Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Riding Fit (The Brain) Part 1 of 2

In the spirit of full disclosure I'm going to dive in deep with this post. Part 1 of 2, I'm going to talk a little about how I've gotten my brain fit to be the best partner for my horse and our goals together.


THE BRAIN:

For as long as I can remember I've dealt with mental illness. Long before I knew how to define it, I was staying up until 4am painting or sweating through my clothes in public for no discernible reason or spending entirely too much time alone because I couldn't bear to be around other people. I had my first true panic attack at 22 (or at least the first that I knew how to define) and as a result, I stayed in bed for days because I felt physically and mentally broken. Since then, I've been able to define my personal issues as insomnia, anxiety and depression (caused by anxiety).

And now, at the age of 40 (don't get me started) -- I've spent the last 20 years addressing the root of many of my issues and working on ways to improve my day to day quality of life. I'm going to share a few things that have helped me to become the best version of myself while managing my mental illnesses.

Insomnia  
Insomnia is something I dealt with starting at a very young age. I always knew I had a restless brain, and I would stay up for hours reading or drawing and going to sleep at 4 or 5 in the morning and then getting up for school at 7. I didn't realize that it wasn't normal until my parents discovered me awake in the wee hours when I was a teenager. They took me to a therapist to try to teach me methods for getting to sleep, but none of it worked. At it's worst, the only thing that was effective was taking Ambien (which was a lifesaver when I really needed it) -- and now at it's most manageable, my remedies are far more simplified. Good sleep hygiene, physical exercise of some sort daily (even if it's just getting some fresh air), no caffeine after noon, and a whiskey before bed doesn't hurt either. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I also learned a technique to "put my worries to bed" also, which involves making a list of things that are keeping me up and if any of them are actionable I can stay up and complete them and otherwise I put the rest to bed. My insomnia has always been at its worst when my depression and anxiety are heightened so it's important for me to factor in all of the ways the play together to actually get some sleep.  I'm happy to say that I haven't depended on sleep aids in years, and I hold my solid relationship as a big factor in why I've been able to keep my insomnia at bay.

Anxiety
If I had to guess, I would say that most people that interact with my think I have my proverbial shit together. They would probably describe me as "even-keeled", "confident" and "self-assured". HAHAHAHA. I think one of the things that drew me to OTTBs in the first place was that many of them are "anxious-worriers" and it's a personality trait I can really relate too. You know what's a surefire way to stop thinking about your anxiety? Get on a hot OTTB straight off the track and try to teach it something new. One of the most amazing things horses have given me is singular focus. The anxious brain is everywhere and nowhere all at once and horses have taught me how to compartmentalize my worries and anxieties. That said, I've spent many, many years with a very good therapist who has given me tools to navigate my way through this messy thing we call life. Btw, if you like reading and you also like worrying, read The Worry Cure -- it changed my life. There was a time that my anxiety was so crippling that I couldn't get dressed in the morning... as in, I'd call work and tell them I was going to be late and that I didn't know when I'd be in and then I'd sit at the end of my bed paralyzed for another hour. Those days seem like eons ago, but I struggle every. damn. day. with anxiety. How I handle it now is much different in that I am much more self-aware, and I have useful tools to depend on when it gets bad. On a daily basis, I find that sticking to little rituals really helps. For instance, when I wake up in the morning (typically the hardest time of day for my anxious brain) I have to ease into the day. I wake up and need at least 30+ minutes to lay in bed and deal with taking on the day. My incredible SO brings me coffee in bed every morning to help facilitate the process, and it works... I let my brain fire up, anxieties and all and I make a plan for the day. But the truth is, the way that I handle my crippling anxiety is to put forth a facade of confidence and ease, I am THAT person to the outside world, because the other person inside cannot deal at all. And in some ways, that charade has worked in my favor (it's gotten me jobs, apartments, relationships, friends) and has allowed me to be careful of who I share the rest with.

Depression
My depression is caused my my anxiety so it functions a little differently that the traditional variety. For me, it manifests in very physical ways (which is awful)... sometimes it's feeling like my head is in a vice, but mostly it's constant pain throughout my body and unexplained fatigue. Back in early 2016 it was reaching new heights and I had to make massive changes to tamp it down. I was miserable at my job (after 11 years I was just over it), having to be downtown every day was making my anxiety terrible and I was chronically in pain. And while other things were going really well, I was barely functioning in other aspects. I remember distinctly being in a lesson and only being able to go half way around the ring before being winded and fatigued. It wasn't until Emily more or less demanded that I got to the doctor that I realized something was really wrong with me. I was 100% sure I had Lyme disease, or worse. I had blood work done, and everything came back normal. After a myriad of tests, we circled back to depression and how it was physically effecting me. I needed to make some BIG changes in my life. So, with the support of the most amazing partner ever, I scaled back my position at work to one day a week in the office, I threw myself into a working student position and almost right away started feeling better. Was is the stress of being in the city? The boredom of the same job for years? The change of scenery or the 12 hours of physical exercise I was doing every day? Whatever it was, it was working and I've stayed the course ever since. No, I'm not a working student any more, but I still oversee projects at my long time job, I've got my freelance photo business, and I nanny for a couple of UL riders. My days are varied and I often have time to be extremely flexible with my schedule allowing me more time for the things that keep me mentally stable. Some weeks are incredibly busy with no time "off" and some are scant with work and full of play and I'm SO happy to have that kind of mental freedom. It has done wonders for my mental health and I'm easily the happiest I've ever been. It is not a lifestyle for everyone, but love the hustle of having lots of balls in the air and having more control over my day-to-day life.

