Oh my God I should have started with this one. It’s so flipping essential. I know this, why have I let it slip?
About twenty years ago I was in such a religious bubble that I didn’t know how to speak to real people and was painfully shy in all secular social settings. I happened to go for a run with a non-church friend one day, and I found that afterwards, I could chat and laugh with my friend with zero inhibitions. I decided running would be my way to overcome social uncertainty, and tried to fit in a run before any stressful social event.
Nine years later, when I left the church, I had my first proper terrifying panic attack. It was a really powerful illustration of the force of the ideas in my head, and the belief of what would happen to me if I left the church (did I mention there will be a seriously lengthy essay on the detrimental impact of the manipulative control mechanisms used in extreme religious groups on young impressionable minds? But not just yet!).
In summary, I did not feel safe. At all. Anywhere. It was October 2009 and for the next six months, I fluctuated between a 4 and 8 of anxiety all the time. So I started running. Serious running. My colleague Helen also liked running so we paired up for motivation. In November, she decided we would both run the Bath Half Marathon that spring, which was an excellent reason to do some serious training, but even without that pressure, I was itching to get my trainers on and run out my fear along the pavements. I remember the scalp crawling terror that would arrive just as it was getting dark, and then the relief as Helen showed up under the streetlight at the corner and we settled into our hour of pavement pounding through the cold wet dark streets. About ten minutes in I would feel better, by half an hour I was smiling through my breathlessness, and by the time we finished, pink, achey and exhausted, I would arrive back home completely calm and immensely grateful. It lasted long enough for me to fall asleep fine, before waking in the night with the usual rush of dread.
So I KNOW. I know exercise works, and I try to manage at least half an hour walk every day, but I haven’t gone for a proper run since before Lockdown. That’s seven months! So today, because it is on my lesson plan, I did a whole 90 minutes of intense hard physical exercise. I was going to go for a run, but something wonderful has occurred in that I have just been given an allotment! Oh my god I’m so excited. The full details will feature in tomorrow’s class on Gardening/Greenfingers/Growing, but for today, since the project is a repurposing of an overgrown dumping ground, it requires some serious work, and I spent the afternoon digging up huge bundles of weeds, ripping out massive root systems of nettles and heaving huge slabs of stone across the garden to make some sense of my new little space. It was an absolute full body workout during which I noticed the following things:
- Zero thoughts of work/the news/my worries
- Zero need for background music/ radio/ anything else at all
- A warmth and energy throughout my whole body
- No sense of time
- No desire to check my phone
Afterwards, back home, these things were different:
- Full body calm
- Passing my elderly neighbour on the way in and having more than the usual amount of love and care for her
- Noticing the incredible beauty of the delicate pink edge to the evening clouds, and the glowing golden leaves on the tree in the car park
- Discovering an urgent email I had missed and dealing with it quickly and confidently without the usual surge of panic of having made an error (it was sorted with a quick phonecall)
- Working out a really simple solution to a (separate) work related problem that has been annoying me for weeks
- Hearing the jingle for the 7pm news on the radio and not tensing up
- A general sense of love and optimism about the world (which is a flipping huge achievement for me right now).
So, after a wobbly few days, I think I can say I’m at a 1 (out of 10) of anxiety right now. Might be a combination of factors but I will give a huge amount of credit to the surge of happy hormones still swimming round my veins as a result of some proper brilliant exercise.