Two subjects I often write about are anxiety and exercise. However, I’ve never written about them together and how they interact. Recently, I got a glimpse into how my mind affects my fitness routine and vice versa. It was a moment of awakening for me and it occurred to me that not many people think about the connection. I’ve never talked with a fitness trainer who takes mental illness into consideration. Why should they? One is body and the other is mind, right? Yet there is a bigger connection between the two than you might think.

As a child, and then into my teen years, I enjoyed being physical. I was always moving and going. I swam competitively, biked almost everywhere I wanted to go and loved walking for hours. Like other teens, I went rollerskating every chance I got which worked out to be three or four times a week. It kept the darkness at bay.

My home life as a child was less than ideal. I was the victim of psychological and emotional abuse on an almost daily basis in a family that believed any physical touch was sexual in nature. I didn’t learn how to hug until I was 17 years old. There was a very dark nature to my being that often manifested in thoughts of suicide. I even came very close to trying to commit suicide a couple of times.

I firmly believe that the only reason I’m alive now is because I was so physically active. I didn’t know it then but the activity helped keep the worst of it at bay. Looking back, when things got really rough (like the time my sister grounded me for a year for saying no to her), I took to physical activity. It was a way of pushing everything aside and focusing on the moment.

When I had to take care of my parents, I didn’t have time to go out and exercise like I wanted. I couldn’t just get up and leave for a few hours to get away. As a result, those are some of the blackest years I’ve known. I never want to go back to that.

Recently, though, I started exercising again and I’ve noticed something that should be apparent to anyone. If I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack and go exercise, the attack stops or recedes to a manageable point. Go endorphins! Yes, endorphins kicking in is a temporary measure but it’s enough of a breathing space to give me room to quiet the attack. You cannot imagine how wonderful that is. Just to have that moment’s peace is amazing.

There are still challenges. Going to an exercise class fills me with dread and the thought of going to a gym is enough to make me want to wet my panties. Ideally, I would like to see someone try to tailor exercise to help with mental illness. For example, if someone has bipolar disorder, is yoga the best or perhaps martial arts? For someone with schizophrenia, is running a good idea or swimming? I think exercising is a good first step. Now, I think we need to take it a step further and start to tailor programs to help those who suffer from mental illness.

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