Over the last couple of weeks talking about exercise addiction on YouTube, I’ve gotten so many emails and comments from people saying that they truly fear that they are addicted. Sadly, despite this awareness, most people say they can’t figure out how to stop because they do not think that they would be able to handle stress without being able to exercise.
I get this. It’s normal, especially since our culture not only accepts the idea that we can plunge our anxiety into our workouts, but encourages it. How many times have you seen t-shirts emblazoned with “I Run to Burn off the Crazy”, “Workout Junkie”, or my personal favorite, “I Run So I Don’t Punch People” (no, I am not making this up).
And yes, it is ok to use physical exercise as a way to feel good in your body and your mind. But, it’s NOT ok to think that this is your ONLY way to manage stress, feel good, find value in yourself, feel a sense of belonging, get through a family dinner, prepare for a difficult day at work, deal with your anxiety, etc.
As you know, I am not afraid to admit when I’ve made mistakes like this in the past. So, I thought I would share with you some of the dum-dum thoughts on training and stress that I used to have rolling around in my head back in the dark days.
DISCLAIMER: You are not a dum-dum if you have these thoughts. You are a lovely, talented, beautiful person who may be thinking thoughts that do not honor the person that you are and may, in fact, dramatically inhibit your awesomeness.
OK, here we go:
Mental Stress Can be Fixed with Exercise: The More the Better
There is no doubt that in the most stressful years of my life, my running volume also reached its peak. I had always noticed the good feelings that came after a training session, of course. So, I naturally assumed that this would be dose responsive; more stress means train more means feel better...more. Yeah. no.
After years of heading out for a run every time the heat in my life got too hot, things started to get worse. Not only did I worry about my stress, I worried about not being able to run to manage my stress. I realized that the times when I was running to manage my mental state were overtaking the times when I was actually training.
As the miles piled up, it became harder and harder to ignore that I was beating the crap out of my body. What I didn’t know was that the negative effects that come from stress are due to the SUM TOTAL of everything we do; physical and mental. I wasn’t alleviating my problems by training, I was only multiplying them because our brains don’t know the difference between a fight with our boss and a ten mile run. As a result of this, Overtraining Syndrome hit me like a ton of bricks, forcing me to stop, no matter what I wanted.
Pain is a Sign of Weakness Leaving the Body (hahaha)
In the fairyland of magical thinking where increased amounts if volume and intensity bring about increased fitness and wellbeing, forever and ever, I thought that if it hurt...it meant that my body was just getting stronger. Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand how training works; a bit of effort over what the body is used to allows for the cycle of breaking down to build up to take place. That works for a while. And then it doesn’t.
The problem is that I read too many “Once upon a time” -type tales of ultrarunners who set out to cover insane distances or embark on insane training cycles that made me think I could be Cinderella of the Trails, too. Sure they were in pain, riddled with shin splints, and possibly on their way to rhabdo, BUT...magically... along the way...a magical transformation took place...they were able to shake off the pain and...KEEP...GOING. Like Forrest Gump when his leg braces fell off, they literally ran away from their physical barriers and...bippity boppity boo...they became invincible!
OK, no. This is not, at all, how it works. The human body has limits, period. Yes, they are different for everyone, but they exist. I mean, we can try to escape the reality of physiology, but we can also try sprinkling glitter on our bills instead of paying them and see how that goes too.
There is Nothing I Can Do But Cope
This one makes me equally sad and want to rap my old self on the head with a sharp knuckle. It makes me sad because I know that the old me was in a lot of pain. It was real and it was deep. I recognize and honor that. However, who in the world told me that “coping” was the only way to handle pain?? Who said that I would have to suffer with it on my back forever and that my only options were to run away from it or use it as fuel??
Hear me on this point: if we use our pain as fuel, we are asking it to linger. We are telling it that we need it and we will take more of it. Nothankyou.
Instead, there was so much I could do! I had to learn that I could stop and take a look at my pain. I could hold it up to the light and examine it. I could get under it and around it and through it if I put fear aside. Only by pulling it apart, combing it out, and breaking it down could I separate my need for relief with my need to move my body. Important fact: they are not the same need. Figuring out the difference was time consuming and hard, but worth it.
In the end, mental stress can be a symptom of a core emotional unease that we carry inside. When we always turn to physical stress to manage mental stress, there comes a point when we are just ADDING overall stress, not subtracting from it. Ya gotta’ get up under that core stuff or you’ll always be running...till you can’t hide.
So...what lies have YOU been believing?