Apr 25, 2018

Mental Strength

I love working out. I feel energized when I'm active. I love getting stronger and moving my body and trying new sports. I've always been very active, played most sports you can think of as a kid, and I even played volleyball in the early years of high school. However, about a year and a half ago my anxiety got in the way of being active.

I was struggling with panic attacks and high anxiety. Everytime I worked out, the elevated heart rate reminded me of the physical symptoms of my anxiety and I started to panic. It's amazing how the brain starts to anticipate an appropriate reaction based on a stimulus. At this point in my life there were many stimuli that told my mind to slip into the pattern of panic. It felt like a downward spiral that I was having a really hard time getting out of. It didn't help that I often walk, hike, run, SUP outside alone. So, I joined a gym and I felt comforted working out around other people, it helped me work through the pattern of panic that started with an increased heart rate and was escalated by imagining the weird worst case scenarios that I could come up with. Just knowing that I could ask for help if I needed to really helped.

I also worked with a therapist who completely saved me during that time. Among many pearls of wisdom, she reminded me that a heart rate that was not elevated while working out would be a symptom of a much bigger problem, that it was healthy and important that my heart raced while I was running or working out. Just this simple, and obvious, reminder helped me to reset this pattern. It took a lot of work, but through cognitive therapy I have been able to be panic attack free for more than a year. Now when I feel the physical symptoms anxiety and the thoughts that are associated, growing within, I have practices in place that help me to calm down and get out of the downward spiral.

Working out has been instrumental in overcoming my anxiety. Not just in changing mental reactions to phsyical stimuli, but also in getting me off the couch when I'm not feeling well mentally. Getting into, and in touch with, my body again has helped me in ways that I can't explain, but I'll try. When I was really struggling I tried to dissassociate from my physical body. Sitting down to do yoga felt unbearable, and I do yoga everyday (and did it through that period as well, although barely). I would sit on my mat with my opening breaths just crawling out of my skin. As I transitioned into some simple flows, I'd move quickly through downward dog into forward folds, getting up to put things away and pick up laundry in between poses. Anything to keep me out of my body. Feeling my breath and my heart beat made me immediately start to overanalyze and come up with ways that it might not be right. I started to turn into a hypochondriac with worry. The same thing happened when I worked out in general, I would feel my heart race and start to come up with crazy things to be concerned about. It was as if my mind was trying to come up with worries to justify the panic I felt in my body, and my body was trying to keep up with all the stress, and I didn't know which had come first; chicken little or the sky falling above.

Overtime I was able to sit a little longer, linger in poses more easily, find comfort in the breath flowing slow, in the feeling of my heart beat. I was able to spend more time alone in the woods again, my thoughts didn't go dark as soon as I started. I learned to focus on the good again. The way that things are working well, instead of coming up with the ways that things could go wrong. I don't know which calmed first, my body or my mind, because they're son inescapably connected and intertwined. But as I did the work they both shifted. The work looked like showing up on my mat to meditate and practice asana (poses), even if only for three minutes of distracted breath. The work looked like taking walks and runs in the woods even if I had come up with a million reasons that I should be afraid to do so alone.  The work looked like watching my patterns of thought and action. Soon the work became stopping harmful patterns of thought and action. Finally the work became breathing a little deeper before the downward spiral even started.

Somedays I still only practice for three minutes, and I've shifted towards spending more time outside with someone or with my dog. But these days my practice is much more focused and I am truly feeling all my body has to offer. I'm finding what I need and balancing where I'm at. I'm truly seeing where my mind is going and if I'm repeating any common patterns of thought. I have found a lot of mental healing in getting in touch with my body again.

I started working out regularly to become a better stand up paddleboarder. When people asked me what my goals were in working out I answered simply; strength. I want to look good of course, but I'm more motivated by function than aestetic. Strength has always been my goal in being active, however, I never thought about how much mental strength working out would give me as well. Perhaps that explains the addicting quality that endurance sports have: The ability to train the mind and the body to respond to intention instead of physical stimuli. When I'm on mile 4 and the water is rough and my arms ache and my shoulders burn and my lower back is killing me, intention is what keeps me going. I've found that the intentions that work best in race situations are the same ones that save me when I'm falling into patterns of panic. "I think and speak only words of love. I am at peace with life," will stop negativity in its track. These simple words repeated to myself will help me push 3 more miles, they help me turn a bad day around, they help me when I'm feeling out of control.

This has been life changing on and off the water. The true ability to shape the way I see the world and bring myself out of negative thinking has turned me from a pessimisitic "realist" into an optimist who doesn't let a few frustrating situations throughout the day get her down. It has taken years, but paddleboarding and the training required to race, have fast tracked me into seeing just how strong I can truly be.

---A special thanks to my business partner/friend, Amy for reminding me to slow down and for all of her compassion towards me during this challenging time.

---A double special thanks to John, my life partner for always reminding me to breathe and coming up with ways of distracting me from my self-sabotage when I needed it most!