Updated: May 21, 2020
Sweet, I’m back. You’re back. Let’s rap.
I just recently received a message from a new MF stressing how critical her physical health had become, and my butt-fire was re-ignited. From my own history with chronic, stress induced illness and years of struggling to get healthy again, I feel for anyone in a lessened physical and mental state. I’ve been there and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
When I’m neglecting myself, my days of unhealth generally look something like: lack of energy, muscle exhaustion, mysterious aches and pains, chronic acid reflux, random migraines, continual muscle tension, appetite dysruption, inhibition of digestion, itching/burning hives, sinus infections, red itchy eyes, insomnia, shakiness, heart palpitations, lightheadedness...
There might be nothing worse than having a chaotic, disorganized brain mixed with a colorfully painful or sickly body. Imagine feeling like your thoughts, emotions, and now your physical container are out of control and unpredictable. Before, I knew my brain was going to play tricks on me, but at least my body was always strong and functional. When your physical condition goes downhill in a way that feels unexpected or uncontrollable, it feels like attacks from all fronts.
So, how do you start to rewire your anxious, ambiguity-hating, disaster-happy brain without having a sense of control over your physical body and while enduring a host of new health worries every day? You don’t. One issue feeds into the other, you lose sense of autonomy, and three years later you’re a different person than you used to be.
You don’t want that. Get your body under control before you get your brain under control.
Diet, down… Exercise, up.
I already preached the importance of cutting crap out of your diet - I know, nobody wants/needs to hear it. I’m not saying anything original and eating is fun. Do it anyways. Today, I’m chatting about the supplement to weight loss and the crux of anxiety regulation - physical exercise.
First thing’s first. Exercise is a supplement to diet.
If you need to lose weight, you have to start with what you’re feeding yourself. Argue your heart out, but increasing exercise without decreasing your caloric intake is going to be inefficient. It creates an endless hamster wheel of trying to exercise enough to compensate for bad behavior. Putting all the pressure on increased exercise will eventually drive you into the ground - and you’ll probably gain weight before your physical breakdown.
Here’s what I experience when I prioritize exercise over diet:
Eat shit, feel like shit, no tolerance to go work out.
Work out, burn a few extra calories, build an appetite, overeat.
Trust me, get your diet on track first. You’ll immediately feel better, you’ll immediately look better, and from these two quick wins, you’ll be more motivated to commit to exercise. I’ve freaked out about my weight and body composition for 29 years - learn from my bodily abuse and failures. Exercise doesn’t work alone for weight loss; it does work for creating new stress, guilt, and appetite. Changing your diet is key.
Reign in your diet first.
Set good eating habits and stop thinking about it.
Add in exercise sparingly.
See your body change so fast, motherfucker.
Start with strategy. Don’t fight a losing battle and get defeated because it’s uncomfortable to give up your salty snacks. Food is just food. Eat to live, instead of living to eat.
Sweet, so you’re on the right track with diet and adding in exercise.
Next, rethink how you approach “exercise.”
What do you think of when you consider exercising? Going to the gym? Joining a spin class? Jogging around the block? Well... do you actually enjoy any of those things?
That might be your problem.
For years, I tried to fit myself into this exercise box. Everyone else joined the gym - I could force myself to enjoy treadmills, too. Right? Well, no, I can’t. In reality, I can only force myself to tread off towards an activity I hate like it’s final presentation day in speech class, agitatedly try to distract myself through 45 minutes of anxiety-laden sweating, and then retreat back to the safety of my home to comfort myself with bountiful snacks as a reward for accomplishing the chore.
Dude, this was not sustainable. At best, my workout habits were an outlet for manic energy and a way to feel "control" over my life through unhealthy self-sacrifice. At worst, they were a new reason for my life to be driven by obligation, guilt, and feelings of failure.
This is all to say - choose wisely when you start getting active. Try things out. Experiment. And don’t let yourself feel stupid or selfish for doing it.
Exercise can be whatever you want it to be. There’s no reason why you need to sign up at the gym or yoga studio if those places cause anxiety. Find something you’ll actually enjoy doing, and easily commit to doing because it’s 1) convenient and 2) fun.
