Again, I’ll mention that I’m not a doctor. I’m not a physical trainer. I’m just a fellow human who needs exercise to cope with the stress of life. If you’re not already exercising, you should probably talk to a doctor first, and always be sure to modify any movement to fit your own personal fitness level or to accommodate past injuries.
1. Cardio and Weight Training for Irritability, Anxiety, and Menstrual Pain
Exercise helps with anxiety, stress, and sleep and hormone regulation. This is another area of our lives where we can’t just pop a pill. We have to do the work of getting our bodies moving.
Here’s what my OB says about exercise: “Moderation daily — it helps endogenous endorphins which can overcome the negative effects of progesterone.” (Remember that pre-menstrual syndrome is really post-ovulation syndrome, when our bodies are feeling the effects of progesterone.)
I’ve known for years that I need regular exercise to keep my moods level and manage my inner grouch. I need hard exercise to accomplish this. No half-hearted cardio will do. It needs to be high intensity cardio (though not necessarily high impact), or it needs to be strength/interval/circuit training with weights. Some research shows that exercise, when done well, can be as good as anti-depressants.
Even though I know I need the exercise to battle my stress and anxiety, it’s all too easy to let exercise slide, either because I’m too busy, too tired, or simply too hot (hello Tropics!). In the past year, however, I’ve realized more and more that I simply cannot afford to skip regular exercise. I make it even more of a priority than before, especially in the week or so before my period.
I’ve also concluded that weight or strength training is even more efficient than cardio in producing the endorphins/happy hormones. So I’ve increased my weight-bearing workouts.
When I sense I’m beginning to come unglued, I tell my husband, I need to workout right now. He smiles and nods and says, “I hope you have a good workout. You’ll feel better afterwards.” And I do. I fare much better doing the exercise than laying in bed and watching Netflix.
As to the moderation, here’s how I handle the scheduling of exercise. I aim for 5-6 workouts a week, but I’m satisfied with 4-5. Some weeks, depending on our schedule, I have to make peace with 3. I do the strength training 2-3 days per week and always give myself 48 hours in between strength training sessions.
I alternate difficult workouts with lighter workouts, and I will not do difficult workouts two days in a row. When you workout hard, you have to give your body time to rest. I usually plan at least one day a week where I don’t exercise at all. Your body can’t keep going, going, going all the time.
I’m not a fanatic about workout length, either. I workout about 30 minutes at a time, and sometimes only 20. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to workout for an hour or two every day to reap the mental health benefits. Twenty minutes really can suffice, if you’re putting in the effort to make it intense enough.
While I have to work out hard in the pre-menstrual days, I need to take it a bit lighter during my period. That doesn’t mean nothing; getting moving with some light cardio helps with the cramps. We think we want to stay in bed when we get cramps, but in reality, movement is better. Cramps start to dissipate when we start to stretch and move.
Walking is another good exercise option. When I lived in the States, I went on a lot of walks. Walking is truly moderate exercise and can be done every day. But the streets of Phnom Penh are dirty and crowded, and in general I choose not to walk here unless I can get to a safer, cleaner area. I love to walk and talk with my husband or with friends, and I do miss it while living here. But if it works for you, I hope you enjoy it!
2. Yoga and Stretching for Anxiety, Headaches, and Menstrual Pain
I’ll just mention this up front: I know yoga can be a sensitive subject for Christians. I’m not here to debate; I will merely tell you my experience. You need to make your own decisions.
First of all, I’ve never been drawn to yoga. I tried it a couple times in my 20’s because it was supposedly so good for you. I found it utterly boring, just laying there in uncomfortable positions, doing nothing. If I were going to set aside time to exercise, I wanted to be burning calories. I didn’t bother myself with any theological concerns because I simply wasn’t interested in it.
That was before last year, when my anxiety rose to unmanageable levels. It prompted me to do a lot of research into ways to manage anxiety. Yoga is one of those ways, so I tried it again. This time, I was surprised at how effectively the yoga reduced my anxiety. I could feel it dropping even as I moved into the positions.
Yoga requires a lot of concentration on your body and on your breath. This is in itself distracting from your anxieties. It helps you get in touch with the body God made for you, a body that God declared good.
I personally found that yoga videos for neck and back pain seemed to be pretty user-friendly. They stretched my body in new ways, releasing the tension that caused pain in my neck and back and even increasing my hip and leg flexibility.
I didn’t like videos with too much spiritual mumbo-jumbo or Eastern sounding talk, which is where people’s main concerns arise, I think. The way I handled this was to find and learn the yoga positions that helped my specific bodily concerns. (I mostly found videos for neck and shoulder pain, but I also discovered yoga positions for menstrual pain that really, truly work.) Then I would perform them either in silence or with worship music.
For me, this approach handled any religious or faith-based concerns I might have. If ancient people stumbled across ways of stretching and moving the body that help with pain or anxiety, I consider that general revelation (as opposed to the special revelation we find in the Bible).
This is how I feel about acupressure and acupuncture (which can also help with headaches – google it) and even modern medicine (which might not be full of Eastern mystics but certainly has non-Christian practitioners, and most of us still feel comfortable with Western medicine).
If a drug or non-drug treatment can help to heal these bodies that God made, then I simply choose to thank God for the options and reject any religious talk that conflicts with my worldview.
In recent months I’ve been neglecting the yoga/stretching, and I can feel a difference in my mind and my body. I have more tension and anxiety. Last year when my anxiety was at an all-time high, I did yoga regularly. As the anxiety lessened, I stopped getting on the mat in the morning when my body was at its stiffest and the day was at its quietest. It’s a practice I need to return to.
