Walk it off

Originally published on The Pastry Box December 23, 2015.

In March of 2012 I had a genuine bona fide nervous breakdown complete with violent behavior and suicidal ideation.

I was lucky.* One part of that luck came during a a crisis call with an on-call psychiatrist. When I said, “I don’t know what to do with all these emotions,” he said, “Go for a walk. Keep walking until you feel better.”

I am a couch potato. When my parents told me to go outside and play, I took a book. My fastest mile in high school was 9 minutes, and 16 minutes was nomal for me. The only time in my life I walked regularly was college and that’s because everything was in different buildings. Besides, exercise is for jocks and sports people, not a geek like me.

On the other hand, what else did I have to do? And what else could I do? When in crisis, “follow the doctor’s orders” is usually a good start. So I walked.

I walked about a mile a day the first week, and then it grew to two to three miles a day, and over the months it grew to walking half marathons. Some months I might walk 2-3 half marathons in 30 days (not in competition, just to walk) and other months I might walk 2-3 miles or less a week.

When I walk, I feel better. When I neglect my walking, I don’t notice anything for the first few weeks and then I start to wonder why my anti-anxiety med isn’t working, and then I come to my senses and start walking again.

When I start walking, I’m usually angry. Sometimes it’s at whatever has me riled up. Sometimes it’s at nothing at all. (Brain chemicals are fun that way! “Why are you so mad?” “Because that’s what the brain chemicals are doing right now!”) Many times I’m angry because I have to walk, and that means I can’t sit on my butt eating Snickers bars and playing Minecraft, which is a lot more comfortable.

I hate walking — well, I hate walking the first mile and a half. Sometime around the middle of mile 2 the brain chemicals in charge of “not hating everything” start to kick in and I actually start enjoying walking. By mile 3 I’ve hit my stride and I don’t start questioning my sanity again until sometime around mile 7 when my hips and back are beginning to remind me that I am not a 16 year old. At mile 9 I hate everything that ever lives. At mile 12 I just want to be done and at mile 13.1 I am amazed it’s over and I lived. (At mile 16 I want to cut my feet off, take a nap, and eat a burger the size of my head.)

I have never believed in the phrase “Walk it off”, as uttered by macho gym teachers and boys who just beaned me in the head with a football / basketball / dodgeball / etc. or as a solution to skinned knees, sprained wrists, twisted ankles, etc. that come from being a klutz trying to avoid said flying spheroids.

And I hate — hate — that something as simple as taking a half hour walk and drinking a bottle of water can change my mood. My body’s supposed to be in charge of my brain, not my brain in charge of my body. Even after three years I’m still not comfortable with the idea that “me” is defined as brain and body, and I’m not a computer lodged inside a meat suitcase.

But in matters of depression, anxiety, stress, anger, and other not-so-awesome emotions, I grudgingly and proudly admit it works way more often than not.

The fact is that the brain requires certain chemicals in certain ratios to work properly. My brain won’t hold those ratios without some kind of intervention. Walking not only helps me reset things when I’m out of balance in big ways, it also helps me maintain good levels when my biggest crisis is “I got toothpaste on my shirt”.

Here are some places you can walk if you need to:

  • Outside around your neighborhood
  • Outside on your corporate-provided walking path
  • Outside in the yard or on the road (but for pete’s sake do it safely).
  • In your house or gym or office or whatever on a treadmill or elliptical.
  • In your office building. (Walk the longest chunk of hallway — it probably leads to a stairwell — up the stairs, down the long chunk to another stairwell — and repeat until you’ve run out of floors. Then reverse.)
  • At the mall. My local mall is a 3-mile lap if I do both floors.
  • In your house, from the basement to the top floor and back.
  • From your kitchen to the living room to the dining room back to the kitchen. (If you don’t think tiny ridiculous laps are a thing, talk to anyone who owns a Fitbit who had like 200 steps to hit their number for the night when it was 11:30pm.)
  • Anywhere you want.

Here are some things you can do while walking.

  • Play Zombies, Run! Despite the title, there’s no actual requirement to run. **
  • Read. Yes, you can read and walk at the same time, especially on a quiet sidewalk or track. I’m currently working through Steinbeck’s East of Eden and if that can be read while walking pretty much anything else can.
  • Listen to audiobooks or podcasts if you’re so inclined.
  • Dictate your Great American Novel to your smartphone.
  • Talk to friends or family.
  • Work out the plans for how to do something creative not related to whatever’s pissing you off.
  • Get ice cream at a place at least 2 miles from your starting point.
  • Analyze why some landscape designs work and others don’t.
  • Count the trees

When walking for mental health, injuries are our enemy. Here are some tips for walking.

  • Get good running shoes from a place capable of analyzing your gait so you get injured less frequently.
  • Replace your shoes as often as you’re wearing out the tread. If you’ve worn the tread out, you’ve probably also broken down the padding on the inside, and not changing shoes at that point just invites more injuries.
  • Bring water. Always. Even if you think you’re hydrated. Because hey, water!
  • If you’re walking more than 3 miles or 1 hour, bring a snack. Runner-types call this “fueling” and I call it “not being hangry or passing out”.
  • Tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

To be honest, walking is not going to solve whatever problems sent me out on the walk. They’re also not a cure for mental health problems and nothing in here replaces talking to an actual doctor and seeing a counselor on a regular basis. But as “tools in the mental health toolbox” go, it’s one I keep on the top shelf.

* Some day I’ll write about all that luck but that’s not today.

I will say that a big piece of my luck came in the form of certain members of my family who had been down similar roads and had confided in me, and given me strict instructions on what to do when Shit Goes Wrong. For the record, those instructions were “Call me. And if I don’t answer, keep calling until I do. And if you can’t wait that long, here are other people you can call.”

We have a standing agreement we could call each other in case of mental health disaster That agreement includes “It doesn’t matter what time it is or where I am”, “No judgements during the crisis – first we get to where everyone’s safe.” and “When the crisis is over, everyone will follow up with the appropriate health provider”.

I’m not going to say it saved my life, but it sure as hell threw the odds in my favor. So if you have the opportunity to make an agreement like that with someone you trust, do it. »


** Zombies, Run! launched the week I had my nervous breakdown. That was another piece of luck on my part. I had a new game that required me to go outdoors and get sunshine while exercising, and I had a doctor whose orders consisted of “go outdoors and get sunshine while exercising”. Obviously I didn’t know I was going to melt down when I backed the kickstarter, but I am incredibly grateful that I had the right tools on hand at the exact right time to help motivate me to do the right things for my broken brain/body. »