Breaking the Cycle
This past week I went on a major downslide.
After my blog post “Beginning Again,” I made a commitment to myself to get back in shape and start eating healthy and exercising regularly again.
That lasted about two and a half weeks.
Which came first: the depression or the pain? Nobody knows.
More and more scientific studies are finding a connection between physical pain and mental health issues. Chronic pain can cause depression and anxiety, which leads to a pain pattern and can actually cause more pain. And on the flip side, depression and anxiety can cause tension to build up in the body, resulting in physical pain.
For me, this vicious cycle started when my foot issues began back in 2017.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I was diagnosed with Morton’s Neuroma: a small growth on the nerve between my third and fourth toes. It essentially feels like a pebble in your shoe… but instead of your shoe, it’s inside your foot.
When my doctor told me to take a break from running and hiking, I was bummed, but I figured I would stop for a few months and let my foot heal, and then things would go back to normal. Now, four years, three cortisol shots, physical therapy, one surgery, and countless footpads later… I’m still in pain.
As you can probably imagine, this caused a lot of frustration. This frustration led to stress, and my preferred way of dealing with stress was… exercising. Specifically: running.
I found other ways of exercising and coping with my stress, but nothing quite hit the spot the way running did (or maybe I’m romanticizing). So I turned to my old way of coping - eating.
Eating led to weight gain which led to more depression, which led to more eating, and lazy nights on the couch. Which led to more physical pain, which led to less exercise, which led to more depression, more eating, more sedentary activities, and so on and so on.
This wasn’t (and isn’t) exactly linear. My downward progression lasted over years of ups and downs and in-betweens.
I’ve learned that there is a vicious cycle that happens with chronic pain and mental health. And speaking from experience - it is really, REALLY hard to break that cycle.
This past week, after a few weeks of success, I started experiencing a bad bout of depression.
The state of the world right now is heavy.
Everyone is exhausted. Everyone is sad. Everyone is frustrated and scared and angry. People are dying for no good reason. People are cold and starving. People are fighting for their lives and their rights and their loved ones.
I have always been an empathetic person. It’s a gift and a curse. I’m not great at math, but I have a lot of social-emotional intelligence. It’s what makes me a good friend, a good teacher, and a good writer (if I do say so myself).
But, it also means I care and I feel, sometimes a little too much. So when the world is falling apart right in front of me, when I’m reading about horrible things in the news, and watching people get murdered on social media… I feel that. As if it was happening to my best friend.
I do my best to stay optimistic and "look for the helpers," like Mr. Roger's told me to... but sometimes it is really hard.
This past week was one of those times.
To add to my sadness, I started experiencing some acute shoulder and neck pain. It goes from where my jaw meets my ear all the way down to my mid back, and all the way down my arm into my fingers. (Side note: I have been referred to a rheumatologist as I may have an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder)
I determined that this pain stemmed from a combination of stress (I may or may not clench my jaw in my sleep), overworking the muscles (lots of vacuuming at work these days because of the snow), and sleeping on my arm wrong.
I cancelled my kickboxing class, and stopped at the grocery store for a bag of potato chips.
This pushed me into a spiral of thoughts:
Why is this happening to me?
What if this is just the beginning?
What is wrong with me?
How can I make a living as a fitness professional if I can’t even get my own body in shape?
What am I doing with my LIFE?
The binge eating made me feel worse, both physically and mentally, and the next day I woke up still in pain, and now more depressed and frustrated with myself.
I went to work, but cancelled another workout session, and then went home and ate chocolate chips with heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter.
Rinse and repeat.
Yesterday I finally convinced myself to hold class again. Then I did some restorative yoga, and took a long hot hot shower while belting at the top of my lungs along with my favorite singer-songwriters.
I took my weighted blanket to bed and had a good night’s sleep for the first time in weeks, maybe months.
My shoulder still hurts, but this morning I woke up before my alarm (which never happens) and felt well-rested. I stretched and then went for a short walk around my building.
I feel a little better today.
I know this won't be the last time this happens. I know I will have pain again and I’ll go through more bouts of depression. I know I’ll probably make a few bad decisions before I can pull myself out of it again.
Sometimes you can’t pull yourself out. Sometimes you need help and you can’t even bring yourself to ask for it. After years of dealing with these issues, I finally asked my doctor about medication for my anxiety and depression - one of the few good things that came out of 2020. I’m not sure they’re working, but it’s a start. It’s a step in the right direction.
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your mental and physical health. Eating healthy is another. But if you’re having mental and physical health issues, exercising and eating healthy are usually the LAST thing you want to do.
Sometimes self-care is doing the things you don't want to do in the moment, but know deep down they are good for you in the long run.
If you’re trapped in the cycle, just know that you are not alone. I’m there with you. I think I’m on the upswing today. Hopefully it continues and hopefully I can continue to make healthy choices for myself.
I hope you can too. Sending you good vibes <3