LOOKS can often be deceptive. You’d be excused for assuming that successful personal trainer and gym enthusiast Pete Sweeney has very few hang-ups when it comes to his physique and wellbeing.

The 26-year-old from Masham, North Yorkshire, has long had a love-affair with exercise and decided at a young age that he wanted to forge a career from it.

But Pete’s confident, well-polished, super-fit appearance belies years of inner turmoil that have seen him battle both anxiety and depression. It wasn’t until doctors diagnosed Body Dysmorphic Disorder that Pete started to gain some understanding of his feelings and ultimately take control of his mental health.

“I spent years hating the way my body looked, to the point of starvation,” says Pete, who trains clients from across the North-East. “I was exercising continuously and obsessing over my appearance with constant mirror checks. I’d feel paranoid that everyone I meet would judge my body shape, which resulted in me avoiding social events to hide myself and generally feeling depressed about the way I look. To begin with I didn’t know what was wrong or that there was even a problem, but it eventually got to the point where I felt like I couldn’t cope anymore. It took me some time but when I did realise my thoughts weren’t ‘normal’ I decided to ask for help.”

That first visit to his GP some four years ago marked the start of Pete’s mental health recovery, a journey he admits has been both tough and enlightening, and one he expects to tread for some years to come.

“When I opened up to the doctor for the first time I actually broke down into a complete mess. This was the first time I had admitted I wasn’t okay and years of emotions came pouring out,” Pete recalls. “I instantly felt a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. From then I have undergone numerous treatments, from one-on-one counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to different courses of antidepressants and meditation programmes.

“It has been a long process and to a certain degree I accept that some of the problems may never leave me. However, I can now recognise my symptoms and manage the illness enabling me to have a life that I enjoy living.”

Pete was diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a chronic condition that causes the sufferer to become preoccupied with an imagined physical defect that is unnoticeable to others. BDD is known to seriously affect a person’s work, social life and relationships, while in some cases leading to depression, self-harm and thoughts of suicide.

“Looking back now I can see that when I was at my lowest, I was actually in great shape, but all I saw were flaws. I didn’t see muscle, I saw excessive fat where there wasn’t any and I constantly felt the need to improve. This obsession got me down and everyday waking up feeling like a failure caused the depression. This then created anxieties about how other people viewed me, which in time led to me not being able to eat in public for fear of being judged. I was on a downward spiral and it was scary.”

Pete has used exercise as a positive form of therapy as part of his recovery. “There were times where I couldn’t see a future for myself, yet I found that simply going to the gym for an hour and pushing myself to do a workout would eradicate these thoughts and I would see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

“It’s well documented that exercise is fantastic for your mental health; it releases feel-good chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that help improve your mood, reduce stress and aid sleep. You don’t have to go to a gym, it can be something as simple as taking a brisk walk, going for a swim or taking part in a team game. The important thing is that you enjoy it and implement exercise into your daily or weekly routine.”

Pete’s passion for exercise, coupled with his own experiences of anxiety and depression, have led him to set one of his biggest challenges to date, while raising money for the Mental Health Foundation and awareness of suicide prevention.

“Last year alone 5,821 people took their own life because they couldn’t cope," he explains. "The UK’s biggest killer in men under the age of 45 is suicide and I can tell you from experience that being so low that you believe there’s nowhere to turn, is one of the scariest feelings in the world.

“I’m going to complete a workout that consists of one rep for every life lost – so lots of burpees, box jumps, press-ups, squats and deadlifts to name a few. It's going to be incredibly tough, not just physically but emotionally, knowing that each rep represents a suicide that could have been prevented. I hope that by doing this, and highlighting why I’m doing it, I can get people talking and potentially encourage those that might need support to seek it.

“Too many people suffer in silence when there is a whole network of support out there, be it from friends and family or more professional services, or even through online chatrooms and social groups. It doesn’t matter what you do, but taking that first step is the most important thing you can do, no matter how hard it may be.”

Pete will be completing the 5,821-rep challenge at Atom Health and Fitness Gym, Wynyard Park Business Village, on Saturday, December 8 between 10.30am and 5pm. He says: “The challenge is an open door to anyone wanting to support mental health – you don’t have to come and exercise, just show up, lend your support and hopefully make a donation. I’ll need as many people as possible involved to get me through it!”

Donations can be made through the UK Virgin Money Giving website by searching for “its okay to not be okay”. For more information please visit Pete’s business page on Facebook: www.facebook.com/Petesweeneypersonaltraining


* Body Dysmorphic Disorder is chronic a mental health disorder characterised by obsessive thoughts that one’s own appearance or a specific body part is severely flawed. Very often the flaw is imagined. Where it is real, the flaw is greatly exaggerated.

* People with the disorder see themselves as “ugly” and take exceptional measures to hide or fix it, shying away from social situations or turning to plastic surgery.

* A sufferer’s thoughts about the dysmorphia are both pervasive and intrusive and can be present for several hours of every day.

* BDD effects men and women equally and usually begins during the teen years or early adulthood.


Samaritans – T: 116-123; Mind www.mind.org.uk. T: 0300-123-3393 or text 86463; Mental Health Matters, www.mentalhealthmatters.com, T: 0191-516-3500