I absolutely need to move and this is something that is non-negotiable for me. My mental health depends on it. I manage anxiety and depression and it went unrecognizable to me for over 25 years. The nervous feeling in my stomach, the tightness in my chest, along with the dark thoughts, insomnia and headaches are just a few ways anxiety and depression show up in my body. In my case, I normalized these feelings and found a way to cope. It looked like exercise and lots and lots of it!
When I was a young teenager, I am talking 13 to 14 years old, I started to get up early and run around the block a few times before school. I did not really understand why I was doing this but I knew that it made me feel better. Something about this movement changed my perspective, the days I ran were easier, lighter and more manageable.
Like any good thing, more is not always better but I did not have this awareness yet. My thinking being if going for a 15-minute run makes me feel this good, how amazing will a 45-minute run feel? The worse I felt mentally and emotionally the faster, longer and harder I ran.
So became my addiction to high-intensity exercise as a way to ease my mental and emotional pain. Sounds like a perfect solution with awesome results hey? but this scenario only works when my body (and life) are in line to access this, which of course is not always a possibility. I have learned over the years (the hard way) that having only one remedy to manage those difficult days is not ideal and comes with a few obvious flaws. Let me share:
Flaw #1: Misunderstandings and missed opportunities
A misunderstanding from loved ones including family and friends as to why I had an insatiable quest for movement. For many finding the motivation, focus and energy for exercise is a struggle. I have zero issues with that. When I am up and out the door before 6:00 am to hit the gym on a Saturday morning or I am going for a run during downtime in our family vacation I know it is difficult to understand. So often I have heard: why don’t you just relax with us? What I will share is it is not personal. I am not doing anything to make you feel bad or because I am obsessed and can’t let go of my goals. No this is mental health for me. I need to move to feel better and keep my soul centred. That being said, I have and continue to at times, missed out on that sunset or early am morning snuggle session with loved ones. Something I am now trying to lean into and receive is the benefit that those connection choices offer. The wonderful healing that most times is as impactful or possibly more as boot camp class.
Flaw #2 Aggravating the situation
Pushing your body, hard 100% all of the time is not a long term option, especially if you are already feeling tired and burnout. I attended a CE course this weekend and was offered insight from one of the top sport’s medicine doctors in the country. He reframed the idea of overtraining syndrome to actually be about recovery. That all symptoms related to over-exercise actually have more to do with the inability to recover from the activity than overdoing it. So this becomes an issue when your only coping option is high-intensity workouts with little space physically as well as mentally/emotionally to recover. You see when you have been running from a bear or fighting a bear, in your everyday life, then you go to a hardcore boot camp class, you will only further aggravate. Your body does not actually know that you are not still in the woods. Sure you feel amazing post-class with all your worries, darkness and exhaustion pushed to the side until the next morning when you wake up and feel fatigue and those negative feelings come back with a vengeance.
Flaw #3 Disconnection
Disconnection from yourself. Running, lifting or jumping away from feelings is a wonderful distraction but if you are not able to sit with the feelings then you will never move through the feelings. I went through a divorce in my late twenties. It was painful. During this time I got into the best shape of my life. Makes sense right, I mean if exercise was my medicine for mental and emotional discomfort and divorce causes suffering and lots of it, you can only imagine how much I had to move, in fact, I could not sit still. Exercise got me through this time or so I thought. In hindsight, I never sat with the pain and negative emotions. Anytime I felt discomfort like anger, grief or fear I hit the gym. It became a bandaid that only kept the pain at bay while I was doing it and never allowed me to fully process what had happened. It was not until years later that I discovered meditation and I truly stopped and unpacked the emotions, trauma and wounds from that time in my life.
Flaw #4 Lacks a plan B
Injuries, illness, exhaustion. Because no one in life is immune to these things. Although I am a highly resilient person, the body will ultimately have times of breakdown. This is the body telling us that we need more recovery and restoration time. Like an addict who can’t get their fix, a person who’s only tool for self-care is exercise will move into a state of panic when you can’t get the feeling. Injury and illness were no longer about a message to rest, these times became days of extreme darkness and panic as I was unable to deal with the flood of emotions that would hit the surface when I could not access the relief through exercise.
Flaw #5 Loss of joy and play
Our bodies are meant to move. Have you ever danced in your kitchen or skipped through the forest? It feels so good and is fundamental to a healthy body and soul. When movement becomes rigid, punishing and without flow we lose that joy. For most of my life, I thought activities like yoga and expressive dance was a waste of time. I mean really you want to call lying around on a mat or flowing to the music with eyes closed exercise? Yes, yes and more yes. I was ignorant of the subtle benefits of moving stagnant energy or qi as well as the beautiful lightness that comes with free-flowing movement. So now I dance in the kitchen or move organically on my yoga mat without attachment, judgement or outcome. It’s so much fun and surprisingly healing.
So don’t get me wrong my body, mind and soul still absolutely desire movement and my need for exercise still very much a part of my self-care regime. The difference is my ability to pause and become aware of the time, intensity and intention of the activity I am thinking of doing and ensure it is in line with my true needs. Instead of going to the hills and doing repeats perhaps a walk in the woods is more nourishing or enjoying a slow-moving Saturday morning may offer more self-care than a run. On the flip side sometimes I need to go lift heavy weights instead of having tea with a friend. I want to move always, I hope to be 85 first in line at the shuffleboard game but what I also desire is to have the wisdom to choose what is most caring for that moment.