Don’t try to commit to an exercise regime that makes you uncomfortable or requires too much startup cost (if you’re already thinking that you need to buy outfits for said regime - you’re probably reaching further than necessary). You’ll set yourself up for failure if it’s a struggle to even get started. If it’s not something you innately find fulfilling, eventually you’ll dread the activity and it will become a source of frustration. You’ll also invite our least favorite friends, guilt and self-shame, into the mix when you fail to complete a workout goal because you were too anxious.
Choose something you ENJOY that is EASILY ACCESSIBLE and BENEFICIAL on many levels. Whatever that means.
A walk around the block. Lone dance parties at home. Deep cleaning the house. Body-resistance floor exercises. Gardening. Taking up dog walking. Jumping rope. Climbing trees. Reorganizing the house. Nature photography. Whatever - just find something you’re actually into that includes moving your ass around a little. It helps me to a[[roach exercise like I’m a little kid, just doing little kid stuff. Don’t judge yourself, just experiment with moving around and playing.
For me, the gym is awful. I can’t do it. It causes more grief and negativity in my life than sitting on the damn couch with a jar of peanut butter. I hate the feeling of building pressure all day, knowing I have to go to this fluorescent hellscape.
When the time comes, I’m so full of resistance that I procrastinate by wandering around the house and snacking. If I go, my best reward is a 1 minute long celebration on my way out the door. If I don’t go, my usual punishment is a full day of self-shaming, self-hatred, and self-sabotage. Might as well ruin my body more, since I didn’t accomplish my fitness goal today. Let’s make it harder to go tomorrow, too.
My revolution came when about 2 years ago when I realized that nature hikes are key to my anxiety and physical fitness. My entire life has changed since I accepted and prioritized my nature therapy - first, by vastly improving my physical condition, and secondly, by vastly improving my anxiety and thought organization. My anxiety recovery WOULD NOT have happened without this piece of the puzzle. Traumatized Motherfuckers never would have materialized or continued past week one. I wouldn’t have survived these past years of abuse and chaos without my hikes.
The benefit of ease is also a major part of the equation for me. I do not enjoy deadlines, appointments, or rushing. Not only are hikes easily accessible no matter how I’m feeling, but the park is always open. I don’t have to rush off to start a class on time. I also love that it’s a lone-activity. I don’t have to worry about another soul during my nature therapy. No one is trying to start bullshit conversations while we wait for the instructor to start, no one is grunting at me while lifting weights, and no one can bother me unless I allow myself to be bothered.
By reducing or erasing all the usual anxieties that surround exercise, I enabled hikes to become a strictly-positive force in my life.
It’s a double-whammy for my anxiety to get outside into nature and exert physical energy all at once. I know - everyone says you should spend more time in nature. It sounds like a lot of bullshit. Stand out in the sun and feel better? Nah. I can tell you, it’s not quite that simple. But there are a number of specific ways that hiking therapy causes calming changes in my brain. Try focusing your attention in these directions next time you step out for a stroll.
For me, the feeling of feet hitting the ground is incredibly centering. It reminds me of the current moment and the things I’m in control of. It brings me from a partially-dissociated state back into my body and the present activity. The rooted and rocky terrain is a helpful obstacle with every step; you have to keep your attention focused on the ground or you’ll eat shit, fast. Prancing around in the woods makes it pretty difficult to take yourself too seriously or be weighed down by circumstances. Gaining sure footedness and dexterity on diverse terrain also improves my self-confidence and sense of agency.
I find that passively watching trees and rocks move by is super useful for my deep thought processing. It’s like brain organization on steroids. I put on a podcast and either tune in or let my mind wander freely to the challenges of the day, depending on what I need that morning. Sometimes outside inspiration really helps to set intentions for the day, and sometimes I need the extra room for working through challenging thoughts and circumstances. Either way, my thoughts are more approachable and focused under hiking circumstances. I can deal with difficult and uncomfortable issues that would normally set me off-kilter for days. I can redirect my thinking to important tasks at hand. I can consider alternative perspectives, humble myself, and feel accountable in this place.
Another huge part of my hiking trips is taking time to notice all the features around me. If you’re like me - and I think you are - my thoughts can get so tangled up in the agitating details of my daily life that I probably walk past $100 bills on the street daily. The woodsy environment commands that you spend more time and attention in your body, rather than letting your thoughts spiral. Like I said earlier, if you look up from the trail, you’re going to eat shit. When you stare at the ground that much, you start to notice new things… like how beautiful dark, wet moss is against bright lichen and stone textures. New worlds unfold.
