Guest Post · health · injury

Exercise and coping with extreme stress (Guest post)

Me and my mom, in my less active youth!

Members of the Fit is a Feminist Issue non-virtual community (that is, those of us who live and ride and row and lift and run here in little London, Ontario) know that I’ve been having a very hard winter. My mother is ill with dementia (you can read about that on my own blog, here). Today she moves into a long-term care facility after 30 very difficult days in hospital, during which my father and I took turns visiting daily, helping her keep her spirits from sinking too low. Meanwhile, I’m trying to adjust to life in Canada after more than two years living and working in the UK (where I learned to love riding my road bike – see here for more), and I’m trying to adjust as well to life without my partner, who stayed behind. The winter in the great lakes region was hard as nails this year, too, and the spring flood has brought water flowing into my basement… so, basically, I’m a stressed-out wreck.

In my younger life, I probably would have thought that doing regular exercise – and in particular scheduled fitness classes, boot camps, and the like, plus committing to riding with friends – would have been way, way too much on top of all this trauma. I grew up a chubby kid, teased for my size and my wacky hair and my weird, bookish ways; I was not what you would call active, and my diet was not what you would call healthy. I pretended not to care. (Hey: I was the “smart” kid, not the “sporty” kid. Right?) I grew up, went to university, to grad school, got married…

Then, when my husband and I split up for a while in the early 2000s – just before I wrote my qualifying exams for my doctoral degree – I realised that I weighed almost 200 pounds and was really unhappy. At that point – possibly my first encounter with a really extreme, concentrated period of stress – I decided to try going to the gym and swimming in the pool at my apartment building as a way of coping with my feelings of isolation and distress. What the gym gave me at that moment in my life was a community of people doing something together that they all wanted to do; I mostly worked out on my own, but it was comforting having others around who were into the same things I was and sometimes had really useful insights and stories to share. After about three months of going regularly to the pool and the gym I lost 25 pounds and gained some confidence; I felt better in my clothes and in my heart. I found the energy to look for a new apartment, one that was all mine and in a neighbourhood I really liked; that neighbourhood had a pool I wanted to join, and I quickly found an amazing community of endurance athletes there to swim with. Through a modest commitment to exercise, I’d found people, fresh interests, new community spirit, and a stronger sense of myself at a time when I needed reassurance that I was going to survive the troubles littering my life. I realised I felt pretty good!

(I should note here that, like Sam and Tracy and Nat and the others at FFI, I do not believe weight loss should be sought in and of itself, simply because society wants us all to believe thin is beautiful. The weight I lost in the early 2000s was part of an initiative to get myself healthy, one that included seeing a superb therapist, changing my diet to include more green veg and less meat, and shifting my outlook beyond the narrow confines of my apartment and my doctoral dissertation. Losing weight was part of a life-changing, life-saving series of events for me. I’m proud of my fit, healthy body now, but I’m a completely average-sized woman – which means 158lb, not 130lb, by the way  –and I’m not interested in becoming smaller. I only want to get stronger for my summer of time trial races!)

So here we are, in winter 2015, and I’m experiencing once more the kinds of mini body crises that come with consistent, high-level stress. I’ve been getting nosebleeds. My chronic hip problem has been acting up. Headaches. Shoulder tension. Frequent crying, and feelings of depression. I recognise all of these as physiological responses to what’s happening for me emotionally as I cope with the painful changes and losses in my life: bodies and minds are a unit and share their burdens equally. But I also know from my own past experiences that moving my body, being active and whenever possible active with others, is not an added stressor but an antidote for me. While superficially requiring me to expend precious energy, heading for the park to ride or walk with friends, or getting to the gym for a class, or just getting out on my bike by myself, all ultimately raise my endorphin levels and leave me feeling better in my limbs, lungs, and heart. I was reminded of this recently by my friend and coach Jo McRae, who encouraged me to sign up for a late-winter cycling boot camp as a coping strategy that also allowed me to continue my training – as long, she insisted, as I gave myself permission to miss a session or two if I just wasn’t feeling up to it.

