Exercising grief – How physical activity saved my life

Rachel Cutler MBACP (Accred) 00700578

This is what I believe:

  • Grief is physical
  • We don’t go through grief it goes through us
  • Grief can kill
  • If I am strong I am more difficult to kill

I have my trainer Sam to thank for that last statement. Actually, I have Sam to thank for helping me survive potential annihilation from grief – there are many others in that group: family, friends, colleagues, my five children, even strangers.

But when it came to facing off against the impact of grief, being physically strong made me feel not only that I had a chance to survive it, but that I might be able to thrive. Pushing myself to my limits week in and out in the gym, built not only physical resilience but mental resilience too. Over time, it provided a context through which I could transition from ‘grieving widow’ (a role I imagined others wanted me to inhabit), to some new identity after the death of my husband. It was transformational and before that it was a lifeline, the one hour in my day that I felt something like alive.

I have always been physically fit and well and therefore, strong. I played a lot of sports as a girl and young woman and I have kept up my fitness in the gym. So that when grief hit in the metaphorical and yet so very physical ‘waves’ of pain, I expected some significant physical resilience. I discovered very quickly that was not the case – if grief deludes the mind it weakens the body too. Instead of building resistance through daily exposure to the pain, grief left me each time with a little less in the tank to protect myself. Now, I thought, I am dying too.

It was a thought I carried with me for some months. Then one morning after sorting out something related to the execution of my husbands will, I came out of the solicitors, slipped on the path, went up in the air and landed with a thump on my back, my head bouncing off the pavement. The self-pity, pain and embarrassment were confirmed when a man in his seventies bent down and pulled me to my feet. That was it, I was the only person ‘standing’ between my children and their orphan status; I had to be strong in mind and body. I turned to my faithful friend – exercise.

This is what Sam believes:

  • Exercise is one of the most underrated tools for helping us through disillusionment
  • Exercise allows us to disconnect from the anxieties and stresses that we feel
  • Exercise brings a sense of purpose and focus
  • Physical suffering transforms psychological distress

Like me, Sam knows the research on the positive correlation between exercise and good mental health. We quote studies at one another which show that the neurotransmitters and mood managing hormones triggered by physical exercise have a positive impact on mental wellbeing. There is of course anecdotal evidence too. Sam sees everyday his clients experience this surge in mental wellbeing, and finds the greatest response to ‘happy hormone’ release after intensive cardiovascular training. I have a friend who walks throughout the winter with a group who all suffer depression – it keeps them from the negative impact of Seasonal Affective Disorder too she says. Sam knows that raising his own heart rate for a long period of time such as on a run, has had incredible mood lifting results, especially when coupled with running in the country. Again there is much evidence to support the theory that walking and running in the countryside is good for mental health.

Something which we both recognised was the impact that exercise had on my self-belief. My confidence started to decline about nine months after my husband died. It began with a terrible sense that everything in my life was pointless. This is not unusual in grief, there is often a sense of meaninglessness to one’s everyday lives. After the death of her husband, Joan Didion wrote that before grief we cannot comprehend ‘… the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.’ For me it reflected both my lack of confidence in the world as a safe place to be, and it revealed a growing belief that my life was not worth living. To be clear, I wasn’t suicidal I simply didn’t see the point in living.

My grief felt so aggressive at times, that it undermined my sense of self to the point where I questioned my own identity. It was not something friends and family would necessarily have seen. I continued to ‘smile and wave’ my way through those days so that others wouldn’t see my failing confidence, my madness, my physical pain, and the terrifying belief that I was losing myself too.

Used correctly, Sam argues, exercise builds confidence and psychological transformation through physical suffering. The idea of physical suffering as useful to one’s mental health is one that I have always believed in too. In the second year of my grief I was feeling a worrying desire to experience physical suffering; to hurt myself. Exercise was the most useful version of the many possible ways I might have met that need.

Sam talks about ‘mini wins’. He argues that ‘…exercise can be used as a tool to transform confidence by setting mini targets and achieving them’ – essentially exercise is a way to feel success every single time you engage in it, even when you are dealing with trauma and loss. ‘When you go into the gym and you can only do five minutes on the treadmill, and the next time you do six minutes, that’s a mini win. And you get all these successes that make you feel more confident and your self-esteem grows. I have witnessed this in my clients.’  Sam tells me. These small victories can and must be relative to each of us – it may be the completion of a marathon for one individual, and a five-minute walk after work for another; it is still a win for the mind.

In the gym I clung to the ‘mini wins’ obsessively and after my sessions I would feel them settle with me – I took my physical suffering and integrated it into my whole self. From the very start, the physical achievement in the gym was translated in my mind to a mental one – a mini shift in my perspective. I doubt that initially it was anything like a shift ‘forward’ but it was movement nonetheless.

Over the months and then years I began physically, emotionally and mentally to feel better about myself. From this growing positive sense of identity, I was able to feel more confident about my existence; even if I couldn’t trust the world anymore, I could trust me. Grief had felt impossible to combat, it was so very strong, and I was so very weak, in mind and body. But as I committed myself to the painful process of each training session and met each physical goal, I was building the mental strength to stand up to it. I was becoming me once more, and because of that, I was becoming more difficult to kill.

Four years after my husband’s death, I am still at the gym getting my physical wins and translating them into mental ones. I know that exercise has been integral to helping me survive grief and now it is helping me to thrive beyond it.