By Urvie Pereira
CN: self-harm, suicide, exercise,
I am an adrenaline addict. I crave the thrill of that buzz you get right before a big race, or an important test. The release of fight-or-flight chemicals allows you to push yourself far beyond your usual abilities, and achieve your dreamed-up goals.
Exercise, for me, was a way out of using physical self-harm as a coping mechanism, to deal with the stress of my first year at Cambridge. At school, when I felt the pressure mounting, it only produced adrenaline that allowed me to push myself and cram hard before an exam, or a piece of coursework that needed to be completed. Yet at university, Fresher feelings of inadequacy, coupled with a demanding reading list, meant that cramming hours before the deadline was no longer a viable option for success.
This led to a vicious cycle of inner criticism, and eventually I started cutting myself, as that provided me with a outlet for channelling the voice of my inner critic. “You’re procrastinating again – this is all self-inflicted. If you got your act together and studied properly, your problems would sort themselves out”, that critic would say. Cutting seemed the only way to make that critic stop, so I could get on with my work.
Yet eventually, cutting was not enough to silence that inner critic, and I began contemplating suicide. Thankfully, I managed to talk to someone before I reached that point, and they gave me the perspective I needed to seek CBT therapy, and discover more helpful outlets for managing those destructive thoughts.
The common consensus concerning exercise is that it is generally a positive thing, for your body and mind. For me, this initially turned out to be true – I set myself the goal of training to run 5k comfortably, and this target kept me going through exam season. I would aim to run three times a week, and gradually increase it, so that by the time exams were done, I could almost comfortably finish 5k, on an endorphin-induced high. I set myself a new goal: to increase my speed, and the first few weeks of summer were filled with blissful sessions of training.
“My mind felt like a despairing boss, who had just had an employee take a long leave of absence without providing notice.”
Yet the problem with exercise – especially if you are prone to addiction – is that if you do not get your periodical endorphin fix, your mood can be severely affected. Halfway through summer, I had to have a minor operation, which necessitated taking it easy for a couple of months. My mental health plummeted again. I felt lethargic, unproductive, and worthless: frustrated with my body and mind, for refusing to cooperate with each other. My mind felt like a despairing boss, who had just had an employee take a long leave of absence without providing notice.
After six weeks had passed, I tried to run again, but was greeted with pain in my body, which still was not ready. I decided to channel my energies elsewhere, and turned to creating a blog for prospective Cambridge applicants. With my focus shifted, my body finally had the chance to heal; a few weeks after starting second year, it had recovered enough for me to join my college’s rowing team.
It is important to be aware that if you are using exercise as an alternative outlet to self-harm, it comes with caveats. Making sure that exercise is not your only source of mood-stabilising hormones is key; creative activity, developing friendships, taking medication, or establishing helpful routines are just some examples of other useful outlets. This ensures that if you have to stop exercising for any reason – such as getting injured – your mental health will suffer less.
Similarly, just as you should take any medication per your doctor’s prescription, checking NHS guidelines, and looking up the latest medical research on the optimal amount of exercise for your body, can help you to ascertain your own limits and prevent you from overtraining. If you are running twenty kilometres a day and not consuming enough calories, exercise can be a destructive outlet, rather than a constructive one.
Most importantly, like any form of therapy, exercise is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Its effectiveness depends on your personal circumstances, and struggles. For me, it was the type of self-care I needed to boost my productivity, motivation, and mood. Raising money for the mental health charity Mind gave me purpose, and a feeling that I was helping others who were also suffering. If exercise is the food of your will to live well, train on: just do not forget to use other forms of self-care, too.