Charlie Webster has described how exercise has helped her combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which she began suffering while recovering from a rare strain of malaria in August 2016.
The former Sky Sports presenter was diagnosed with malaria in Rio De Janeiro, shortly after she completed a gruelling 3000-mile cycling challenge. Her physical recuperation involved a hospital stay in Brazil, where she put into a medically-induced coma, before a return to the UK.
In the past 18 months, Charlie has faced rebuilding her strength and learning to walk again, but as she explains to HuffPost UK, not all of her challenges were physical ones.
“I’ve had some quite serious mental health issues,” she says, ahead of Sport Relief’s Sweat, Tears And Triumph event. “I was diagnosed with severe PTSD. I was really struggling, mentally, to come to terms with what happened, and I was really badly affected and still am.”
As well as seeing a specialist and having exposure therapy, which involves revisiting the trauma behind the PTSD, Charlie uses running and walking as a “coping mechanism”.
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“It actually does boost endorphins which stimulate the brain,” she explains. “But it also gives me time in my head to figure things out. It helps relieve stress.
“When I run outside, just being outside really lifts my mood and when I run it makes me feel much more in touch with my body and who I am.
“That’s one of the things with PTSD, and what happened to me, is when I came out of the hospital, I kind of didn’t think I was who I was anymore. I was like, ‘Who am I?’. That’s something I really struggled with.
“By running and doing exercise, even if you don’t run and you just walk, it gets you in touch with your body again. It makes me feel good about myself.
“Sometimes I get that really bad brain fog at the front of the head, when you just can’t think and it makes you feel terrible, but when I go running, it helps lift it, so I can think clearly and put things into perspective.
“It also helps me feel better and quietens negative thoughts, which is so powerful.”
While Charlie had finished cycling when she fell ill, her PTSD has meant she still associates the sport with what happened, and she answers the question of whether she’s been back on a bike since Rio, with: ”No... No, is the answer.”
“One of the things with PTSD is that you tend to avoid something you associate with a traumatic experience,” she continues. “It’s so strange because I did not have an accident on the bike, nothing happened to me on the bike, but I associate what happened to me with cycling.
“I love cycling, I got into it late but when I got into it, I really enjoyed it for the same reasons I love running and you can go further on a bike so you can explore the countryside and stop for cake, then do some more exercise. It was a great social thing as well.
“But I am determined to [cycle again],” she continues. “I was deciding what to do with my bike. It’s actually at a friend’s because I can’t even have it in my own house. I have such a weird relationship with it, I won’t even touch it.
“I think I might auction it and then get a new one and start again. I’ve had it in my head that maybe I can do something quite big to come back.
“My mum and my friends will kill me, but I’ve got an idea for how to get back on my bike and do something to help malaria.”
This year’s Sport Relief is highlighting the importance of discussions about mental health and Charlie is also keen to dispel common misconceptions surrounding PTSD.
“I didn’t properly understand it or know what it was [when I was diagnosed]” she admits. “And I think it’s really amazing that we’re talking about mental health, but it tends to be depression that we talk about. It’s incredible and we do need to raise awareness but what I found is when I was diagnosed with PTSD, I didn’t know much.
“I think there’s a lot of people suffering from PTSD but that might be masked in other ways. They might think they’ve got depression or anxiety but actually it’s PTSD. It’s really important to understand that there’s a difference, [PTSD] is related to a specific trauma.
“It can come from any traumatic event,” she says. “That traumatic event can be suffering neglect as a child, it can be sexual abuse, it can be rape, it can be a severe accident. It can be a death of a loved one or what happened to me, a near death experience.
“It’s anything that’s so traumatic… We, as humans, have amazing cognitive ability but when we have a trauma we go into fight or flight mode, because otherwise we can’t survive it.
“But then the problem is your brain stays in that fight or flight situation. It’s understanding what it is, it’s not a war thing, it’s related to trauma of any kind.”
“With mine, I was very, very aware - when I was in the coma and before I was in the coma - I was told I was dying. It wasn’t like I didn’t know. I didn’t have an accident and was in a coma, I was fully aware,” Charlie says.“Sometimes it’s really hard for me to vocalise how incredibly distressing and scary [that is] and how desperate you become.”
Find out more about Sport Relief 2018 here.