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‘I realised I would have to be my own lifeboat’: Aberdeen fitness instructor pulls herself from depths of depression faced with 13-month psychologist waiting list

Emma Dongworth built The Sunshine Movement out of the clouds.

After years struggling with her mental health, Emma has found the light. Image: Smile with Kelly
After years struggling with her mental health, Emma has found the light. Image: Smile with Kelly

When you first meet Emma Dongworth, her huge smile and bubbly personality are infectious.

You can’t help but be drawn in by her; she is joy personified and an early riser to boot.

But getting out of bed in the morning hasn’t always been so easy.

Emma has struggled with her mental health since the age of 15.

Depression dragged her into its darkest depths and she tried to take her own life – not once, but three times.

Emma from The Sunshine Movement meditating on a beach with the sea behind her
Emma has struggled with depression since she was 15. Image: Smile with Kelly

Feeling ‘numb’

“I nearly died and there was no support after that,” said Emma.

“I thought I would get counselling, a psychologist, something like that, but I just got thrown back out into life. You’re at this low point where you just can’t do it anymore, you’re swimming against the tide.”

Anti-depressants had more of a negative effect than she hoped.

“They just made me feel totally numb,” said Emma.

“Instead of closing off my depression it suppressed everything, I didn’t have the capacity to feel. The lights were on but no one was at home.”

Emma leaning back with her arms around herself on a hillside with the sea behind her
When anti-depressants didn’t work, Emma had to try something else. Image: Smile with Kelly

Feeling helpless, she started to focus on something that had a positive impact on her mind.

Emma explained: “I was working as a dancer, going abroad to work contracts then coming back. When you’re away and dancing you’re forced to move your body and that gets your endorphins going, it did make me feel a lot better.

“During one of my contracts the yoga teacher who was meant to be there didn’t turn up so they asked me if I wanted to do it. I had no idea how to, but I looked online and made up my own style. I noticed an uplift in my mood that I had never felt before, I felt more balanced, like peace was coming in.”

A silent saviour

Clinging onto the light that had started to filter through, Emma signed herself up for a yoga teacher training course in Bali, which included a seven-day silence.

The Sunshine Movement fitness instructor sitting with her legs crossed and her palms together in front of her face. She's sitting on a beach with the sea behind her
Emma went deep inside herself during a silent retreat. Image: Smile with Kelly

“I think a lot of the time, when we live in the western world, we go to the doctor and we get medication, that’s just what we do,” said Emma.

“We don’t address the reasons for our depression, it could be a chemical imbalance, but it also could be trauma. I felt like I was always clipping off the leaves but never actually getting down into the root of what was happening to me.

“Bali was the most magical experience of my life, it was like going into another world I had never been exposed to before. For the first time it felt like the clouds were lifting and dispersing, I couldn’t believe it.”

Emma posing on a hillside with flowers surrounding her
Emma wanted to share what she had learned with others. Image: Smile with Kelly

And so The Sunshine Movement was born, as Emma was determined to share what she had learned with others.

The Sunshine Movement

“I came up with the name The Sunshine Movement because I wanted to bring sunshine into people’s lives in the way it had been brought into mine,” said Bucksburn-based Emma.

She teaches a wide range of classes in and around Aberdeen, including clubbercise and yoga, as well as working with schools, nurseries and outreach programmes.

Her most recent creation is a Nurture Within class, which starts in July.

She explained: “The mind likes familiar patterns, so the more you tell yourself that the more you believe you can’t do something or that you’re not good.

Emma at the top of a rocky hill, lunging with one of her arms reaching to the sky
The Sunshine Movement was born out of the clouds. Image: Smile with Kelly

“I want to teach affirmations because that’s something I started doing in Portugal and it helped so much by reframing the way I was speaking about myself. It’s about telling yourself that you can achieve anything you want to, you are capable, you are loved, you are beautiful.

“It’s not egotistical, you’re not saying it like that. It’s holding yourself and saying ‘I love you’. That is a beautiful thing that a lot of us don’t feel comfortable with.”

