Anxiety is a Dog Chewing on the Furniture

Anxiety. It has been with me longer than my depression and wow is it exhausting when it gets out of control. But on good days, anxiety serves a purpose.

Healthy anxiety is the urge to check your locks before you leave the house, or to write deadlines in your calendar. It’s the desire to proofread emails and make sure your bills are paid. I like what my anxiety has done for me when it functions as intended.

If every meaningful task and responsibility is a little fluffy sheep in a field, my anxiety is the excited collie herding them to pasture. Anxiety likes having a job. But what happens when anxiety doesn’t get enough of the right exercise or when it gets trapped in the house?

Chaos.

Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar feeling of impending doom. Sometimes I’m hit with a sinking certainty that something, anything, everything is wrong and a terrible thing is about to happen to me. At my worst, my brain decides to whip up fantasies to explain this feeling and suddenly I consider that maybe, just maybe, I unknowingly committed a crime or that someone stole all my passwords and they are going to clean out my bank account and take over my social media accounts, or that the tight feeling in my chest is about to kill me.

That’s my anxiety dog chewing on the furniture.

My anxiety has very physical roots and I’ve realized if I don’t release it intentionally, it’s going to find another way out and it’s not going to be pretty.

A History of Movement

When I’ve been confined to a desk, couch, work chair, bed, or my tiny apartment because it’s a fricken arctic tundra in Minnesota and the air hurts my face, my anxiety turns into an uncontrollable, uncomfortable itchiness. If I don’t move my body and get active, my internal anxiety dog starts making trouble.

Sometimes it’s a light nibble and sometimes it’s catastrophic damage.

In school, I bounced my legs constantly, chewed gum all through the day, spun my pencil around my fingers, clicked my pen cap, picked at my scalp while taking tests, doodled in my notes during lectures, sweat through the pits of all my shirts.

At home, I picked my skin some more. This is probably one of the most visibly frustrating parts of my anxiety. If there’s an imperfection on the surface of my body, I will find it and I will tear. It. UP.

At night, I clench my jaw. While I’m typing this, I’m wiggling my leg.

But the worst is when my brain starts telling stories about all the horrible things that are about to happen to me. That’s when the anxiety dog is ripping everything around it to shreds. Couch stuffing everywhere.

These are all unintentional releases of anxiety. This is what happens when it spills over. What happens when it’s intentionally channeled into action? I don’t ever want to be one of those people that oversimplifies mental illness saying something akin to: “Anxiety? Maybe you should try exercising?”–but uh–there’s something there.

The Proof is in the Split Wood

Fall of 2020, I found myself in a strange place with my anxiety and a broken heart. I gave online dating a shot–which went very poorly at the start of fall. Like psychological manipulation, mind-f**K kind of poorly. Which, sent my already anxious brain into overdrive. I had a problem to fixate on: Were they or were they not a lying piece of garbage? (Spoiler alert, they were.)

I could not get my brain to stop obsessing.

One afternoon, I went outside to a woodpile and picked up a maul. For 45 minutes, I chopped the sh*t out of some wood. Much to my frustration, the wood happened to be a particularly green pile so I really had to work for a clean split. After hacking away at a stubborn log, I burst into tears, pitied myself, wiped the tears away, and then kept chopping, log after log. My arms were rubber when I was done, but man did I feel unburdened. Suddenly, I could rest.

The gnawing, chewing, restless dog in my head was sleeping in a corner. I’d given it something it needed.

After that, I chopped more wood. Then, started walking four miles every day. Some days, I’d finish the walk and then run on the treadmill or use the squat rack. When winter hit, I kept running and using a rowing machine. Anxiety? Run. Incessant thoughts? Row. Anger? Squat.

Exercise saved me from myself, and this was the first time I ever realized its true potential to take my anxiety from 11 to a manageable 3. And it was the first time I realized I had a cattle dog in my head that just desperately needed to run.

In the past, I scoffed when I’d read something about exercise helping anxiety and depression. Yeah, but how am I supposed to exercise when I’m too miserable to move? How am I supposed to get the energy to run when my anxiety has already exhausted me?

