My relationship with mental health and exercise has evolved over the last five years, particularly after my friend’s death by suicide. In the wake of my friend’s passing, I focused on running and cardio multiple times a week to help me with my grief.
Research online said exercise would help me by building up endorphins, which create a positive shift in mood. A positive shift in mood would lead to fewer panic attacks and depression for me after my friend died, right?
I noticed physical changes in my body after a few weeks: my limbs were more tone, and walking around my college campus became less of a pain. Still, my panic attacks continued, and I couldn’t sleep well at night.
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After talking to my mother, I decided to go back to therapy for the first time in six years. In therapy, I realized I didn’t use exercise as an opportunity to acknowledge my grief in my mind and body, I used it as a chance to avoid it. My therapist named that exercise is a way to be present in the mind and body, and I didn’t want any of that back then.
My current therapist, who I have been seeing for almost two years now, has been a great support in my process of learning how to acknowledge specific triggers without letting them affect me too much. Here’s what I learned about balancing my mental and physical health:
Exercise can be a grounding tool
Just as writing a new poem every week and praying for guidance regularly helps me stay present in the moment, I can use exercise as a grounding and meditative tool that legitimately assists me in managing my mental health. For example, I live in Portland, Maine, which is a pretty walkable small city. Using that time to focus on the movement of my legs and my breathing helps me stay present.
Staying active keeps me connected
Before quarantine, I occasionally played volleyball and Frisbee with my partner and his friends; I also participated in a lot of physical theater, acting in shows that included a lot of choreographed movements. The combination of movement and social interaction helped me feel balanced.
Staying active since COVID-19
Since quarantine, my partner and I have been doing 30-minute exercise routines from an app called Hinge Health every day. It helps with connecting with my body’s needs so that I’m not stagnant during this time. I’m also able to connect with the person I love during a time where I haven’t hugged anyone else in months.
This is only my personal take, and it took me a while to reach that point. The hope is that more people find what truly works for them to be both physically and mentally healthy in a joyful way. There’s no need to have to choose one over another.