"Stress Me Out"!

In high school, my most said expression was, "Stress me out". Check my yearbook, I'm not lying. I wish I did more to help myself out during this time other than simply vocalize it (although that's a start). I didn't have the skills then that I do now. If you have a pulse, at some point in your life, you will (and likely already have) experienced stress. It's not just something you experience while "adulting". It touches people at any age range. So, if it's part of the human experience, might as well learn some skills to cope and manage it, right? Right!

Stress Comes in All Forms. There's this misconception that stress only occurs in negative situations (ie: losing a job, financial pressures/worries, death, illness, injury, etc). Not so! Stress can also occur in positive situations as well (ie: having a baby, moving cities for a dream job, getting married, etc). These situations may be things you are looking forward to, but they are also, demanding something from you. Stress doesn't necessarily have to be foreshadowing of doom and gloom. Having an understanding that stress can occur in both positive and negative events can help us understand, prepare and/or cope.

Awareness. It can be helpful to take an stress inventory (such as the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory) to assess potential contributing factors. Sometimes, people know they are stressed, but do not know why. Or, they may brush off the events in their lives as 'nothing' when that 'nothing' might actually be 'something'. Stressful events can also build up. You may not have experienced the death of a spouse, but stress can still be felt through an accumulation of smaller events as well. Once you have awareness, then you can do something about it, and even be proactive!

Limits. It's okay to know what you can and can't manage. There is no shame in this. Knowing you are about to enter a stressful season might mean you don't take on anything 'extra'. Family coming to visit over the next holiday? It might be a good time to hold off on starting your kitchen renovations or decreasing your medications you've been hoping to get off of, etc. There's no need to be a martyr and take on more than you can handle. This will likely stress you out more, as well as those around you.

Food, Sleep and Exercise. The more and more I work in this field, I am constantly reminded and reinforced around the benefits of having a normalized, healthy relationship with food, sleep and exercise. Often, when one of these areas gets pushed to the sidelines, trouble is looming. Maintaining balance in these areas alsobuilds resiliency. Sure, things come up and your routine may get jostled around some. The idea isn't to be perfect, as it is to do the best you can in meeting each of these needs. Can't get outside for that hour walk you normally do everyday? 15-30 minutes is still better than nothing, or maybe you decide to go every other day. Thinking of staying up an extra two hours to study for that midterm? Let that temptation pass. Stop. Eat. Sleep. These things are so important. Your body, mind and mental health appreciate it!

Routine/Schedule/Normalcy. Don't try to 'wing it'. There is a benefit to having a plan when it comes to managing stressful situations/events. Try planning out what needs to get done and when. We don't always have the luxury of foresight, but there is something to say about following some sort of routine and schedule. A sense of familiarity can also be comforting when life gets thrown upside down. If you always enjoyed meeting with your Monday night bridge group, still try to do this. Whatever you are dealing with will likely still be there afterwards. Give yourself permission to do the things you can that bring normalcy as well as bit of a break. And, if bridge is the last thing you can handle right now, maybe you skip a week or three. 

Check Your Thoughts. As always, being flexible in thinking can be helpful when faced with stress. Challenge those black and white, all or none thinking styles. Keep an eye on that part of you that easily jumps to catastrophizing. Be aware of the "shoulds" that sneakily find a way into our vocabulary that only puts unnecessary pressure on ourselves. Change what you can, accept what you can't.

Lastly, Get Help. We can't do everything on our own all the time. It's okay to need someone to help you during stressful times, whether it's an objective third party (ie: like a therapist or social worker) or a friend. It's okay to ask for and receive help!


Thoughts on Exercise

Exercise, in everyone's life, is an important component to building a healthy lifestyle. When I say that word, what comes to mind? 

Running? Sweat? Dread? Calories? Being toned? Hard work? Compulsion? Mandatory? Fun? Social? Movement? Distance? Time? Lack of time? Boredom? Pain? 

I've written about exercise before; there are a few points I wanted to hit home a little harder. As always, talk with your doctor about how much and what kinds of  physical activity is right for you, especially when you are in early stages of recovery from an eating disorder, illness and/or injury!! 

