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 cattle dog 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?
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 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. But what happens when it’s intentionally channeled into action? I don’t ever want to be one of those people that oversimplify 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 heart rate 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.
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.