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Alli Harvey: Feeling unhinged? Go outside and play

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 8, 2017
  • Published November 8, 2017

A runner moves through the fog alongside Westchester Lagoon last week. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

In case you missed it, it's November. In Southcentral Alaska the ground is frozen, but not yet reliably snowy. We shaved off an hour from the morning to tack on to the night, so now it's lighter a tad earlier but pitch black by the time I leave work. I gained 10 pounds from Halloween candy. And, the holidays are almost upon us. Simmering family dynamics ready to flare with one offhand comment or slightly burned appetizer! Crowded airports and credit card debt! Hooray, winter is coming!

What, does that stress you out?

I got sick last month and took unexpected time off from exercising outdoors. After one week of being sick on the couch, I found myself grumpy from not having my normal routine. But after one full month of no outdoor exercise, I noticed I was not quite myself.

My computer shut down in the middle of something I was doing and I imagined a sledgehammer. My husband forgot something at the store and the hell-hath-no-fury hackles rose on the back of my neck. I shouted at a Gchat from a colleague and started crying on the phone with my sister.

"Unhinged much?" I asked myself. And promptly got back into an outdoor exercise routine to calm myself down.

Running, after all, is no stress. Or, rather, exercising outside provides me just the right amount of "fake" stress to bolster my ability to manage my life: irritants, curveballs, responsibilities and all. And if there is ever one time of year to be proactive about coping through chaos, it's right now, before the holidays.

Lucky me, research supports my anecdotal findings that seeking out stress through exercise is good for managing the real deal.

"The best way to get better at stress is to practice it," reads a recent New York Times article. "Scientists call this 'stress inoculation,' and just as exposure to a virus will inoculate you from contracting a virus a second time, regular exposure to small amounts of stress can inoculate you from the most detrimental effects of stress when you suffer a big stressful event in your life."

Stress inoculation, I imagine, is also supposed to help me find a calm place in my mind when times are tough (like, oh, say Dec. 25). This mental space, which I have journeyed (and hiked, biked and run) long and far to find, has seemed pretty elusive.

I've read books and articles where an athlete finds this pure state through intense exercise. At some point, it seems he or she is working so hard the mind just shuts down. Everything is white and calm, like the eye of a hurricane. This hasn't happened yet for me, at least not in the way I've read about it.

But I have finally found my peace, that clear center that helps me manage stress. To some extent it's been there all along. It's just not in one place or at one time, as I imagined it.

When I'm outside and moving around I experience not just one moment of clarity but a series of them. Fleeting and small bursts of joy, focus and even relaxation visit me during outdoor exercise. They don't announce themselves. There is no label on these feelings that says, "Hello, runner. I am a moment of clarity dawning on you in this split second so you may visit me during times of stress." Maybe that's why I didn't recognize them at first.

These moments, amid the stress and discomfort of working hard, add up to focal points I can reliably come back to when I need inspiration to keep going.

Being outdoors is crucial. By now it is well documented that being outside in natural settings does wonders for well being and managing overall stress. And it's not surprising — I don't need to remind anyone, even as I click-clack away on my keyboard, that I'm still a creature defined by centuries of the natural world. My DNA is carved by trees and land, not by my laptop. (Yet.)

When I notice my heart rate spiking, or the heat rising in my face, I know it's adrenaline and cortisol working together to serve ancestor-me as we flee a predator. Thing is, in my day-to-day life an email is not actually going to leap up and attack me. And, by training and becoming attuned to my body through outdoor exercise, it's easier to notice when these reactionary spikes occur, and manage my own reaction. Being outside calms me. Over time, noticing and managing my reactions helps keep my overall levels of stress down.

Of course, building a route of exercising outside takes access, and time. Participants in an American Psychology Association study cited a lack of time "as a barrier preventing them from creating lifestyle and behavior changes," although the same participants repeatedly attempted to make these changes. Sounds familiar to me, or probably anyone who's ever made a New Year's resolution.

What haunts me into continuing to exercise outdoors is the specter of knowing who I am when I don't. I'm easily that person who yells at her husband for forgetting cheese. My laptop could go flying out a window. And the tears. I don't need those to come too readily.

So I keep exercising outside, especially now. I know it's the best way to keep my head screwed on properly and keep my cool, even heading into the holidays.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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