Be Careful About Using Exercise to Stabilize Emotions
I am someone who genuinely loves to exercise. I know this claim might elicit some eye rolls, but it's true. I even had a therapist at a residential treatment program once tell me that she suspected fitness would always be an integral part of my life. The trick, she continued, was learning to create a balanced relationship with how I choose to work out. It's been more than 10 years since that conversation, but I still have to be so careful about using exercise to stabilize my emotions in eating disorder recovery.
The Potential Harm of Using Exercise to Stabilize Emotions
I will state for the record that, in healthy moderation, exercise can be a beneficial intervention to cope with the effects of chronic stress, anxiety, or depression. In fact, researchers found that people who maintained at least some kind of fitness routine during the 2020 stay-at-home restrictions exhibited more positive, resilient mental health outcomes than those who were sedentary.1 (Of course, no criticism whatsoever to anyone who didn't—or couldn't—exercise in quarantine. It was hard enough just to function at times.)
So to be clear, I do not entirely discourage the use of movement for stress management. However, I also think it's important for those with eating disorder histories to understand the potential harm of being too reliant on exercise as a mood or emotional stabilizer. While I can only share from my own experience, I find that when I choose to work out right in the thick of intense, volatile, or unprocessed emotions, I am more likely to overexert myself. And if it turns into a recurring habit, this opens the door for compulsive eating disorder behaviors to creep back in, no matter how long I have been in recovery.
Becoming too dependent on exercise to stabilize emotions could affect physical health as well. Research from an American Heart Association journal, Circulation, reveals that working out in the midst of acute anger or upset can lead to a heart attack.2 This is because intense emotions raise blood pressure levels and cause the pulse to quicken. Combining those two biomarkers with the stress load of exercise can place a dangerous strain on the heart, so in the interest of both safety and wellbeing, please be careful about using exercise to stabilize emotions.
Exercise in Moderation for Emotional and Physical Wellness
As I mentioned earlier, fitness is an enjoyable and integral part of my life, but I also recognize the need to be cautious about exercising when I am not in a stable headspace. If I feel a particularly deep emotion such as anger, fear, shame, anxiety, or grief, I have to be honest with myself that it's not the time for a vigorous workout. I'm not always able to control the eating disorder compulsion to overexercise when my emotions are running the show.
Ideally, I will take a moment like that to pause, breathe, then do something mindful or creative to restore my sense of peace and balance. But if the urge to move feels inescapable, I will choose a gentle, moderate pace to calm my fierce, accelerated energy rather than choosing a pace that would continue to exacerbate it. A quiet walk outside or a yoga flow in my bedroom can do absolute wonders for my mental health in periods of inner turmoil. I also find it helpful to set a 30-minute alarm on my phone, so I won't lose track of time and exert myself for hours on end.
I know just how tempting it can be to drown out heavy, uncomfortable feelings with intense physical activities. But I also firmly believe it's important to be careful about using exercise to stabilize emotions—specifically for those in eating disorder recovery.
- Hu, S. et al., "Beneficial Effects of Exercise on Depression and Anxiety During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Narrative Review." Frontiers in Psychiatry, November 4, 2020.
- Smyth, A. et al., "Physical Activity and Anger or Emotional Upset as Triggers of Acute Myocardial Infarction." Circulation, October 11, 2016.
Schurrer, M. (2022, February 16). Be Careful About Using Exercise to Stabilize Emotions, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, August 19 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2022/2/be-careful-about-using-exercise-to-stabilize-emotions