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Self-Knowledge • Mood
Exercise When We’re Feeling Mentally Unwell
One of the great impediments to taking exercise is the idea that being unwilling to do so must be caused first and foremost by something called ‘laziness’. The reason why we are sitting a lot on the sofa, or spending considerable time in bed, or are seriously reluctant to run is that we are — in essence — bone idle.
But we must get to the root of what is really going on with the mentally unwell: they don’t sit around because they are lazy, they do so because they are ill, and it’s a specific feature of mental illness that one may be especially hampered when it comes to the matter of moving one’s body with any degree of vigour.
One might say that mental illness makes one retreat. From the world in general, its trees, its people, its sagas and concerns and joys. But it also makes one retreat from one’s own body, from its limbs, its skin and its right to be. One might say that illness squats at the front of consciousness in pain and is reluctant for anything carefree or mobile or fluid to get through.
Many varieties of mental illness freeze us, not with fear necessarily, though that too, but with self-hatred, shame, anxiety and regret. With such moods coursing through us, we are in no easy to position to stretch, to run or to gamble. We are rooted to our spot, a place of sadness, misery and dread.
We know all the arguments in favour of exercise — they are incontestable. Our limbs need to move, our lungs need rapid oxygenation, our skin needs to sweat vigorously. But when we are ill, these arguments end up feeling punitive and accusatory. They remind us of all that we are incapable of, of how badly we have failed and of how awful we are.
To have any chance of exercising, we need a different, more forgiving approach. Firstly, one built on a lot of modesty. One is ill and one can’t be an athlete, certainly not for now. So by ‘exercise’, one is going to have to mean something far gentler than might ideally be recommended. The exercise one is going to be capable of will have to be gentle in the extreme; it’s going to mean — realistically — going for a walk and not much more. It doesn’t sound like any sort of feat, but nor do many of the achievements of those who are in recovery; they seem heroic only once one knows what the individual has to go through to pull them off.
The walk might be once around the block — or twice. But still it will be extremely valuable, especially if it’s repeated every day. In many forms of mental illness, such is one’s degree of shame, one doesn’t feel one has permission to leave the house. One feels it is illegitimate to be outside ‘enjoying oneself’; one feels one will be seen and negatively judged. One wants to hide, and feels like a monster in the eyes of others. So it’s an enormous feat to put on a coat and, against all one’s instincts, wonder out as though the world could be a habitable, welcoming and safe place.
Yet how salutary it can be to take the risk, because there is healing to be found in the sight of the trees on the horizon, the starlings in a hedge, a duck by the meadow, a dog next to the supermarket. What we are seeing is soothing evidence that the world exists beyond our own cruel mean-spirited ill minds. There is so much that knows nothing of us, that is gloriously indifferent (those stars appearing in the dusk sky) and that isn’t there to shame us. We slowly re-inhabit our own bodies. Outside seems so much more normal than what is inside our heads and we can take inspiration: someone is moving house, a child is playing with a stick, there is a cat on a wall resting in the sun. Things may not be as awful as we had assumed, when it was just us in the bedroom, going through the narrow dark corridors of memory. We can feel our feet taking slightly longer steps, our lungs working a little more actively. We have walked once around the block already and no one has attacked us, no one has mocked, no one is laughing. We are doing extremely well.
We shouldn’t push it; exercise can be very minor and still wholly beneficial. We aren’t going to be marathon runners, but we have managed something extraordinary nevertheless, we’re athletes of a different sort, tackling a different enemy, and our battle is already well under way.