following exposure to natural environments.
With my anxiety, I find that rowing often eliminates all worry during outings and sessions on the erg. When I’m so focused on getting a fast catch, getting my split that second lower, or rowing through the finish, it is difficult to worry about everyday things. Have you ever been so absorbed, captivated and challenged by what you’re doing that you completely lose track of time? The concept of ‘flow’ was coined by Csikszentmihalyi in the 1960s to refer to the feeling of being completely “in the zone”. When I am rowing and the boat is moving well, I feel as if I reach this state of ‘flow’ and that for those sessions in the boat, nothing else matters. It feels good.
Rowing gets you out into nature
I have struggled at times with my mental health during my undergraduate degree and now through my PhD, and rowing has been my constant during these times to give me something to focus on other than my sometimes-turbulent mind. I’m always inspired by those around me in this sport, who strive for boat speed but also for personal development and ultimately fun. As a community, rowing provides so much to so many people, and I’m sure that many people reading this can relate to the ways in which rowing benefits our mental health.
Eloise Stark is a PhD student at the University of Oxford and a rower for Wadham College Boat Club’s Women’s First VIII.