‘Pain is inevitable, but suffering isn’t’

Though her work was helping her keep her head above water, Emma started to feel like she still hadn’t dealt with everything after all.

With her past experience of trying to get help, she realised she would need to try something different again.

“I was managing but it would come in waves,” said Emma.

“I went to the doctor and she wanted to put me on antidepressants again. I said they don’t agree with me and that I just wanted to talk to someone, but they weren’t able to offer me that.

“I realised I would have to be my own lifeboat – and that isn’t how it is for everyone, some people are lucky – but it’s really hard to get help. I have been on the waiting list for a psychologist for 13 months.

“How long are you expected to wait? How serious does it have to get?”

Emma from The Sunshine Movement meditating at the beach, surround by water
Emma teaches a range of classes to help others feel good in their own skin. Image: Smile with Kelly

She booked herself onto a month-long silent retreat in Portugal in March, and finally left feeling more confident,

“I feel amazing,” said Emma.

“It’s an ongoing journey, but it’s knowing that I have the tools now to support me. Pain is inevitable, but suffering isn’t.”

She added: “Since I shifted my own mindset I have noticed my classes having more of an impact on people.

“To fill other people’s cups, you have to have a fairly full one yourself.”

Seeing the sunshine

Emma’s goal with The Sunshine Movement is to empower others and help bring out their confidence.

“I want to create a safe space in my classes because that’s something I never felt like I had” she said.

“No matter how horrible your day has been, you can come and leave that at the door.

“Show up as you are, get moving, and feel good about yourself.”

Emma smiling with her long hair splayed out in the air, her arms raised.
Emma said she now feels ‘amazing’. Image: Smile with Kelly

She hopes that, through her classes, she can help others find a way through.

“I don’t think many people would know that I have tried to take my own life,” said Emma.

“But it’s a beautiful thing that I have been that low and am on the other side.

“I am able to see the sunshine again.”

Wellbeing Diary with Emma Dongworth

What is your favourite brand of workout gear?

Anything comfortable that I can properly move in. I love Sweaty Betty, their leggings are so comfortable – but it’s definitely a treat yourself purchase.

When is your favourite time of day to exercise?

Definitely the evening. I love how it provides an opportunity to release any stagnant energy or emotions that may have accumulated throughout the day. Engaging in physical activity in the evening allows me to unwind, rejuvenate my body, and create a sense of balance before winding down for the night.

What is your morning routine?

I’ve cultivated a morning routine that really works for me, as before I was never a morning person. Get up with the sun, personal spiritual practice and meditation, journal, Ayurvedic routine.

Getting up when it’s still dark and the world feels still – experiencing the tranquility of the early morning before the busy day begins and taking that time for you, makes a remarkable impact. If I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, I go through to my living room in my jammies and put my Emma Love playlist on really loud and just dance. (Sometimes my dog joins in!)

Favourite tunes for clubbercise?

I genuinely love them all as they are all so upbeat – but Freed From Desire (Gala), Operation Blade (Public Domain) and Played-A-Live (Safri Duo) always fill me up with a surge of energy that I can’t help but woop and woo.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Coffee and cake or a fine piece.

What is your idea of workout hell?

I would love to enjoy running, but unfortunately it’s just not the one for me.

Top motivational quote?

“Be here now” – Ram Dass.

This simple yet powerful statement encapsulates the essence of mindfulness and living in the present moment.

It encourages you to let go of regrets about the past or worries about the future and instead fully embrace and experience the present moment. It serves as a reminder to cultivate awareness, acceptance, and a deep sense of presence in our daily lives. It resonates deeply with me and I try and live my life by that.

What is your favourite way to relax?

Phone on airplane mode, out in nature. I find so much solace in nature, disconnecting from the busyness of every day life and connecting with it brings me a profound sense of calm and rejuvenation.

Spending quality time with my wee dog Louie always makes me feel relaxed too.

To find out more about Emma and The Sunshine Movement or to book classes, go to @thesunshinemovement on Instagram and Facebook or email Emma at

If you’ve been affected by issues raised in this piece, Samaritans are available to offer support day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123 or visit to find your nearest branch.