Trying to find the off button

I’m fairly confident it’s clear from my last few posts that January Blues are a real thing, and I have had them. It’s strange how happy I am to see the arrival of February considering how little a change of month should mean. It’s like on your birthday when people ask you; ‘How do you feel? – another year older!’ When nothing magical has happened overnight to make you feel older, just a digit in your age has changed to mark the exact anniversary of the day you were born.

So, February should feel no different. All the worries and stresses of January are still here.

This month for me has been an emotional roller-coaster, to say the least. I’ve been grappling with my life goals, my job, and figuring out what I need to do next. Not just how to get there but what it actually is that I want to do. I’ve never been a victim of the January Blues until this year, and I think that’s down to pressures I’ve put on myself.

My Plan B’s have not been as good as I expected so now it’s time to focus on just a Plan. Not numbered, just my life plan. And with an overthinker and a worrier like me, that is terrifying. At my age, though I am happy with my accomplishments, I feel as though I’ve not had or achieved any long-term goals yet. And I know I’m still young and I have plenty of time, but if I don’t make a go at it now, I’ll live my life afraid to take a step in any direction, unable to make a decision because I haven’t had a chance to make any mistakes, or take a wrong turn and have to circle back.

Seeing as I took part in Dry January (See the post about that here) I’ve had to try and actually cope with any stress or worry I was feeling, instead of drowning it with a glass of wine. I know that makes me sound like an alcoholic, but I assure you I am not. Almost everyone can think of a time (or 10) that they’ve had a small drink to calm them down (or at least thought about it). After all, it works pretty well as a de-stressor.

So, to tackle this recent loss of a go-to de-stressor, I firstly turned to television and a cup of tea. I realised the hard way that this can only work sometimes. A day in front of the telly with unlimited tea and biscuits is extremely alluring, but mostly it made me feel worse because to truly enjoy a sofa day it either needs to be well deserved or at least your to-do list should be completed, and all your worries should be tucked away. It instead made me lethargic, irritable and feel even worse about the things I was originally stressed about because I had now procrastinated even more.

Then, when I enforced the television ban – I switched my concentration to reading and podcasts. I found that I was unable to be in the flat on my own without listening to something. Before that was television, so now it was going to have to be podcasts. And it was an improvement. I was able to go about my daily business without my eye constantly drifting toward the tv, and just listen and learn from these podcasts. Both reading and listening to podcasts definitely improved my levels of positivity and productivity – but only so far.

I still found I would get overwhelmed with the task at hand regularly – the task being what on earth I want to do for the rest of my life, and where I want to do it (starting small, I know). Whenever I would have these moments of distress, I was falling back into a bad pattern of curling up under a duvet and scrolling through the reams of social media at the click of a button. And that is probably the worst thing you can do when you have a bad mindset.

You are bombarded with people on their holidays, people drinking with friends or just the simple glorification of getting a coffee or taking a walk that made me feel like the ultimate failure. And what made it all worse – and I never thought I’d say this – was the shining sun.

When I lived in Edinburgh, it rained often, and the normal day was grey and miserable. So when a beautiful clear sky day came around it was celebrated and treasured. Outside terraces would be full, people would flock to the parks and drinking at any time of the day was applauded (no matter the temperature).

I constantly wished and pleaded for sunny days. This was a big factor in my idea to move to Spain. I thought better weather would equal a constantly good mood (naïve, I know). Fast forward 4 months and I’ve grasped that although cold, windy weather can seem depressing, that does not necessarily mean that bright sunny days improve your mood and leave you with a positive outlook on life. Some days yes, but other days when you feel completely unmotivated and unsure what to do- you look up and it’s as if the sun taunts you. It laughs and reminds you that a sunny day should be enough to cheer you up. When the weather is this dry and predictable, you should be up at the crack of dawn watching the sunrise and starting the day with a skip in your step.

On the mornings that I have no desire to leave my bed to face the demands of day-to-day living, and the sun begins to shine through my curtains, so strong that it’s simply unavoidable, I feel a strong sense of resentment toward that burning ball of fire that I used to celebrate at every opportunity. Now, it’s often the days that are overcast – cloudy but not dull, cold but not wintery, that I celebrate and feel at one with the world, as if it understands me, as if I’m back home.

