I can think of really specific times in my life when my anxiety felt out of control. The Challenger Explosion when I was just in kindergarten. 4th grade, when a bulk majority of my classmates suddenly turned against me and made it their mission to make me miserable. Freshman year of college, a good six months after my dad died, and that fact really sunk in. Having to re-watch the Challenger Explosion in a college class. A long and broken relationship full of more misery than happiness.
I have tried many tactics to quell the storm of anxieties that sometimes plague me. Lying on my stomach to think away the stomach aches in 4th grade. (Funny- I still sleep on my stomach.) Holding my breath in the bath tub to force deep breaths when I was older. And then, exercise.
Exercise has been an excellent tool for moderating my anxiety. Running feels almost like it's pounding negative thoughts out of your brain; you can think through problems while you're out there, and enjoy the "high" when you finish and your endorphins are pumping. You feel excited and accomplished when you swim a longer distance for the first time. You feel calm and centered after a good, stretchy Yoga class. There are so many different ways to clear your mind or calm your fears, really healthy ways.
So what happens when that doesn't work anymore? When you find yourself stressing about the exercise? It's not fast enough. It's not long enough. It's not enough times a week. I can't let [insert varying nemisi] beat me.
I'll tell you what happens. You start breaking down.
Somehow, I managed to twist something I started in an effort to calm myself, to point myself in a new direction, into something negative. I let it own me, I let it own my thinking just like those 4th grade kids or that bad relationship. And to make it worse, the fact that I was associating negative feelings with exercise was making exercise feel like a chore. When the exercise feels like a chore, I don't do it. When I don't exercise, well, I've now lost my best tool to combating the anxiety I feel about a bevy of other things, from planning my wedding to my job to even going out with friends.
And I started feeling sick. Really sick. Stomach aches, headaches, fatigue, shakiness... it was tiring to even run once around the block. I was terrified to even go out, because what if I had an "attack" of the above-mentioned while I was out? And then, the inevitable; if you think something will happen, you focus on it, and then it happens. It's like the chicken or the egg; do I feel sick because I was thinking about feeling sick, or am I thinking about feeling sick because I am sick?
Once my fiance pointed out that it could be anxiety-driven, I admitted it to myself. I am anxious. I am anxious about the unknown. I am anxious about what I can't control. I am anxious what I do won't be enough. I am anxious I will let someone down.
Just the simple act of admitting, despite what else may be wrong with me, that anxiety was a likely contributor to the way I was feeling lifted a small weight off my shoulders. I found myself admitting it, out loud, more often, because it was like getting those simple words out of my mouth made me feel understood. And then I was ready for more answers.
I started seeing a chiropractor, and after a few visits, found my headaches had dissipated. A few adjustments to my hips seemed to alleviate the leg problems I've been having running. I got a full physical, and got a letter stating normal results on my blood work and thyroid. It turns out, I'm not dying.
As for the exercise, it's a work in progress. This summer, I'm concentrating mainly on races with friends, races with no real goals, races meant for fun. I'll still do a couple of triathalons, as swimming has become more fun and more relaxing than I imagined. I'll challenge myself with the bike, as challenges keep us motivated. But my advice to you: never let exercise be the sun your life orbits around. If you find that you feel anxious about missing a workout, or having a beer, or skipping an event because you might have to race "so-and-so"... it may be time to re-evaluate, as I needed to.
We all stress out from time to time. It's all in how we manage it.
"Keep calm and carry on." ~British government, 1939