Ashley McBride is a College Career Counselor by day, wife to her best friend Sean, and Mom to a tiny poodle named Margot. A Central Valley Native, she’s an avid indoor cyclist who loves to cook, laugh, gather friends and has a secret dream of being a stand up comedian. She hopes that anyone who’s ever struggled with depression and anxiety can find hope in her writing, or at least a good laugh.
Spinning Into Control: Exercise and Anxiety by Ashley McBride
I took a gulp of 7-Up and a bite of my dinosaur shaped chicken nugget. We were at Sizzler, celebrating someone’s birthday in the family, when it hit. My heart started to pound, I got sweaty and my hands felt like they couldn’t hold my soda glass up any longer. I had felt this before, usually at home, late at night but never in public. I was 13 years old so anything in public was much worse.
I closed my eyes and tried to breathe but it didn’t stop. I felt like I might be dying.
I quietly told my aunt who walked me outside and talked to me in the fresh air until I was breathing normally again. It was a very strange feeling, one that I came to understand as a panic attack thus beginning my very long journey with my mental health.
We just hold it together. Keep calm and move on. You know, whatever little wooden sign you have hanging in your bathroom that’s supposed to keep you motivated
Over 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from anxiety disorder which is just the clinical name for having general feelings of anxiousness that sometimes lead to panic attacks. That’s my definition and despite having watched every episode of Grey’s Anatomy I am, in fact, not an actual doctor. I am however a part of the large percentage of that 40 million that is a woman, suffering from this condition. Women, in general, suffer from anxiety at far higher rates than men. Oh, so many jokes, so little time.
To me however, the worst part is that 36% of the population suffering from anxiety receive no treatment whatsoever. We just hold it together. Keep calm and move on. You know, whatever little wooden sign you have hanging in your bathroom that’s supposed to keep you motivated.
Now, a brief story about pork rinds.
About a year ago I was in line at Vons to check out. It was one of those days where the anxiety was lurking just below the surface from the moment I woke up. I was worried about something at work, I was almost out of dog food and face wash so I needed to go to Target, I was stressed about planning lunches and dinners for the week ahead, my mom wasn’t feeling great, one of my friends didn’t text back so now I think she’s mad at me. This is playing in my head on repeat as I stand there.
Eventually these thoughts become so intrusive that my nervous system literally started to kick in my fight or flight reflexes. (There’s a blast from the past high school health class!) I felt it coming. The heart racing, dry mouth, sweaty and shaky hands. My brain says, for probably the millionth time in my life, ok Ashley, this is it, you’re about to die. In Vons no less. I wonder if anyone will come to your funeral. I shut my eyes and try to breathe just as I did when I was 13. For a second I feel as though I can manage through it and at least get to the car where I have an emergency Xanax stashed for just these occasions.
It’s like I’m constantly walking on a frozen pond no one else can see and every so often, I fall and break through the ice
Then he opens his pork rinds.
The man in front of me starts to eat said pork rinds as he waits and between the noise of him chewing and the smell I lose it. The panic attack is coming full force and I have to get out before I pass out.
I leave all my stuff on the line and practically run out to my car. By this time tears are falling and I’m shaking trying to take the Xanax. I get myself home as fast as possible and sit on the couch, in the dark, and wait for it to kick in. It does. Now I feel tired and frankly, numb. I curl up and close my eyes, another night stolen from me by my anxiety.
The next morning I get up, shower and head to work like normal. This is the dirty secret of living with anxiety; most people would never know I have it nor would they believe it if they saw me at my high stress job which I am very successful at or if they saw me telling jokes and being the life of the party on a Friday night. It’s like I’m constantly walking on a frozen pond no one else can see and every so often, I fall and break through the ice.
It’s debilitating. It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting.
At 26 I tried medication for the first time. I have done over 8 years combined of therapy.
I have gone through two very dark periods where I considered taking my own life.
The rest of the last 21 years were spent trying desperately to stay afloat when the ice breaks. I resigned to myself that this was as good as it was going to get, I had to deal with a mediocre life.
I was the furthest thing from athletic. My shape, although not totally spherical, was rather squishy and unmanaged
And then, a thing happened.