I get it, and it sucks to get started–but it works, and once you have momentum, it keeps working–but I’ve been slacking lately because of winter.

Back to yesterday,

When I woke up yesterday, my anxiety was bad, but I knew what would help.

I drove to the gym, where I spent an hour on the treadmill intermittently sprinting and walking on an incline. Sixty minutes of music and sweating and pushing my body even when my legs felt like they had nothing to give.

When I went home, my mind was quieter. My internal anxiety dog stopped chewing on the couch. I ate a burrito and then sat down to work.

Exercise won’t cure my anxiety, but it does help control it. My anxiety will always be there because it serves a purpose. It keeps all my little sheep in the pen. It watches out for predators. It’s my little buddy that keeps me motivated. But that furry little asshole will turn on me if I don’t make conscious efforts to get my heartrate up.

Don’t ignore the herding dog in your head. Its legs are your legs. Take it for a walk before it starts chewing on the edge of your dinner table.

Oh and leave questions and comments below if you got ’em!

-Kelly

(PS: I make light of mine, but anxiety is a very real and very debilitating disorder. If you are struggling, please reach out to your doctor and/or consider therapy. I’m grateful for all the tools I have picked up over my life to help with mine. Medication is also an option.)

8 Replies to “Anxiety is a Dog Chewing on the Furniture”

  1. Hi I wasn’t sure if it was good to read your article. Articles about anxiety and such sometimes have the tendency to pull you down. But now I am glad I read it, it sounds very level headed. Now I am going for my morning run its just half an hour but it’s like magic for the rest of the day

    1. I’m so glad mine didn’t pull you down. I try not to ruminate on the downside to mental illness in my posts, but it’s hard sometimes. Kudos on the run and thank you for taking the time to respond.

  2. Kelly, thank you for sharing your experience with anxiety and how exercising/movement has been helpful for you. I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty in your sharing. That was a really fitting way to describe anxiety—a dog chewing on the furniture. I appreciate how you are realistic with your perspective—that we will never be completely free of anxiety though there are some things we can try to hopefully experience some relief from overwhelming anxiety. I can personally relate to a lot of what you say. And I admire you and your determination to use movement and exercise to find some relief from the intense anxiety. I also found exercising to be helpful in coping with anxiety and depression nearly 4 years ago and it’s something I continue daily as I know it’s necessary for my wellbeing. My anxiety is so intense that I would not be able to go to a gym like you mentioned but do manage some light exercise (at least 30 minutes walking) in my home—and also know I have to leave enough energy to be able to function throughout the day. I appreciate how you shared that it’s challenging to get started with exercising but once you get going it’s a little more manageable to maintain the habit. Perhaps this is an example of neuroplasticity—repetitive activity that over time becomes the “new normal” or a habit. It’s so refreshing to read about exercise helping with mental health as this is a tool I use (and like you said—not a complete cure for anxiety and depression) that often seems overlooked. Thank you for the validation and encouragement you provided through sharing your experience!

    1. Amanda, thank you for your reply! I definitely don’t want to discount all the other very meaningful forms of exercise beyond the gym. Walking outside in nature, even at a slow pace has helped my anxiety before. I’ve even been unable to do anything at all and had to wait for the next upswing in my mood to try to start a routine. We’re all a work in progress and one method won’t work for everyone, but it’s such a great tool when it’s right for us. Thank you for sharing your experiences as well!

      1. Oh, I totally didn’t take what you said as discounting other forms of exercise at all and thought you did a nice job in how you presented things. So true that one method won’t work for everyone since we’re all unique and it’s wonderful that we can tailor tools to our needs. I’m so thankful you have found some things to be helpful with your mental health and wish you the best as you continue on your journey.

        1. Thank you, Amanda! I’m sorry if my reply came off as defensive! Your reply was very well put and I was just kind of having an ah-ha moment realizing 60 minutes on the treadmill can be an extreme place to start. I’m glad we’ve both found tools that help! And I wish you all the best as well <3

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