December 10, 2019
Please note: This article was originally published on Medium.com. Read below or by clicking here.
When I lost my 32-year-old husband to a Uveal Melanoma eight months ago, my entire world fell apart. I went from being a loving, supportive wife and stay-at-home mom to a 19-month-old and four-year-old, to assuming several new identities including widow, father and head of household. I felt lonely, numb, scared, angry, resentful and totally incompetent trying to navigate this foreign world without my husband — my partner in crime, my best friend and soul mate who I met as a freshman in college when I was 18. We’d been together almost half of my life!
His absence left a profound void not only in my heart, but in every aspect of life — raising my kids alone, being a single 33-year-old, navigating our finances, household handy-work, the various accounts set-up in his name, and the massive list of “to-do’s” when a spouse dies. All of the intense emotions of grief in addition to the anxiety of starting a “new normal” without him, left me feeling paralyzed. I didn’t know how to even start. I was shocked by the trauma of living my worst nightmare to date and totally stuck in grief!
I remember one morning when the profoundness of my feelings left me crying in bed all morning. As a former ballerina and current spin and barre instructor, I decided to go to a yoga sculpt class and just start MOVING. Although my thoughts told me that I was stuck, my body disproved them. While I felt trapped in my mind, I felt a sense of freedom with every burpee, a hint of courage with every rep of a heavy weight, and a glimmer of hope with every drop of sweat fleeing my body. As I laid in shavasana the instructor left us with three words — I AM ENOUGH.
It was all I needed to hear.When we lose someone special in our lives, we feel a range of emotions — sadness, loneliness, despair, emptiness, numbness, fear…the list goes on. The compounded effect of so many feelings in addition to navigating life without that special someone can be overwhelming to the point of feeling helpless. Instead of trying to deal with these emotions we look for ways to escape, numb the pain and fill the void with anything we can get our hands on. For some, it’s retail therapy — shopping until the emptiness in our heart is full. For others it’s over-eating, sex, drugs, alcohol or seeking other pleasures to alleviate the pain. The list of coping strategies goes on and on. But what I’ve found through my own personal grief journey is that exercise — good old sweat therapy — has helped me not only move forward from my husband’s death, but also personally grow and find even more purpose, love and gratitude for my life without him.
Whether we believe that we are capable of moving forward from tragedy or not, the mere act of exercising moves us. Our bodies physiologically change when we workout and no matter how devastated, how paralyzed, or how hopeless our circumstances might feel, our biochemistry has shifted!
By now, we all know that exercise produces endorphins and endorphins make you happy (thank you Elle Woods!). But research goes a step further to reveal how exercise specially benefits victims of trauma — in this case someone special dying. Drawing from this body of evidence and my own personal loss, here’s a closer look at the reasons why moving helps us effectively cope with loss:
1) Grief manifests in our bodies
After my husband Ian died, there were mornings when I woke up and felt totally hungover. I had all the symptoms — headaches, brain fog, fatigue and body aches, but the thing was, I didn’t drink alcohol the night before! I felt this strange sensation in my body and didn’t understand why. So, I started learning more about grief and how it manifests in our bodies, and discovered that what I was experiencing was a full-blown grief hangover!
*Berkeley professor Robert Levenson explains that organs, tissues, skin, muscle and endocrine glands all have peptide receptors on them and can access and store emotional information. This means that emotional memory is stored in many places in the body! — not just or even primarily, in the brain.
Ah-ha! This explained everything! I can’t tell you the amount of times after Ian died where people would ask me how I was feeling and I honestly just couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t name it, but I felt it. I manifested my grief in a physical sense — not a mental one. I talked to a therapist about my feelings, which definitely helped. But, the hangover was still there.
2) Exercise creates a flow state
You know the phrase in the zone? That’s flow! Physchologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named this state of being totally absorbed in a a task that results in enjoyment in the process. Flow can be essential to people experiencing grief because joy is at a deficit. When people are deep in grief — feeling the sadness, the loneliness, the hopelessness — it’s hard to recall what it’s like to feel happy or even normal again.
As Psychologist Adam Grant and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explain in their book Option B, “people who’ve experienced a loss often only report feeling joy because they are so engaged or absorbed in an activity.” The total engrossment in something — anything else but grief — helps people feel happy.
We can experience flow in a lot of ways. For some it’s cooking, talking to a friend for hours on end, hiking in nature, or for someone like me, it’s working out. In moments where I felt like my world was entirely unraveling and I was too emotionally, I would jump on a spin bike and lose myself in the music and choreography. I would forget about my sadness as I energetically jumped out of the saddle and escaped my loneliness watching the entire room full of bodies move together as one. It was sweat therapy at its best.
But here’s the thing…we need more than flow to truly heal. To me, flow is just the start.
Flow gives us the glimmers of hope — that light, that temporary relief, and belief that our life really isn’t all that bad. It gets us moving! Yet, the existing doubt, lack of self confidence, and fear that’s still lingering — that’s grief. And all the feelings and thoughts driving those emotions needs to be confronted and felt to truly move forward and heal from tragedy.
3) The act of moving helps us heal
As a society, we tend to charge our emotions — sadness, loneliness and anger are bad ; happiness, joy and love are good. But, they are all feelings and they all deserve reverence. Unfortunately, grief brings out a lot of these “bad” emotions, resulting in guilt or shame by the individuals experiencing them. There’s also a fear that if we get too angry we might lose control, or if we get too sad, we might get stuck — so we avoid these feelings all together.