3. Breathing for Anxiety and Irritability
I’ve said it in other places before, but breathing is like a drug:
Some drugs are free.
I love breathing. It’s my favorite.
I recently announced this to my kids.
Some of them thought I was crazy, but one agreed.
It’s true though. I just love breathing.
Breathe in, breathe out.
When I stop to close my eyes and breathe deeply and slowly, I immediately calm down.
My body relaxes.
My thoughts stop swirling.
My emotions stop pressing.
So take a deep breath. Maybe take three.
And remember, some drugs are free.
If only we will use them.
Last year I looked into other breathing techniques beside this kind of simple, slow, deep breathing. My favorite breathing technique turned out to be triangle breathing. My husband first told me about it; he uses it himself and regularly teaches it to clients.
There are several ways to do triangle breathing; you can google them. One is to breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, and exhale for 4 seconds. Or you can choose 5 seconds, or 6, or whatever. Another method is to breathe in for 4 seconds and breathe out for 8 (basically taking twice as long to exhale as to inhale).
But my favorite form of triangle breathing — and the one I use most frequently, especially when I can’t sleep at night because of anxiety — doesn’t rely on counting. I actually get stressed out if I try to count. It just feels like one more thing I need to do right and could possibly do wrong. That’s not helpful for my anxiety!
So this is how I do it. I breathe in deeply through my nose for as long as it takes to get a full breath. Then I hold it. I might hold it for awhile. I might hold it only one count. I might even count during the breath-holding phase, but not usually. Then I release my breath slowly through my mouth, for as long as it takes to empty my lungs. In this way, I don’t feel the pressure of a time table for the inhale and exhale.
I like to triangle breathe in traffic, in between errands, or whenever I realize I’ve just been rushing through life forgetting to breathe. It helps me to purposely slow down and calm down.
Breathing exercises can reduce heart rate and blood pressure. It’s kind of wild to think about, but simply taking control of our breath can change our heart rate. (You can prove this to yourself with a pulse app on your phone.) We have more control over our minds and our bodies than we sometimes assume (which is what this series is all about!).
There are other forms of breathing, too. Some people have spoken highly of alternate nostril breathing, and though I’ve tried it, I’ve never gotten the same results with it that I get through the triangle breathing. But you can google alternate nostril breathing if you like. Whatever method you choose, just remember to breathe.
4. Sleep and Rest for making everything in life seem better
When you cut the caffeine, you may suddenly find that you need more sleep. This is your body talking to you. (Yes, she talks to you.) (And yes, PMS is one way she talks to you.)
It is way too easy to silence our bodies’ needs for sleep with caffeine, screen time, and a busy schedule that is always producing excess adrenaline in us. Too many of us are ignoring our bodies’ need for sleep.
When I cut the caffeine, I started taking naps again. When I was in college, I napped. When my kids were babies and toddlers and everyone had a naptime or quiet time, I napped. But over the years, as I drank more and more coffee, and the kids slept during the day less and less, I gave up the naps. I would tamp down my need for sleep on Sunday afternoons with coffee and some screen time.
I don’t do that anymore. Now I always take a nap on Sundays, and sometimes on Saturdays, and occasionally on weekdays if I absolutely need it. I know not everyone can do this. You may work outside the home, or you may have small children in the home who can’t be left unattended.
Thankfully at this stage of life I can sneak in a nap if I really need it. My kids are older, and they can work on some of their school work on their own, and the older ones can keep an eye on the younger ones. (Interestingly enough, I’ve found that when I do this, my younger children get really creative and imaginative in their play. Sometimes a little parent-free time is good for them!)
I’m so much happier now that I have reclaimed my naps (I really look forward to my Sunday nap).
But I’m not just talking about naps here. I’m also talking about resting from the exercise, at least one day a week. And I’m talking about getting good nighttime sleep too. My OB says this about sleep: “Regular sleep hygiene (going to bed and waking up at same time daily) with avoidance of electronics in bed helps.”
I have my husband to thank for a good bedtime routine. He gets up earlier than I do and wants to be in bed by 10:15 pm. If left to myself, I would stay up later than that, wasting time on Facebook or Youtube. It’s not that I have anything I’m accomplishing at that time of day. It’s that my brain is so tired by that time, that I don’t have the self-awareness or motivation to put myself to bed for the next day. Because as we all know, a good day really begins the night before.
Getting enough sleep means we’re less crabby, and it means we can think more clearly, because we are getting the rest we need. So it’s good to have some accountability in this area, because we all really need consistent bedtimes.
I still struggle not to check Facebook and email that “one last time” before bed. I have in the past kept the computer completely out of the bedroom. Lately I haven’t been very good about that. I know that when I stay away from the computer before bedtime, I have fewer distressing things on my mind as I try to fall asleep.
Instead, reading a light fiction book in bed can help put my mind to rest. My brain can’t function very well at that time of night, certainly not well enough to read difficult fiction or non-fiction. But light fiction, I can do. It puts me to sleep. Pretty quickly actually.
One sleep problem I have not yet solved: waking up to go to the bathroom! Nighttime bathroom trips are big sleep disrupters in our house. I try to monitor my water intake in the evening, but it’s not easy when it’s hot or when I exercise in the evening.
When I’m in a season of higher anxiety, as soon as I wake up to use the bathroom, my mind starts going. That’s when I use triangle breathing or sing hymns to myself (this one in particular has gotten me through a lot of bad nights). But I honestly wish I didn’t wake up in the first place.
As you can see, I’m still a work in progress when it comes to these practices! I’ve used them all to good effect in the past and want to keep using them in the future. Hopefully some of these approaches will work for you, too.
In the final installment of this series, we’ll talk about tracking our emotions and our cycles.