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Lifting weights and my burnout

What training did and didn't do for me

After inquiring on my social media about topics I should cover on this blog, one popped up multiple times. Training with a burnout. I have to be honest and say that I initially wasn't really feeling it, because after wrestling with my own (mental) health throughout my late twenties, sharing it was usually a way of releasing pain. Catharsis. But I think I have made my peace, and most of the dust has settled. So, let's delve into it.

If you are reading this because you are struggling with your own mental health - or maybe a loved one is - then you've probably done your fare share of googling. 'Eat healthy', 'meditate', and 'see a fucking shrink' are the usual axioms on the list, along an exceptionally vague one: 'exercise'. And, since this blog is on the topic of training, I'd like to zoom in on the role of double-edged sword which training played during the process of coming to terms with my burnout and anxiety disorder.

photo by @wearebru

Let's rip the band-aid, and start with the downside. Training hard was integrated with my identity, to such an extent that it likely had been contributing to my fall from grace for a long time. An added stressor. Because not only was I known as 'that strong dude', I also made my living and paid my rent off this identity. Training was a necessity, a compulsion, and so were the need to improve and to be untouchable through physical prowess. So much for millennial masculinity.

When I initially got into trouble, I therefore went through lengths to keep the gain train going. Worrying about what exercise would still best hit my biceps, while the itinerary had already been laid out: Go cry on the couch after sitting out another panic attack. All reps beyond failure. Of course I'm making fun of it now, but I honestly can't remember how many times I woke up to a 'not-as-bad' day and ended up racing to the gym to literally lift up my self worth by slapping a stack of twenties on the barbell, and to only wallow in regret when afterwards the reckoning came. If only I had gone for a stroll in the park instead.

"While I struggled hard to disintegrate training from my identity, it was also a crutch to lean on."

But I spoke of a double-edged sword, mind you, so there was a positive side as well. While I struggled hard to disintegrate training from my identity, it was also a crutch to lean on. In first place the natural pain killing and euphoric effects of the exercise itself, of course. But much more on a secondary level. Because training got me out of the house, and kept me engaged. While for a long time I couldn't stand any social gatherings, I used the gym as a place to see some of my friends. The gym, then, instead of a place to get strong, was a place to feel a bit better, quiet the mind, and socialize. In other words: an anchor to my sanity.

Now that I'm writing this in retrospect, the question of course is: what has changed? Of course I have gone through a personal emotional quest. One that in essence has little to do with training, but has undeniably trickled down to my relationship with it. I think, for me, the biggest thing throughout the whole process was learning how to get from 'training' to 'exercising'. From punishment to nourishment. How to move for pleasure, pick my battles as to when to push it, and to also be okay with it when it just isn't there.

I'm glad I kept strength training, but I realize that things didn't change until I learned those lessons of compassion and leniency to myself. Until it really sank in that hard training is a costly investment. There is much to be gained from this investment, both in the obvious physical sense, as in a way of providing purpose. But I no longer believe in unconditionally whipping one's ass for the sake of improvement. Of course it is an attitude that can bring about many medals and achievements, but there is a point where self-construction can become self-destruction.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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