health

How a six-word question from Michelle’s psychologist transformed her crippling anxiety.

My face was covered in a lovely concoction of tears and snot when my psychologist asked the question I had been dreading.

“Michelle, how often do you exercise?”

Crap.

The preceding months had been shadowed by a dark fog; according to my anxiety-riddled mind, death and danger were suddenly everywhere. If family or friends were travelling by car, I would ask them their estimated time of arrival. Why? Because I’d memorised the road toll, of course. If they didn’t answer their phone when I called to ensure they arrived safely, I presumed not that they had stopped at McDonald’s for a McMuffin, but that they must be dead.

The moment I knew I needed help, I was googling VicRoads’ instant traffic updates with one hand while juggling the phone to my sister’s boyfriend in the other. “Do you know what roads she was taking?” I asked him (he didn’t). “She was supposed to arrive 15 minutes ago and I want to find out if there are any accidents in the area.”

Welcome to the family, buddy.

Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, when my psychologist asked me that dreaded six-word question in our first appointment together, my answer was “zero”. Besides the odd walk here and there, I hadn’t exercised in at least six months. Chronic lung problems – the same problems that have seen me admitted to hospital almost every year since I was a toddler – stopped me.

I’d been exposed to the spiel about “happy hormones” before, but until that point, the only recommendation I’d heard for anxiety management was aerobic exercise; running, my lungs’ kryptonite.

“I don’t care what exercise you do,” my psychologist told me in that kind-but-firm psychologist-y tone that sits somewhere between girlfriend and school teacher. “The next time I see you, I want to hear you’re exercising at least a few times a week.”

exercise and anxiety
For Michelle, her psychologist asking her "how often do you exercise?” was the push she needed to finally pick up the habit.

Given it was winter and I resemble Flappy Bird whenever I attempt freestyle, swimming was out. Jogging was out. F45 was out.

But strength training - the movement I’d seen gain relevancy again amongst women on YouTube and Instagram - well, that was a prospect that didn’t make my lungs weep wheezy tears. Lifting heavy things before putting them back down again had never particularly appealed to me, but if it was going to save my sister’s boyfriend another bizarre phone call, it would be worth a try, right?

I made the decision to join a gym and give strength training a go in May 2017. Fifteen months later, kettlebells and barbells now have a very special place in my heart.

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While there is a wealth of research into the benefits of aerobic exercise for relieving the effects of anxiety, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests strength and resistance training is a terrific management tool too. A paper titled ‘The anxiolytic effects of resistance exercise’, published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Frontiers in Psychology found “under both single-bout and long-term training conditions, resistance exercise [reduced symptoms of anxiety] in a variety of populations.”

Lead authors of the study Justin Strickland and Mark Smith, from the University of Kentucky, concluded: “enough data [exists] to begin making recommendations for the design and implementation of resistance exercise-based treatments for anxiety disorders.”

Registered psychologist Jacqui Manning, from The Friendly Psychologist in New South Wales’ Darling Health Clinic, says exercise is one of the most important components of anxiety management, irrespective of whether its aerobic or resistance-based.

“I don’t think it matters what kind of exercise people do,” Manning says. “The research is fairly new, but I encourage people to do whatever form of exercise they most enjoy.

“Exercise is certainly one of the first things I would recommend to someone with anxiety. It gets people into a routine and out of the house when they might be hesitant to leave home. It’s a great way to connect with other people. It’s a good achievement to tick off every day or week, so if you’re in the depths of anxiety, it can be great.”

Sam Wood gives us his workout tips for a heart rate boosting session you can in the office between emails.

In Manning’s opinion, all forms of exercise act as “a protective barrier” for people suffering from anxiety, and helps us regulate the limbic system; the portion of the brain that elicits the dreaded fight or flight response. In this sense, the controlled breathing one needs to practice while completing resistance training is ideal for those with anxiety disorders.

“Another added benefit of all exercise is you have to switch off from technology,” Manning says, pointing to the growing need to unplug our minds from the online world.

While I look to instructional YouTube videos by strength-focused personal trainers like Whitney Simmonds to get my inspiration, Manning suggests busy mums do a quick strength class at home, or even chores around the house that require physical exertion. Consistency is key if you want to release those beloved endorphins and regulate nasty cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.

“An exercise routine will help keep your tank clear so you don’t have those build-ups,” Manning explains.

While my anxiety was once my shadow, it’s now more of a cloud on a leash - something that distantly affects me sometimes, but that I can also observe and control. Focusing on my strength - physically and mentally - has grounded me at times when my mind threatened to rocket into the stratosphere. I feel more capable. Fitter. Fortified.

Exercise can feel intimidating when you’re weighed down by illness or disability, but there are many answers when it comes to managing mental illness.

It just so happens I found one of my answers in the form of some well-loved dumbbells and a leg- press machine.

For more from Michelle Andrews, follow her on Instagram.

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