Smelling and feeling the fresh air brings me into the present. Listening to the branches and leaves rustling creates a zen mood. It’s a holistically beneficial experience.
Logistics - nowhere to hike, what else?
I’m blessed to live in a place with access to nearby outdoor recreation and make a point to hike it out 3-4 times a week. However, when I lived in less interesting terrain, I walked 5-12 miles through residential neighborhoods every day instead. It wasn’t nearly as fulfilling, but it was good enough. Certainly better than a treadmill.
My long walks were especially helpful when I was in periods of extreme depression and didn’t want to leave the house. Putting on loud music and stomping around the neighborhoods and campuses of UIUC gave me something to do that encouraged new thoughts to infiltrate my defeated brain. Night walks were my favorite, due to the desolate feeling and sense of peace. Just be sure to tell someone where you’re going and always carry mace.
My other chosen form of exercise to round out my hiking cardio is yoga. I don’t enjoy going to yoga studios, so I do my own practice at home with the help of online videos or just following what feels good. When I used to attend yoga classes, I would get so anxious about making it to the class that I upset myself all day long. Between the extra expense, the social anxiety, and the stress it causes my type-A personality, I’ve given up on the idea of “getting zen” at a yoga center. Less anxiety, less guilt, more reward.
We all know, yoga helps with dissociation and (buzzword) mindfulness, as well as identifying where I’m carrying anxiety in my body. My yoga practice is “me” time that often helps give perspective to life stressors and agitations. When I’ve had a day of disorganized thinking or can’t get my head out of my daily annoyances, I put on a yoga video. I hate to admit it, but I always feel better within a few minutes of the practice.
I sometimes go months without doing a single stretch. Every time, when I get back into yoga, I’m immensely regretful for my lapse. It always feels like an epiphany when the practice efficiently calms my brain and body - as if I forget year after year, psych article after psych article.
And hey, when you get out and move your butt, make sure you give yourself a verbal pat on the back afterwards to appreciate what you did. Say it out loud. Write it down. Keep a log. Put it in your journal. Cross it off your to-do list. Message a friend, family member, or motherfucker. Tell me. Whatever you need to do to acknowledge the task, do it!
It’s critically important - just as important as everything else on your list. Don’t cheat yourself out of feeling good and being thankful for your improving healthy body. You should feel proud of the time you make for yourself. Learn to guard it. Consider it sacred in your daily life.
Acknowledge that exercise isn’t just for you - it’s for everyone around you. If your body is in a better condition, your brain is in a better condition. If you take time for exercising as a means of thought processing and working out your anxieties, you have more to give everyone when you return. Your boss, your husband, your kids, your dogs, your neighbors, other drivers, the telemarketer who just called your cell phone 3 times in a row… everyone benefits from your improved energy and what you bring to the table in a relaxed and focused state. It’s really for the good of society, man. You’d be selfish not to care for yourself.
This portion of your mental health management is just as crucial as seeing a therapist. When your appointment time is up - where do you go with your problems? I recommend you develop therapeutic practices on your own, starting with physical exercise and nature therapy. Accept it as part of your routine and keep this mental health management tool tucked in your back pocket. The worse your week, the more time you make to take care of yourself physically and mentally. Got it?
That’s it! I can talk for days about hiking, getting into a natural environment, and the benefits it brings me. I’m sure I will.
In the meantime, I recommend you try things out and find what works best for you.
Keep it realistic, convenient, and enjoyable.
Double up on brain/body benefits.
Make it a time for you and everyone in your life.
Acknowledge what you’ve done for yourself.
Be thankful to yourself for prioritizing how you feel.
I'm writing this "step by step" because this is the most logical order to getting ahold of your trauma, as far as I can tell. But what do I know? I need to have a quiet body to dig down into my messy brain. HOWEVER, people are different. If you need to work on step five before you can get to step two - who fucking cares. Do it. Relieve the discomfort wherever necessary to access the other pain points. In reality, this whole process is flexible, repeatable, and personal. You most likely need to work through the steps EVERY DAY to stay on top of your trauma game... so figure out how it works for you. Take things out of order. Figure out how one step enables another (i.e. exercise triggers examination of FUCBs or realizations about your life purpose) and let it work for you. My ramblings are meant to be relatable, approachable, and to provide guidance towards thinking in a new way. Do what you need to do.
There's my two cents. Leave a comment to talk about how you get your exercise and anxiety management!