As a former Munster and Ireland professional rugby player, Alan Quinlan knows a lot about training. However, he feels it is important to train your mind as well as your body to keep in good shape.
Alan has won much admiration for his openness and honesty in recent years in helping to start a national conversation on the need for good mental health, following his own dark days some years ago.
Back in 2009, a 12-week playing ban for eye-gouging which kept him out of a Lions tour followed by the break-up of his marriage marked a serious period of depression. He retired from rugby in 2011.
He has since recovered and has made a successful career in media sports analysis and in the corporate sector, while acting as an advocate for mental health causes. He has recently been appointed Health and Wellbeing Ambassador with Laya Healthcare.
"Stress and depression is there in rugby as in any other walk of life," Alan told irishhealth.com.
He points out that one-in-10 men and one-in-four women are likely to have depression at some point in their lives. "This doesn't exclude sports people by any means."
"Sports people can have the same stresses in their professional and personal lives that most people have – some are better at dealing with this than others. But thanks to the stigma surrounding mental health issues now beginning to change for the better, over the past few years more sports people are speaking out about it."
Alan admits he was nervous about the reaction from his fellow players and others when he first went public about his mental health issues.
"I was quite nervous at first when I spoke out about anxiety and depression and how it had affected me, but I was very surprised at how encouraging people were and open to talking about mental health issues. I think the reaction was so positive because so many people could relate to what I was saying."
"I was obviously nervous the first time I went back into the dressing room just after I spoke out for the first time. As we all know, it's a very macho environment. As it happened, I was blown away by the support the team gave me. They just accepted what I was going through and the issues I was making about stress and depression, and many people admitted that they often felt under the same ups and downs and pressures."
Through his life, Alan had always been a driven person and tended to get anxious about succeeding in life.
"My life overall has been a happy one but I went through some lows. However, at one stage, it came to a point where the issues began to overwhelm me. Being suspended for 12 weeks and missing the Lions tour in 2009 acted as a trigger for a downward mental health spiral."
Eventually, Alan decided to take control of things and do something about his depression.
"The key thing is to speak to someone about your problems, someone with a clear mind who can help you, whether it be friends, family or a health professional."
In Alan's case, he spoke to his GP and to Munster's backroom team, and also had psychotherapy sessions.
He has found both cognitive therapy and mindfulness useful. He also stresses the importance of taking exercise and maintaining a good diet in helping your mental as well as physical health.
Alan says antidepressant drugs also have a role to play when needed.
"Usually they are not the complete solution, rather they can be a short-term aid if you are feeling particularly low. If for example you are suffering from the effects of a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or a job loss they can certainly help, but antidepressants are not the only therapy out there."
In terms of dealing with depression, Alan stresses that it is not simply a question of 'looking on the bright side'.
"It needs a little bit more work than that. "You've got to work on maintaining a positive mindset, to condition your mind and train it to think positively, while getting the necessary professional help if needed in order to achieve this."
"Your mind is like the engine in a car – things may look perfect from the outside but if the engine's not working properly the car can't function. Sometimes our minds need to get a service."
Despite his dark days in the past, Alan says he does not actually see depression as a wholly negative thing.
"It can be a positive thing in many ways once people are open about it and try to deal with it, but you do have to take action."
As part of his role with Laya Healthcare, Alan will be promoting mental and physical health and working with the company's programme aimed at promoting positive health in workplaces.
Visit irishhealth.com's Depression Clinic
See also www.aware.ie
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