Exercise addiction – managing the tangle of anxiety, eating and exercise.

Last Sunday I spent all day exercising

ImageIt started when I pressed snooze at 6am and cancelled my spinning class. I’d been in the gym at 6.30 all the previous week and had just returned from a busy couple of days running and walking in Cornwall. I was exhausted. But I didn’t get back to sleep. Anxiety levels rose. Getting dressed I was acutely aware of all my clothes, how they pressed against my skin. I couldn’t find anything I felt comfortable in. My hands felt swollen and my chest tight. My mind was whirring with calculations and lists.

It wasn’t until after a session on the cross trainer, a long swim and walk with the dog that I felt like myself again. A combination of relief from thoughts about overeating and, much more importantly, relief from the anxiety that made it matter so much in the first place.photo (1)

Yesterday evening I ran a very long way* because I ate some cake and chocolate buttons at work. The morning spin class stopped being enough.

It’s not so much the calories – although that doesn’t help at the moment. It’s a craving for that feeling after exercise where your thoughts are calm and still, your body feels tired but deserving of care and nourishment and your mind doesn’t have to calculate or judge because it knows you’ve done enough to rest.

“a craving for that feeling after exercise where your thoughts are calm and still, your body feels tired but deserving of care and nourishment and your mind doesn’t have to calculate or judge because it knows you’ve done enough to rest. “

Immediate relief vs long term recovery

legs and knee supports

Knee supports – NOT the answer to EVERYTHING

My knees and hips ache and sometimes even crunch. They need a break.  I am finally cutting down the running in favour of spinning, swimming and cycling.

But the daily doublethink is still absurd. Cold baths and a knee support is not going to allow me to run miles and miles however much I wish it would. Immediate relief still trumps long-term sensible decisions too much of the time. Even if that relief is tinged with guilt and frustration.

I’m planning my next exercise session whilst I’m in the middle of the previous one. I try to be more sensible but those persistent thoughts keep popping up.

‘You could run tonight. You could just do an extra session on the cross trainer after spinning. You could fit in a swim tomorrow morning if you get up really early. Remember how good it feels when you’re done, how much more you enjoy your food when you feel you deserve it, how much easier it is to rest and to concentrate when that anxious energy is stilled’.

Once I imagine that feeling, it’s hard to turn away from it.

But that feeling is lasting a shorter and shorter time. When I’m exercising twice a day and feeling anxious and panicky when I can’t get moving it’s time to get some help.

A tangle of eating, exercise and emotion

My eating, emotions and exercise have always been tangled. I’ve relied on running to manage my mental health since before I knew that’s what I was doing – but as I wrote in a healthier time I’ve tended to maintain a slightly healthier balance.

I think it’s been creeping back up on me for a while. I ran a lot more when I was trying to reduce my Citalopram last year (an anti depressant I’ve been on for 14 years and is notoriously difficult to come off).  I went vegan in January and lost weight, bought a wedding dress, stopped being so strictly vegan and gained it again. I dieted to fit back into the dress. I trained hard for the London Marathon in April. Although the feeling of achievement (and beating my brother’s time) definitely helps me appreciate my body’s strength, marathons do give me a certain permission to run more than I should. I exercised more to manage the anxiety and emotion that naturally surrounded getting married. It was the best day of my life – but of course there were stressful moments before and after.

It’s been hard to admit that things aren’t right. It feels almost embarrassing. I don’t want people to look at me with pity and concern when I head out for a run. I want to be the kind of woman who is proud of her body’s ability to run, to love and to help me live life ‘to the full’. Who doesn’t worry about how she appears to others as long as she’s happy in herself. But that woman is as much of a myth as those airbrushed models we all love to hate. It’s just a different kind of perfect. Living with these issues is much more complex.

I want to be the kind of woman who is proud of her body’s ability to run, to love and to help me live life ‘to the full’. Who doesn’t worry about how she appears to others as long as she’s happy in herself. But that woman is as much of a myth as those airbrushed models we all love to hate. It’s just a different kind of perfect.

An exhausting, endless undercurrent

It doesn’t stop me functioning. I work, see friends and family, make exciting plans with my husband, look after my dog Watson. There’s been a lot going on for a long time and exercise has actively helped me cope, at least in the short term.

But it’s starting to add a more exhausting undercurrent to everything that should be most fun. It’s slowly wearing away my joints. It takes up time and brain space I’d rather be using for other things – writing, reading, creativity, growing things. It pulls my attention inwards. It dulls and distracts from everyday pleasures and makes it harder to follow those vows I made on my wedding day – to be silly and kind.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. But I’ve got the point where I’ve admitted there’s a bit of a problem. That doesn’t mean things will immediately change. I’m certainly not going to be able to cut down too much straight away. But it means I’m looking for help. I’ve been to the doctor and he is referring me to some more CBT. I’ve signed up for another Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course to help make sure I remember other ways to give my mind some space. I’ve stopped following people whose posts about rigorous training routines encourage those unhelpful persistent thoughts. And I’ve upped my anti depressants a touch. Recovery doesn’t always go smoothly. I hope one day I’ll be off them, but it’s not quite yet.

 

*I’m trying not to mention distances or times as that’s generally considered unhelpful for others who may be experiencing similar difficulties to read. It’s too easy to get into comparison and competition, even if it’s sometimes a subconscious effect.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Exercise addiction – managing the tangle of anxiety, eating and exercise.

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