Working Out & Mental Health

Last week was Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada so my timing with this post is a bit off…though, why should we only talk about mental health on “green light” occasions like MHAW and Bell Let’s Talk Day? Sure, they’re great events and I am thrilled to see more discussion about mental health but it’s not like mental health issues don’t happen all the time.

I don’t often talk about my own mental health challenges – partially because they don’t define who I am and partially because I don’t think what I’ve dealt with is particularly unusual. I was a shy kid with my nose always stuck in a book and thankfully, I also loved playing sports. I didn’t fit in socially very well and I wasn’t particularly girly (in fact, I was given the nickname “Butch” by the guys I played basketball with at lunch time). I have always kind of been a bit eccentric and although now I appreciate my creativity and different way of looking at things, back then, I just thought that there was something wrong with me. I thought that if I changed my body I would magically fix everything, fit in, and have everybody like me.

Long story short, I over trained and under ate and developed an eating disorder that went on for about 5 years of hell. I also started binge drinking to deal with my social anxiety and kill my feelings because I didn’t know how to deal with them. My weight went up and down, I was depressed and anxious, and not a very nice person to be around. Honestly, sometimes I think it’s a miracle that I got through high school (with a 91% average, nonetheless). Through it all, sports and fitness played an instrumental role in helping me not screw up my life completely. I wish I had done some things differently but I cared enough about my team to go to practice, eat, not drink the night before games and practices, and go to enough classes that I could still play.

Eventually in my third year of university I hit rock bottom and quit school. I stayed in London and worked at the city pool until the spring. My only reason for getting up in the morning was that I knew the aquafit ladies were counting on me to be there. I will spare the details of my eating disorder but suffice to say it was just miserable.

For me the journey to recovery started with a decision to move back to Nova Scotia to live with my parents in Wolfville. I made a pact with myself that I needed to get better and decided that trumped my fear of gaining weight. I gained a lot of weight very quickly which was really difficult to deal with because my body image was so bad. I didn’t have a job or school so for a couple of months I mostly stayed inside, afraid to go out in case “people” (who I didn’t know!) saw me. Writing this now it’s hard to believe that it literally took me 6 hours to get ready and have the courage to go outside and walk 2 blocks to the post office to pick up our mail!

That summer I worked at Camp Glenburn and met some of the most incredible fun people ever who loved nature and really didn’t care about superficial things. Despite being at my heaviest, it was one of the best summers of my life and made me realize that being happy and having fun isn’t about being a certain weight or size.

From there things kept getting better and in the fall of 2004 I went back to school at Acadia (super awesome choice!). I started going to the gym regularly and this helped my recovery in so many ways. First, it made me feel good about myself, mentally and physically. This is supported by lots of research too. When you exercise, your body produces chemicals that make you feel happy 🙂 Working out is also a terrific way to release stress and deal with feelings. Triple awesome. Second, working out helped me make supportive food choices. I realized that my workouts felt awful if I didn’t eat enough or too much. Since working out was something I like to do and look forward to, I was conscientious about eating regularly and not being extreme. It also made me care about getting enough sleep. Finally, working out helped me gain strength and muscle and take my power back. My goals shifted from “I want to be thin” to “I want to be strong and healthy”.

Of course, exercise and regulating my eating were not the only thing that helped my recovery. I also stopped polluting my brain with unhealthy ideals of beauty by not reading fashion magazines or watching TV. I went to counseling. I talked about my feelings and wrote poetry. I learned coping skills. I found things that were more important to focus on than how I looked. It’s a process and it’s different for everyone.

Today, 13 years later, exercise is still an essential part of my mental health and wellbeing.  I wake up at 5am to work out before my work day begins and it is my time to get focused and energized for the day.  My nutrition habits also play an important role in my mental health. I also eat mostly whole foods and gave up my food guilt when I eat something more rich. Being able to really enjoy and savour a delicious piece of cake (or a chocolate chip oat cake from the UNB library…) and not feel angry or guilty or want to eat the whole darn thing because I interpret a food choice as bad or making a mistake is HUGE.

I also realized that there is not enough cake or pizza or alcohol or anything else in the world that will really make me feel better or take away the feelings I don’t want to feel so my emotional eating has decreased a lot (though not entirely).  I think being a nurse has helped me with emotional regulation too because dealing with the depth and breadth of emotions of the human experience is unavoidable in our profession and self-reflection and awareness is something that we actively work on developing.

These days my mental health is very good, though I find the Canadian winter can get a little bit depressing (who doesn’t!?) and sometimes I still get a bit anxious about social situations and going to Costco (again, not all that unusual). I think because it’s not a problem anymore I tend not to talk about my mental health too much – I have so many other things to focus on instead! However, I do think that it’s important to share my experiences so that people know that they are not alone and that it’s okay to ask for help – EVEN if you are a health care professional or an academic. Stigma shmigma! Despite the silly pretenses that a lot of people put on, nobody is perfect – heck, what does that even mean anyway?!

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