Therapists for years had told me that exercise is great way to combat anxiety and depression (you don’t usually have one without the other, they’re like evil besties) but there was a slight problem for me on that front; I was the furthest thing from athletic. My shape, although not totally spherical, was rather squishy and unmanaged. I was however, also desperate and would try anything.
I did yoga, boot camps, running camps, more yoga, got a personal trainer and even tried Jillian Michaels at home DVDs. She’s mean by the way, even through the TV screen. I poured my heart into all of them hoping I would feel relief but if I did it was very brief and never lasted. I gave each one of them up feeling more hopeless than ever. And this is where the saddest part of my story begins as I, like so many men and women, started to self-medicate with alcohol and food. If you’re reading this and know what I mean when I say that one glass of wine “took the edge off” or that after one drink you felt calmer and like you “could breathe” again, you could be self-medicating and it may be time to ask for help.
I didn’t ask for help out loud. I prayed in the way that I know how- to lay in bed and ask the universe for a sign, some guidance, a little bit of anything. I had a beautiful life with my husband and yet I wondered if I’d ever really be happy. Then somehow, the universe brought me Rachel, the owner of Cyclebar, which is an indoor cycling club that hosts 45 minute classes on stationary bikes.
Oh I know what you’re thinking. Seriously? I read this whole blog and you’re about to tell me to sign up at Cyclebar?
Nope. Not even close.
Battling those thoughts feels impossible until you actually prove to yourself that your brain is wrong. It’s been lying to you this whole time
What I will tell you is that next week it will be one year since I’ve taken a Xanax. I literally never thought I would be able to type that sentence. What I will also tell you is that it has very little to do with Cyclebar and everything to do with how intense exercise changed my brain. Remember all those other classes I tried? For me, they never pushed me to a place where I proved my thoughts wrong. When you have anxiety your brain is your biggest issue. It feeds you lies all day long about what you can’t do, how you’re not good enough, nothing is good enough. Battling those thoughts feels impossible until you actually prove to yourself that your brain is wrong. It’s been lying to you this whole time.
So in yoga, while I enjoyed it, when my brain said “pssst, Ashley, you suck at this. Everyone is looking at you. You’re not doing it right. They’re judging your Target brand pants. Your mat sucks” I would succumb to those beliefs and after 3-4 classes I’d stop coming. In boot camp it was usually the next day when my entire body ached from being sore that it would kick in “pssst Ashley, your body isn’t built for this, you might actually hurt yourself, you need to quit” And so, I would.
So when I clipped into my very first spin ride you can only imagine the thoughts that were swirling in my head. I started pedaling and as it became increasingly difficult, the evil thoughts poured in. Then, I did something I had never done before. I peddled harder. I pushed harder. I was out of breath and sweating but I didn’t care. I was so incredibly scared as the voices got louder and louder in my head that in what I can only describe as a Holy Spirit-Some kind of wonderful moment, I found myself so out of breath and focused that like never, ever, before my brain shut off.
And it stayed that way the whole 45 minutes. For every mile I rode, for every hill I climbed when I thought I couldn’t, I began to beat back the anxiety because I was literally proving it wrong with every pedal stroke. One for me, none for you brain.
Exercise has saved my life. Not to be dramatic here, but I literally mean that. I don’t know where I’d be right now if I hadn’t of found it.
Clinically speaking (see Dr. McDreamy word right there!) it’s the cardiovascular aspect of exercise that causes the endorphin rush which is what’s brought me back to life. It explains why the other classes never worked for me because I never pushed past comfortable. I stopped when it was hard. I eased up when I felt a tinge out of breath. I realize now it’s been a one on one battle with myself this entire time and I just found the cheat codes. Boom, I win.
Exercise has saved my life. Not to be dramatic here, but I literally mean that.
The actual exercise performed here is irrelevant. It’s finding the thing that makes you the most out of your mind, out of breath and then, you do it more. You do it harder. You show yourself that you can and will beat back the thoughts. Remind your brain that your heart will win every time. And I promise you, every time you do, you’ll be one step closer to being the kind of person your bathroom wall signs thinks you are.