Four Ways Exercise soothes Grief
Grief often affects our bodies as well as our spirits. My first inkling of the value of exercise to soothe grief came when my friend and faculty colleague, Jerry Sittser, lost his wife, mother, and daughter in one car accident. A few months later, in the aftermath of this unimaginable tragedy caused by a drunk driver, his brother-in-law insisted Jerry go skiing with him. Fresh mountain air, invigorating exercise, nature’s beauty, and male friendship all gave a lift to the devastating sorrow that engulfed his days. Eventually, Jerry developed such a passion for cross-country skiing that he created a three-week “Jan Term” class for university students at Tall Timber, a Presbyterian retreat in the Cascade mountains in Washington state. Here the students practiced a rhythm combining hours of daily skiing, the study of spiritual disciplines, and work. During these years, he also wrote A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief, a book that has emerged as a classic in Christian grief literature.
I thought of the power of physical exercise to soothe grief again while seeing the movie Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon). Numbed by grief after her beloved mother dies, Cheryl becomes aware of the futility of using drugs and casual sex to ease her profound despair. So this inexperienced hiker decides to take a 1100-mile solo walk for several months on the Pacific Crest Trail. Despite loneliness, fatigue, and body-bruising pain, she perseveres with the challenge of taking steps forward each day. This healing experience offered quiet times to reflect on her life’s direction, and gradually increased her physical strength and emotional confidence as she met her daily goals. She emerges from the debilitating shadow of grief with renewed abilities to pursue her professional craft as a writer, and with the capacity for commitments to love again through marriage and motherhood.
Obviously, few of us have the luxury or desire for a several months detour during a season of grief. Instead, we need to find ways to stay physically active within ordinary days. Our expansive hillside garden offered healing gifts in the early years after losing Krista. Digging, planting, transplanting, and preparing perennial and vegetable beds brought me outside during three seasons of the year. My spirit was renewed by the harbingers of hope that abound. Planting 200 brown bulbs in autumn dirt gave the spring reward of a field of yellow daffodils, a soothing site after winter’s frigid grip. Planting one six-inch sun-gold tomato in a ceramic patio pot in June led to hundreds of tasty cherry tomatoes from a four-foot plant by August. Such abundance, with just a little human effort, gave me courage to believe again in the goodness of the future. http://pilgrimagethroughloss.com/healing-garden…wers-peach-pie/
After profound shock and loss, disturbing physical reactions, such as insomnia, fatigue, loss of appetite, and vulnerability to illness, depression, or anxiety can affect our lives. Persons often speak of not even wanting to get up in the morning, let alone get up to exercise. No way! Yet, significant research demonstrates that regular physical exercise offers one tangible way to the greater sense of well-being. For some persons, it is equal or even more effective than the use of anti-depressant medication prescribed during grief (see New York Times article http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/31/prescribing-exercise-to-treat-depression/).
Four Ways Physical Exercise Soothes Grief
- Exercise involves an active choice towards positive emotional and physical health. During trauma, life often seems disorienting, even chaotic. Taking small steps daily towards healing, especially when we don’t feel like doing this, often gives us a regained sense of direction and purpose.
- Exercise often gives us a social network, whether through attending classes, joining teams, or simply finding a walking partner. This can be a lifeline back into community since grief often becomes isolating.
- Physical activity increases our sense of well-being, attested to by extensive mind-body research. The “runners high” simply refers to the reality that the release of endorphin hormones from exercise often improves our mood. With the accompanying blood flow to the brain, this also means we often focus better, an encouraging clarity of thought after a grief-induced mental fog.
- Many exercises, such as walking, running, hiking, gardening, cycling and others place us in the restorative realm of nature that also nurtures our spirits. Here’s an earlier blog on nature’s comfort http://pilgrimagethroughloss.com/next-blog/ and I’ll write more about this in the future!
In the exercise class I take twice-a-week at the YMCA, our instructor wore a t-shirt that boasted,
“The miracle is not that I finished, but that I started.”
I laughed when I saw this because every Tuesday and Thursday morning, my strong preference is to stay in our warm bed rather than get up early for the class. In the midst of doing core-strengthening planks, when my body quivers in protest, it’s easy to wonder, “why do this?” But afterwards, it always feels good to have ignored my natural resistance.
Are there ways you found exercise helpful in your pilgrimage? What worked best for you? What didn’t?
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