And that’s the other piece of this puzzle, of course; if you’re an active person, exercise offers a wonderful way to help with stress. (And if you’re not an active person, I should add, trying out some modest exercise, with supportive friends, can be really freeing – as I learned in 2001!) But even active people need to be kind to themselves; we are not bionic men and women, and in times of severe stress there will be days when it’s just not possible to get on the rollers, or out for a run, or whatever. On those days we need to remind ourselves that there are lots of different ways to cope with stress; exercise is part of a package, not a cure-all. On those days, a chocolate bar, cup of tea, and a movie might be what’s needed – and that is really, really ok.

As for me, here’s a brief list of what I’ve been up to since things really hit the fan for me in late February. This isn’t meant as a model for coping; it’s just an example, in case you’re curious or looking to create a coping plan for yourself. (And if you are: I wish you the very best of luck!)

  • First, I sent an SOS to my friends and colleagues. I told them what I was going through, and asked them for love, support, and all the invites they cared to send for walks, rides, swims, yoga, etc, anticipating that things might get worse and that I might not have the energy to reach out later. (Read more about that strategy here.)
  • Next, I signed up for a fantastic cycling bootcamp with my friend and fellow road rider Rachel Skinner; we ride twice a week, two hours at a time, on the spin bikes at a local gym. Rachel cues the rides like an outdoor course, including a lot of flat roads and aerobic (mid-zone) work, as well as some hills and drills. It’s totally manageable, including plenty of recovery riding as well as good challenges, and a heap of fun.
  • I committed to getting on my rollers once a week. So far, it’s more like once every 10-12 days, but I’m ok with that. (I’m still working on relaxing my upper body, and not falling off all the time!)
  • I’m trying to do yoga once a week – chilled yoga, not hard core stuff. Stretching, yin, Iyengar. This week, Jess invited me to an acro-yoga workshop (eek!).
  • I’m getting as many massages as my health plan will pay for. (And I told my massage therapist what’s going on in my life; since I need to be fully relaxed in order to take best advantage of his good work, I figured he needs to know. And he’s a health care professional, so I was not worried about oversharing; it’s his job to listen!)
  • I’m walking my dog with my dog-loving friends, in the woods, as often as possible.
  • image
    Even Emma the Dog thinks it’s been a hard winter.
  • I’m seeing my psychotherapist (the same one I started seeing many years ago – he’s still with me!) as often as possible, too. I’m really lucky to have a therapist whose services are covered by our provincial health care plan, and I want to remind all our Ontario readers that these people DO exist – and many of them are excellent. (Just ask your family doctor for the current list of OHIP-covered therapists, and a hand in finding a good one.)

In other words, I’m coping. Yes, I’m still crying a bit more than I’d like. And I’m aching a bit more than I’d like. But I’m not drinking too much (a risk for me), I’m not overeating (also a risk), and I’m feeling increasingly ok when I wake up in the morning. So far, so good. I’m so grateful to have a healthy body that lets me do the exercise I love and need right now, and I’m ever so thankful for my community of supportive, active friends. Here’s to you, gang.


10 thoughts on “Exercise and coping with extreme stress (Guest post)

  1. I came across your blog and just had to comment because I am so impressed by the strides you are taking to make yourself more healthy and happy. We ALL could steal a chapter from your book. Keep it UP 🙂

  2. This is a terrific post, sure to help people. You’ve got a great and very smart, proactive approach laid out. Thanks for sharing. I wish you all the best.

  3. In your way of coping, you’ve given some great tips. Sending out a big “hi” to friends and asking them if they want company for walks, rides … is a great idea!

  4. And the other thing you didn’t mention is that March is just a really tough month in the calendar of us academics anyway, even without all the other stuff that’s going on for you right now. I mean really, Sam, you, and I couldn’t even find one day in March to get together for lunch, and that was when we checked calendars THREE WEEKS AGO (or something). Looking so forward to rides together in warm weather! Meanwhile, thank you for this wonderful, helpful post. I love being surrounded by women who know how to look after themselves and are willing to share that wisdom. Big hug.

  5. Thanks for the generous feedback, everyone! And yes, Tracy, so true about March! Cruel and now cold again. Rats.

Comments are closed.