Can’t Stop: Physical Exhaustion and Mental Health

Recently, on a mountain biking Facebook group I’m part of, someone mentioned getting hurt because they didn’t listen to their body on a particular day; they went out and rode when they should have listened to their body and stayed home, taken the day off.  I wrote a reply, relating my two broken elbows the previous Fall.  Then, someone asked a question that I really wasn’t expecting: “What were the signs your body was giving you on that day”?  I wrote about that here, so I won’t go through it all again.  Then, as now, it seems so obvious that I should have taken the day off.  The question posed by that group member, though, has forced me to take another look back at why I went out again that day.  In part, my conclusion in that first blog post was that I simply had to power through, because, as someone who struggles with mental health, those days when you most want to sit around and do nothing are the days when you most need to get out.  As I continue to self-reflect and improve upon and build healthy habits, I’m coming to understand that telling the difference between having a bad mental health day and a day where my body needs a break can sometimes be confusing.  That is to say, “Am I feeling blah because I’m in a funk, or am I feeling blah because I’ve pushed hard on the trails this week?”  In this blog post I want to explore the question of how we might learn to separate the mind from the body.  Several essays on this blog make the opposite move: to try to restore or overcome the distinction between mind/body.  However, I’ve come to discover that, for me, and perhaps others who struggle with mental health issues, there sometimes needs to be a distinction. 

When we begin to see some progress in the battle to overcome bad habits, addiction, trauma, we fear that any reprieve or cessation of forward momentum may lead to a relapse, an undoing of all the good we have done up to this point.  We’ve established a pattern of behaviors beneficial to our mental health through the creation of and adherence to healthy routines.  For those who struggle with mental health and manage to find solutions and routines that work for them, a lapse in that routine may be a terrifying prospect.  The routine motivates; the routine works; the routine produces results.  Taking a day off, or slipping out of the routine might mean that everything will fall apart, not for a day, or two, but perhaps weeks or months.  Suffice it to say, that when your mind has been the problem for so long, it’s difficult to learn to listen to anything else. 

Photo by Inzmam Khan on

It might be helpful to analyze the week that’s been.  How hard have I physically pushed myself?  How much reading have I done for pleasure vs. what I might consider work?  How much have I written or produced?  Even if I’m not feeling particularly tired or sore, should I take a day off?  That might be okay.  I might even add a rest day, or a zero day to my routine.  That could be very helpful.  (Somewhere, deep down, I know this, but it’s hard to remember and stick to due to the aforementioned fears of slipping down into the abyss.)  If I’m questioning whether I should go out or not it might be helpful not only to physically right down or analyze the week that’s been, but also sit quietly and meditate on whether my mind or my body is sending signals.  Simply put, mindfulness needs to be more a part of the process.  

Physical and mental exhaustion, while different, may present similarly.  I haven’t quite figured this out yet; for instance, taking a walk or a ride can be invigorating, and serve as a much-needed reprieve from mental exhaustion.  How do I know when I need a rest from one (physical activity), but not the other (mental exertion)?  Or both?  For instance, I’m not always sore or exhausted after a long ride or hike.  Are soreness and exhaustion the only markers of needing a zero day, physically?  Some part of me says that “normal” people simply intuit this, and that the answer to that question should be self-evident.  But for me (and others like me, perhaps?), it’s much more complicated.  The demons are always at your back, waiting for the slightest little hiccup.  Letting your guard down for too long might bring the forward momentum to a screeching halt.  How much down time can can safely be risked?  These are the questions I struggle with.

In retrospect, that I needed a break–last fall–seems the most obvious thing in the world.  I had been on a role, riding and/or hiking at regular intervals, nearly daily.  None of it very demanding, but over time my body was wearing down, in need of repair and respite.  At that time, I was unable to allow myself a day to recuperate.  I know that I fear that dark descent, but the nature of trauma tends to be that reactions to it are not rational.  To those who struggle with mental health, what’s “obvious” or “normal” to—what seems like—everyone else on Earth, may be the last thing on our minds. 

So here’s to being more mindful, and giving myself permission to take a day, with the understanding that rest needs to be part of a “normal” and healthy routine. 

Get out there.


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