Prior to setting out on my health and fitness journey, I lived a life fueled by substance abuse to deal with my stress and anxiety. I drank to celebrate a good day and to forget a bad day. I took opioids to combat supposed pain but really it was for the euphoric effects. I took a pill to fight anxiety and another to drift off to dream. I had a substance for any occasion, (to be happy, to calm down, to be alert, to sleep, to wake up, to lose weight, you get it), and sadly, I was legally prescribed many of them. I was in a never-ending cycle and it was incredibly hard to break.
Getting pregnant with my first child, Lylah Jane, at age 34 is what finally got me away from the prescription drugs but it didn’t stop the drinking. After she was born, I changed primary care physicians knowing my existing one would be easily persuaded by my requests for prescriptions. I was forthcoming with my new doctor about wanting to take holistic approaches to my stress and anxiety. That still didn’t stop me from drinking. In fact, it caused me to drink more because the absence of the pills simply drove me to the liquor store. Substance abuse was literally the only coping mechanism I had ever known.
I began exercising when Lylah was about 18 months old and definitely got some stress relief. The drinking continued, though, and I was working out more for reasons of vanity than for physical and mental health. Nearly a year later, I had a scare, and knew it was time to ditch the bottle once and for all. I am forever grateful for a loving, supportive, forgiving God and an earthly family who helped me finally beat my addiction. That being said, I could not have done it without switching my focus to diet and exercise. I had to replace an unhealthy addiction with a healthy one.
So, scientifically speaking, why does exercise work to relieve stress and help fight addiction? The common factor is the stress hormone, cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Physical and mental stress and/or prolonged use of alcohol can cause the body to produce too much cortisol. Elevated amounts of cortisol can cause hypertension, diabetes, fatigue, a weakened immune system, and even cancer. All of that sounds horrible, right?! That’s where exercise comes in! It seems silly that putting your body into a mode of stress by stimulating it and getting your heart rate up actually relaxes you but it does. According to the Harvard School of Medicine, the “benefits of aerobic exercise have a neurochemical basis. Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.” What?! That sounds just like the high I was seeking from all those substances.
So, I tested it. I had no choice really. I was determined to overcome my addiction. I started thinking and I realized anytime I took a pill or had a drink, I would say to myself, “Wait 30 minutes. You’ll feel better in 30 minutes. You can make it 30 minutes.” I knew if I could anxiously wait for the effects of a substance to relax me, then I could also move my body with purpose for 30 minutes, especially if it guaranteed those same effects, only this time, without the substance. And guess what, it worked! Repeatedly, it worked. I started working out to exercise my brain, to release the endorphins, to relax.
The same article by Harvard states the benefits of exercise. “Many forms of exercise reduce stress directly, and by preventing bodily illness, exercise has extra benefits for the mind. Regular physical activity will lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol, and reduce your blood sugar. Exercise cuts the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, colon and breast cancers, osteoporosis and fractures, obesity, depression, and even dementia (memory loss). Exercise slows the aging process, increases energy, and prolongs life.” Well, who knew? We won’t even go into all of the negative effects all those substances were having on me. Let’s just focus on the positive, ok?
The positive is where I am now: celebrating my two year anniversary of sobriety, in the best shape of my life at age 39, no longer needing BP meds and insulin, and here with you, making my mess my message. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a passenger of the Hot Mess Express rather frequently, it’s just a different kind of mess. Hop aboard anytime you like.
Cheers to Being Fit, Y’all!