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!)

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.


Exit mobile version