What’s the difference between a professional and an expert?
The person who not only has impressive qualifications but has walked the walk and speaks from experience. Bravery comes in many forms and sharing a personal story that may in some way help another is a type of courage we love at Ponderings. We welcome one such person: Sarah Healy- Health Professional and life changer.
Here’s a discovery that may help you on your journey: exercise helps to reduce anxiety but how do we put it into action? I can speak from experience, and I want to share this with you.
I’m an Exercise Physiologist, and up until recently low and behold I had a fear of exercise.
Sounds ridiculous right? I started to avoid exercise, feeling anxious and using every excuse under the sun to resist. I used pain and injury as my excuse. My clients come to me with pain and injury, and I give them exercises to help.
I wasn’t always this way, but I have for a very long time identified myself as an injured person. I remember going to a chiropractor as a gymnast at ten years old because I was experiencing back pain and that continued through years of gymnastics, competitive aerobics (never was very good at that fake smile), track cycling and anything else I could try.
After having my first two children, my anxiety levels were through the roof.
Sometimes just the thought of going for a walk or a ride would stir up pain in my back and knees. Back spasms weren’t uncommon, and I feared it would be too debilitating to feed and carry my babies. None of my pain or injuries were severe, but my anxiety would cause tension, and that tension and memory of pain would bring on more pain and panic.
Stress or anxiety causes a stress response, fight or flight. Chronic anxiety can lead to hyperstimulation, even if the threat has passed, leading to headaches, tight and painful muscles and general aches and pains.
I was anxious about exercising, not exercising, having injuries, having pain, putting on weight; afraid people would think that because I was injured, unfit, in pain and overweight I wouldn’t know what I was talking about professionally.
I didn’t initially realize that my anxiety was increasing my pain.
It was when I noticed it in a family member that was experiencing pain always just before the same event and always less when away on holidays that it finally linked for me. I was also very aware of what I was missing out on with my family when my husband would take the kids for a walk or ride, and I wouldn’t go. I was missing out on so much. I was determined not to identify myself as an injured person. It wasn’t the exercise as much as wanting to move daily as part of my routine, wanting to move and not thinking about it so much.
The mental aspect of pain is so incredibly powerful that you can experience higher levels of pain just by receiving an MRI diagnosis than compared to those with the same injury but without MRI investigations. You are not your MRI; you are not your diagnosis.
Countless studies have identified the benefits of exercise for the symptoms of anxiety so I was well aware that exercise could help me too. Where I stumbled was the very thought of exercise was making me feel anxious. I needed to reduce the fear of exercise and the only way I could do that was also to reduce my fear of pain and injury. If I was to try exercising I needed to be calmer and accept that if I was to feel pain during or after my session that would be ok. My pain was not an emergency.
New neural pathways were needed in my brain, to bypass my routine response of ‘oh no I’m about to exercise and make all of my injuries and pain worse!’ Who would create those pathways? Me.
I would meditate and imagine my body relaxing, my muscles relaxing and when I started to add more exercise, I would treat myself like I would treat my clients (I know right? Who knew?) As therapists we are so good at helping others we often neglect ourselves!
I went back to basics but also changed things up because with different exercises or environments I was less likely to predict a movement that would cause me pain.
A local ‘Ninja Warrior’ gym was one I tried. Ninja training meant fun climbing rope ladders and monkey bars and flipping tyres, the time would fly by. It didn’t feel like a workout, and I gradually started to trust my body again and not obsess over little niggles. Activities I did not even consider through fear of pain and debilitation were now an option.
Muscle fatigue and pain from exercise, the ‘good pain’ -I don’t fear. I love the feeling of my body reminding me I have put in the effort. I have enjoyed welcoming that feeling back into my life.
Please find movement that you enjoy even if it takes you years and many trials to work it out. ASK FOR HELP from physical and mental therapists. Meditation and mindfulness are such powerful tools too. I have learned to believe I can heal and if I do experience pain, I can relax with it before panic makes it escalate. I have even recently started playing Gaelic Football, it’s not easy, I haven’t run in years but its fun, so much fun.
We are blessed with so much choice here in Australia, take advantage of that. It doesn’t have to be an organized sport it can be hiking to a waterfall, swimming, a circuit with a group of friends, walking your dog on the beach, street orienteering (it’s a thing, look it up, it can be fun) Moreover, if that means being the slowest on a Gaelic football team and sitting on the bench for the finals than do it and cheer as loudly as you can. At least then you’ll have a reason to train.
I can’t say that my anxiety is gone, but it has diminished.
There were a few anxious tears before the first few Gaelic training sessions, could I do this? What will others think of me? I’m too heavy, slow, uncoordinated? However, each time I attended those sessions, it would get easier to tie up my boots and go.
So why am I sharing my story with you?
Because for someone with anxiety you can feel very alone with your experience. You agonize over every detail and can become very focused on your own story and worries. Once you start to open up, you realize your story is not that different from so many others. I have learned so much from everyone that provided me with the tools to help myself, and I have continued to research more so I can help my clients get back their joy in movement.
About Sarah Healy:
Exercise Physiologist – AEP AES ESSAM | Bachelor of Applied Science – Human Movement |
Graduate Diploma – Exercise for Rehabilitation | Cert IV – Training & Assessment
An Exercise Physiologist with over 13 years of experience and has been employed in the sport and fitness industry since 1996. Sarah works with individuals experiencing pain, musculo-skeletal injuries, posture/muscle imbalances and those that have developed anxiety relating to exercise and movement.