But, bypassing these emotions increases our vulnerability to being overwhelmed by them! Think of it this way, avoiding the intense emotions is just the short-term strategy. Pretending we are ok. Seeking activities — working longer harder, retail therapy — where we don’t have to deal with our sadness. But, the reality is that grief is something we can’t escape. Ever.
*In research by PhD Peter Levine, when the nervous system is stuck in a state of hyperactivity — trying hard to push the difficult feelings aside and live a normal, happy life when you’re world is falling apart — our flight or fight survival response gets caught in a loop. We get stuck. We feel like we are frozen and feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, sadness and guilt become all encompassing. All of our attention is then fixed on negative thought patterns and we get stuck in them. This pattern is hard to break and can lead to depression if not addressed.
So how do we break the cycle?
We simply get moving! Levine explains that in the animal world, after an attack by a predator or any event perceived as stressful, animals will physically shake and then run to naturally recover. They move their bodies! Humans do not have this automatic physical response, making it more likely for us to get stuck in the negative physiological, cognitive and behavioral loops that can create dissociation and a general feeling of powerlessness. When we workout, our bodies, mind and breath come together to fight off negative limiting beliefs and feelings of stuckness. This powerful combination helps us feel more in control, empowered and able to move through our pain.
So as much as exercise fosters a state of flow — an escape to a certain degree — it also provides us with an opportunity to disrupt the negative thought process and really feel the emotions that are brewing just below the surface. It helps us own our emotions so that we feel empowered by our grief, instead of a victim of it. I mean, have you been to a yoga class and cried in shavasana? THAT’s what I’m talking about! The emotions are there, but sometimes we simply need to move our bodies to break through through surface, process our feelings and truly feel them.
4) A workout comes with a kick-ass community of supporters!
One of my favorite quotes from Option B was that “resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us.” I incorporate this mantra when I teach spin classes, telling clients that when they are feeling weak and lack inner strength, to look to their neighbor for support and inspiration. I remind them that we are never alone because struggle is universal. We are all going through something — inside and outside the fitness studio. And each of us is an example to the other that we can survive…if not thrive.
There is NO WAY that I would surviving, without all of the love and support from family, friends and my fitness community. Losing someone can be terribly isolating and it’s not often that young adults know how to talk about loss — making the experience even more lonely.
After Ian died, I received a bulletin board full of pinned post-it notes containing handwritten love-filled messages from all of the riders at my spin studio! My barre studio set up a meal train for my family and sent me a beautiful picture of the constellations in the sky at the site, date and time of our wedding — a profound reminder that my husband would be with me forever despite his physical absence. Clients who I barely knew besides me screaming at them to go faster on a stationary bike individually reached out to me to share their own stories of loss and support me in my grief.
Although I felt so much pain from the void in my heart from losing Ian, the support I received filled the space of emptiness, making me feel whole. It’s been one of the most profound experiences to feel so much sadness about an event, but also gratitude for the beauty and love that resulted from it as well. The reality that we never are alone because everyone suffers, everyone feels pain, and everyone somehow survives is part of the human experience that unites us all.
5) Exercise mimics life
Since Ian died, exercise has become so much more than burning calories, toning muscles, or increasing blood flow, brain function and longevity of life. For me, fitness has become my way of life. I exercise every day. Every day, whether it’s spin, barre, yoga, HIIT or just going for a run I transform my workout into an opportunity to test my limits. I make a habit of getting uncomfortable. To me, the discomfort is an analogy for life. It’s an analogy for all of the unforeseen events that can occur — children, spouses, parents dying, accidents resulting in total paralysis, homes burning down, school shootings — all the potential trauma that would drastically alter the course of our lives. It’s the realization that there are no certainties in life and when you are truly faced with adversity you have no other choice but to adapt.
To me, fitness is practice for life’s greatest curve balls — these experiences that rattle our world, our notion of safety, comfort and what our life should look like. Exercise — testing the limits to see how heavy you can lift, how fast you can sprint, or how long you can hold a pose — shows us what we are made of. It’s proof of our ability to overcome a challenge, so that we are ready when true adversity occurs.
Tragedy. Trauma. The events that shake us so much to the core that we feel completely broken and like our whole world has fallen apart. With these events comes a choice:
to become a victim of the cards we are dealt
to rebuild to normal, or
to rebuild to something stronger.
There is not a day in the last eight months that I haven’t thought about my husband. I see his mischievous smile in my 20-month old son and his love for the water in my four-year-old daughter who would live in a pool if she could. I miss him. We all miss him. And surviving as a family of three is certainly not the life we would have chosen.
But, even though life chose this path for us, I’m profoundly aware that I still have a choice. After watching my husband lose that choice as the cancer slowly killed him, I realized how grateful I am to have that choice.
I have the choice to allow hardship, struggle and adversity to trap me — to accept the victim mindset and ask why me? — or to survive and ask what now?
My circumstance is not a choice, but I choose joy anyway. I choose to live, to be happy, and to not let this tragedy define me.
Exercise prepares us for this choice. We can give up when it gets too hard, or embrace the challenge and discover what we are truly made and maybe even get stronger.
Every time I finish a workout I’m reminded that movement is a privilege.My choice is a privilege.
My life is a privilege.
So, let’s make the most of it and keep moving!