Let’s sum up what we’ve learned. Television, podcasts, and reading are not always successful distractors from stress. Social media makes everything worse – because everyone wants you to believe their life is better than yours – and the sun is just arrogant and offensive at times. So, what have I used as a mood booster and calmer? – you can probably guess it by now – exercise.

I know, I know, what a cliché. You could have saved yourself the time of getting this far because everyone knows that exercise releases endorphins in your brain and blah blah blah.

But firstly, let’s look at my long unrequited relationship with exercise. In school, although I was considered thin, I was known as the ‘unfit one’. I never really did any sports or exercise other than the forced two hours of physical education in school. This didn’t seem to bother me because no matter what I ate I stayed the same size so why would I put myself through that?

Then as I got older and slightly wiser, I realised that weight is not the sole reason to engage in exercise – it’s about health (Yes, you knew that already). Upon this daunting awareness, I began frequenting the gym as often as I could, but this was mainly a distraction from the looming deadlines of my final years of university.

Once university finished and I no longer needed an excuse not to study, I effectively canceled my gym membership and moved to Edinburgh. Anyone who’s been to Scotland before who has seen the fatty foods and binge drinking can guess the obesity statistics. In 2017, 69% of people over the age of 16 in Scotland were considered overweight, and 26% of children were at the risk of being overweight.

As you can imagine, I never felt too much pressure to work out. Until beer happened. I was growing up and acquiring new tastes – growing past the boring flavours of a vodka soda lime and seeing the appeal of a cold frothy pint. And with many pints came extra weight and it was time to do something about it. I got a gym membership and a personal trainer and I was off. This lasted about 3 months. I paid for my gym membership for about a year after that and occasionally went. When I didn’t, I referred to the direct debit out of my bank as my ‘fat tax’.

For the rest of my time in Edinburgh, I occasionally went for runs, the gym, even swimming but nothing stuck, and it never enticed me. It was always a chore. Then I went traveling and although all the walking with an 18-kilo bag on my back and the casual hikes were adequate exercise I still felt unhealthy and unmotivated.

That brings us to here. Along with all the symptoms of my attempt at living like an adult here in Madrid has come a gym membership. It felt like more of a formality at first – settling down in a new city = get a gym membership.

Some days I would have bursts of motivation after seeing photos of immaculately built so-called ‘gym-bunnies’ on Instagram but by the time I got to the gym that feeling had been overtaken by a lack of confidence and intimidation of all the people in the gym that looked like they simply never left it.

I dutifully attended the gym 3-4 times a week for about 45 minutes (rigidly sticking to the 150 minutes a week guideline) but never really felt anything. It was still a chore.

As is expected January brings with it a rise in gym attendance and so was it in my case. I went more often and for longer, and actually worked out hard when I was there. And I started to actually feel the endorphins kicking in – not like before when I went to the gym unenthusiastically. I felt unexplainable happier, motivated and my head felt clearer.  And what makes it more powerful is that I have started going first thing in the morning.

For some people, it is difficult to fit in going first thing but for my schedule, it works a dream. As my classes start in the afternoon, I found it difficult to motivate myself to wake up early and be productive when I didn’t technically have to leave the flat until 2 or 3pm.

The morning time is usually when I am at my worst. I am tired, my bed has suddenly become the warmest and safest place on earth, the goddamn sun is taunting me through my curtains, and I have just wasted an hour of my morning scrolling through Instagram and now feel useless.

But now, I get up and go to the gym. I sweat it out and feel more awake. Don’t get me wrong, some days it feels impossible to go to the gym and I do just stay in bed until the last possible moment. But now I know – it’s not a myth. Going to the gym really does make it better and at least there’s comfort in knowing that it won’t make you feel worse (unless you focus on looking like everyone you see, or like the unrealistic people on Instagram) – and that guarantee is foggier with things like television, social media and the weather.

In our modern world, it’s easy to feel like you are too busy to exercise or that you’re just ‘not that type of person’. Recent fads on Instagram have created a ‘go hard or go home’ nature regarding exercise and make people in the middle who just want to exercise normally feel as though they shouldn’t bother. Don’t get bogged down by this, if I can do it, anyone (who is physically able) can.

I understand now that if I can’t see past instant gratification – and can’t even commit to going to the gym for a sometimes-painful half an hour in order to ensure that I feel ready for the day ahead – then how can I expect to plan and follow through any real long-term goals in my life?

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