#1 - Exercise is movement. And I mean any kind of movement. Walking, sex, gardening, stretching, swimming, mowing the lawn, yoga, lifting weights, getting groceries and so on. I often hear people say, "Oh, I only did 'X', that's not really exercise". It is. You are exercising a muscle when it is moving it. Have you ever sprained your ankle or hurt your back? You become very aware of how you used that muscle once you can't use it like you also did.  

#2 - Build exercise (movement) into your life that is fun.  #2 and #3 go together. Hate the gym? No worries, you don't have to exercise/move solely in that location. The same is true if you hate being outside to exercise. The important thing is to find something you enjoy doing (or at the very least can tolerate). For some it might mean exercising with friends while others may prefer to take a class with strangers. It might mean being on a sports team or participating in a solo activity. Whatever it is, life is too short to not at least find some enjoyment in what we do (especially if it is hard to do in the first place!). And, you are not very likely to participate in something you don't at least get some enjoyment out of.

#3 - Exercise (movement) doesn't have to take place in a gym. Expand your perception of where movement occurs. It could occur in a forest, a basement, on a sidewalk or trail. It could be occur in chlorine, fresh or salt water. It could be in hot or cold temperatures. On sand or on cement. One could be parallel or vertical to the ground when moving. Sky is the limit :) 

#4 - Exercise/Sport isn't in and of itself 'Bad'. Sometimes, when working on recovery from an eating disorder, there's this mentality that exercise is bad. For some, exercise has been a major piece in the development of their eating disorder, or something that has easily led them into relapse. And, if this is the case, you will need to learn how to re-build a healthy relationship with exercise (this is where I would strongly encourage you to seek professional assistance when doing so).  It is not exercise that is good or bad in and of itself as with most things in life, it's the relationship we have with it that is important. 

#5 - Sometimes we do things in life because it's good for us, not because we love doing it. And, just because one loves it, doesn't mean its beneficial to do all the time. We know that exercise is a part of a healthy lifestyle. There are also many benefits that come with moving, such as positive affects on mood. Not everyone loves sports or moving.  This does not mean one gets a 'pass' on needing to exercise. Sometimes, we move for the sole reason we know it is healthy to do so. 

Resting is also important. So, just because you love moving does not mean it's healthy to move all the time either. Know your body and when it is telling you "I need to stop". It's also okay to stop even when your body tells you it still has more to give. 

#6 - Practice mindfulness while moving. Take some time to notice what you are touching, smelling, seeing, feeling and hearing when you are moving. This will help to keep you grounded and more in tune with what is going on around you. You may even notice a few things around you that you never noticed before!

#7 - Know your "rules" around exercise, build cognitive flexibility. You are allowed to stay inside even on sunny days, just like rain doesn't mean you are bound to stay inside. You don't have to exercise just because you ate "X", nor do you have to feel bad if you took a day off to rest or would rather catch up with some friends instead. What I mean by "rules" is thinking that is rigid or inflexible, such as black and white, or all or none thinking. Take some time to be aware of what your "rules" are around exercise and see whether or not they are interfering with your enjoyment of the activity itself or your quality of life in general. Building cognitive flexibility into your life will help you navigate life more freely. It you notice you have some of these "rules", I'd encourage you to chat with a therapist or recreational therapist about ways to incorporate more flexibility. 

Exercise and Eating Disorders

Once a month, local researchers and professionals in the local eating disorder community come together to discuss research articles related to our field. The goal is to help bridge the gap that exists between researchers and therapists. The discussions that occur, even those bunny trails we inevitably end up on, are invaluable. We met earlier this week to discuss an article on physical activity and, specifically, anorexia. Over the course of our time together, the following themes started to emerge from our discussion time. Eating disorder or not, the following points are good reminders as we work towards building a healthier relationship with food, weight, exercise and our body!

#1 - Our Culture Praises Runners

Currently, we live in a culture where running is 'popular'. It is the latest 'in' thing.  There is this air of superiority that some runners feel over non-runners. As if they are more athletic or healthy because they run. How is one sport more superior than another? Perhaps, I'm a bit bias as my whole life, I've heard how the sport I love to play, is less superior than hockey. You like hockey? Great! I like Ringette... and guess what... we can co-exist without one being 'better' than the other.  Don't like running... no problem! Pick an exercise you enjoy doing, and be healthy about it. . 