Mentally, I am doing everything I can to be in the best place for my horse. I think it's easy to rely on horses as the place to sort of place all our baggage and to use it as a safe haven (and that's not wrong), but I think it's also important to address what is going on inside our brains and be introspective about what we are bringing to the table too. At times horses have been the only thing that's kept me going and for that I am truly grateful. I owe it to my horse to be the best partner I can be... stay tuned for Part 2 where we talk about physical fitness!

15 comments:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to share this information. Last year in January I suffered from extreme fatigue but tests showed nothing and the issue gradually faded over a couple months. This year in January I've also felt extra tired and weak although not to the extreme of last year. Your post has made me consider that this could be a result of anxiety. I do taxes for a living and this is the start of my most stressful time. I will check into the book you mentioned.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh thank you for your comment! I was worried I was maybe over-sharing but I think that feeling some solidarity even in some small ways is helpful.

      Delete
  2. Excellent post!

    20 years ago I was failing miserably to keep my sh*t together, living in a tiny apt in NYC (that I was paying ALL THE $$$ for). Moving here to the Outer Banks and adopting a very physical outdoor job and lifestyle saved me. I still tangle with anxiety - especially this time of year, but like you - if I put self care first - things roll along fairly smoothly. My horse lives here at home, and the daily ritual of morning and evening chores around caring for him is super helpful too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sometime those huge changes make all the difference don't they!

      Delete
  3. Thank you for sharing this. My husband suffers from anxiety and occasionally depression as well, and I have no frame of reference for that level of mental illness, beyond a very severe one time bout with SAD, before I started taking Vitamin D. I try my hardest to understand and to figure out how to help, but it's hard. This put some of his feelings into context for me and helped me stand in his shoes mentally for a bit.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh wow, I had no idea my post would have that sort of impact. As I've gotten older I've really found that sharing my story helps heal me too.

      Delete
  4. You are my spirit animal. Thank you for sharing this. It was like reading a replay of my own life, right down to preferring to have multiple jobs for more time flexibility for self-care.

    It wasn't until recently that I realized that what I've felt most of my life had a name, it's called anxiety, and it is actually pretty common.

    That first meme...holy shit. That's me too, right down to a T. I recently took down my blog because I felt it was reaching the epitome of oversharing and that was giving me more anxiety. Lol?

    Thank you so much for sharing this. <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw!!! I laugh every time I look at that first meme... it's so spot on!

      Delete
  5. It is so important to take our mental health as important as our physical health. Good for you for being so open and honest about your journey! <3

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Whoops, that should have said It is so important to take our mental health as SERIOUS as our physical health. hahaha

      Delete
    2. It's definitely scary being open about it, but what do I have to lose by sharing? Thank you for your support!

      Delete
  6. "One of the most amazing things horses have given me is singular focus." That's one of my very favourite things about riding is that it only gives me brain space for one thing and for a little bit, everything else melts away. I'm going to check out the Worry Cure for sure - thank you

    ReplyDelete
  7. LOVE THIS! I have some of the same struggles - less day-to-day with the anxiety and heavier on the depression, but I also recognized that having a high-stress job (real estate) that required me to be "on call" 24/7 and mentally involved in my work at all times was NOT. HELPING. Even though the hours were super flexible and allowed me to do a lot of fun things, the mental load got to be too much, and I was literally not making enough money to have to deal with that. So after 5 years of that I took a job at my vet's office. It has been a LIFESAVER. The hours are not very flexible (standard 9-5) but when I'm not at work, I don't have to think about work. When I leave the office, I leave my job there. My anxiety level on a day to day basis is SO MUCH LOWER and it's been a great lesson for me in knowing where my limits are psychologically when it comes to work. Thanks for being brave, my friend!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I really love this post and appreciate you putting it out there in words that are easy to relate to. Anxiety is a fucking bitch. Anxiety that triggers depression and insomnia...UGH.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I only have situational insomnia caused by my anxiety - putting worries to bed and good sleep hygiene was key to weaning me off the drugs. people's mileage may vary, some people like my ex really just need pharmaceuticals to function but being able to find other coping mechanisms is great!

    ReplyDelete