It seems as though you can't just run these days... you also have to look the part, and buy all the 'right' type of clothing. Sure, there is a benefit (at times) of wearing certain types of gear... For example, a good pair of shoes is helpful in supporting your feet and wearing proper socks is helpful if you want to avoid blisters!  I'm not against fashion, but if 'looking' the part is more important than having fun while running (or exercising in general), it might be a good idea to take a step back and bring this realization into therapy.  It could be helpful to see a recreational therapist (with experience in eating disorders) as well.

#2 - Our Culture Doesn't Promote Listening to Your Body

On pintrest? Don't worry, I'm sure you've seen the many slogans that promote not listening to your body. Take the all too familiar, "no pain, no gain" slogan. Many people push themselves too far while exercise, which can lead to injury.  Many people, also, return to exercise after injury too quickly, which can result in prolonged or greater severity of injury. Our bodies need rest, our bodies need fuel. We need to start trusting our body's cues and to know our limits. 

#3 - Motivation is Crucial

Ask yourself, "why am I doing this exercise?" Is it for fun? Is it for health and wellness? Do I like it? I am enjoying it? If you have answered 'yes' to these questions, you're heading in the right direction for building a healthy relationship with exercise. If your motivation is to burn calories, to 'tone up', to lose weight or to rid feelings of guilt, someone else may be driver's seat and they definitely do not have your long-term health and wellness in mind.

Research has shown that exercise can be helpful for those struggling with depression and/or anxiety (two common issues in those who struggle with an eating disorder).  It can't be the only skill used to combat these issues. The last thing you want is to break your leg and not have any other method of managing your emotions. It's like investing money... it's never a good idea to put all your money into one stock.  If it crashes, you are at risk of losing more than the money you invested in. 

#4 - We Forget that Exercise is Movement

When we think of 'exercise', people often think of going to the gym, or heading out for a run. It's important to remember that exercise is movement. It includes all forms of  movements, such as: cleaning, sex, walking around on campus, playing the drums, chasing toddlers, travelling to and from the mode of transportation that gets you to work, vacuuming, mowing the lawn, gardening, playing frisbee, and so much more.  Don't discount how you are using your body throughout the day! 

#5 - Our Culture Encourages Tracking Data

From calorie counting, to how many footsteps you have taken in a day, our culture is obsessed with tracking data. For many individuals who struggle with exercise and eating issues, tracking data is often an area that needs to be challenged in order to get better. There is this thought that the more data you have, the better the work out is.  Huh? How does tracking one's steps validate whether or not someone has had a 'good' day versus a 'not so good' day? They are just numbers, just like the numbers on the scale. It can't tell you whether or not you had fun, or listened  to your body, or whether or not you fuelled your body in the healthy way. 

Now, I know individuals who collect data around exercise, and it is simply that... data. It is when the meaning of this data changes into something that controls you, or that takes the pleasure out of exercising, when it becomes problematic.  Exercise isn't always about beating your time or how many kilometres you travelled. There is so much more to see, taste, smell, hear and feel than simply our devices that inform us how far we have gone! 

#6 - Isn't Exercise Supposed to Be Fun? 

YES! It should be. We are likely going to continue doing the things we 'like' versus the things we don't like. Hate the gym? No problem! Hit up the trail by your house with a friend a few times a week. Not a fan of running? Try swimming, or rock climbing, or archery, or hiking, or scuba diving, or golf, or canoeing, or lawn bowling, etc. 

There's this part of me that knows some of you will be reading this and thinking, "why Karen, you run... it's easy for you to say to others who don't run that it's okay, while you're out there doing what society praises".  I'm an advocate of exercise WHEN it's done in a healthy, sustainable, enjoyable, non-ED driven, way.  There's nothing wrong with running in and of itself.  One individual may struggle with running, while the other struggles with walking. The point is to learn how to build a healthy relationship with exercise that is right for YOU and YOUR recovery. It's not about comparing or judges what people do. It's about looking at your motivation for why you are doing it, with the hopes of bringing it more and more in line with health and wellness. So, my question, why do you exercise?