When Good Things Happen to Bad Habits

Cooking up good habits can be a long, frustrating and disheartening process. Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Nahid Nowrozi shares her best methods to break bad habits while keeping your self-confidence intact.

“A bad habit never disappears miraculously, it’s an undo-it-yourself project.” 

-Abigail Van Buren

It is crazy to me that a person’s mind can be so strong and yet so fragile and vulnerable when it comes to lifestyle changes. We’ve all struggled with feeling guilty after spending too much time on our phones instead of being productive, especially during quarantine when being busy felt like an unpleasant option. We all know that during this COVID situation it has been difficult to start new things, but there must still be ways to improve ourselves, right? I am in good health, I study, I exercise, I tutor and I volunteer, but it is still easy for me to fall into bad habits. Usually, the feeling of guilt is strong enough for me to never do something bad again.

But why do I keep indulging in the same bad habits?

Studies say that bad habits are mostly caused by stress, boredom and deep-rooted issues. The reason bad habits exist is that they provide some type of benefit in your life: usually pleasure, comfort or satisfaction. That’s why it’s difficult to put an end to them quickly.

Then how do I change this situation?

I start by focusing on why I want to change a bad habit. Generally, it’s because the consequences affect my well-being. My behavior around other people can also become unpleasant. For example, as a student, sometimes I have to sacrifice a few hours of sleep to finish projects. Sleep is something very valuable and beneficial for me, and I have to prioritize it. We have to remind ourselves constantly about unwanted consequences in order to not fall back into a habit and make the same mistake again. 

One thing that helped me a lot was making weekly challenges that turned into monthly challenges, until that behaviour became a good habit.  They say it takes anywhere from two weeks to even more than a year to form a good habit, depending on the person and the goal.

To improve my sleeping habits, I started by turning off all my electronics and forcing myself to read or journal instead.  This would tire my eyes, making me sleepy. Before this change, I would sleep at around 1:00 a.m. That slowly improved to 11:00 p.m. Every week I would try to sleep one hour earlier, which meant that I would wake up one hour earlier. In the morning, I would get my work done more efficiently.

Whenever I listen to people talk about their struggles with bad habits, I notice one thing that seems to cause a lot of problems: often people are not aware of how they truly feel, or how a habit affects them. If you don’t know how to feel, how are you supposed to choose your actions properly? If you only make yourself feel guilty, how are you supposed to consider your behaviour clearly?

If you are able to understand and accept your feelings, you will notice that there are so many new options that could help you. Learning to control your emotions and reflecting before repeating a habit will become invaluable, and you may notice that you don’t enjoy the habit as much as you think you do. For example, if I don’t sleep enough, I won’t be able to focus on my work during the day, I won’t be energetic and I will be very moody. In the long term, lack of sleep has been closely associated with hypertension, heart attacks and strokes, obesity, diabetes, depression and anxiety, decreased brain function, memory loss, weakened immune system, lower fertility rates and psychiatric disorders.

Imagining yourself succeeding without your old habits is a great way to motivate yourself. To make this happen, I distract myself from what triggers my bad habit by changing my environment and my surroundings. The more time you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to indulge in a bad habit. In my situation, I shouldn’t watch TV or scroll on my phone until I am done with schoolwork for that day. What can I do instead? Other than finishing my schoolwork, I could take a nap, exercise, volunteer or spend time with my family.

This approach can help us make a fresh start, but I know what you’re thinking: what if I return to my old habits?

The more you try to entirely suppress your thoughts, the more you’re likely to revert back to a bad habit. We all need to remember that bad habits don’t simply disappear on their own: we have to replace them with good ones. And remember, we’re only human, and it’s hard to always stick to one routine. You might fail a few times, but it doesn’t mean you’re striving for the impossible. Forgive yourself and be patient – give your mind the space to gradually control your behaviour, and good habits will follow.

How do you break a bad habit? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments section. You can also explore Low Entropy’s services for opportunities to discuss the difficulties of breaking bad habits in a supportive environment.

What I’ve Found While Searching for a Job

Unemployment is not only a source of rejection and self-doubt for many – it can also impact your very livelihood. With persistent optimism, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Catherine Pulgar shows us how she is navigating this difficult period in her own life.

The job search is so challenging, especially if you are a recent graduate. In my own experience, every time I read job posting – even an entry-level one – I doubt myself. “Am I qualified? Look at all the skills and experience they require…” 

I’m still working at it, as I’ve been searching for a marketing position since late July. Some days are better than others, due to the financial problems that come with being unemployed. However, job searching in itself has been an opportunity to learn skills. I’ve developed an increasingly calm approach to my job search, by reminding myself that I’ve been applying my skills in other valuable ways, including volunteering for two organizations.

But being grateful and cheerful in this situation can be challenging. For example, I had a fantastic interview a few weeks ago, but received an email later saying they moved forward with another candidate. It was disheartening and discouraging. However, I’ve found I must honour the emotions that come with these vulnerable experiences. This was not my first rejection, and I have been learning constructive ways to overcome the sad, angry or hopeless feelings that can arise in situations like this. 

Each person has their own way of handling rejection. It’s easier for some than others. In my case, since starting my job search journey, I have come up with ways to deal with the stress and its impact on my mental health.

  • Writing a Reflection Diary: This is a great technique where I write out my daily accomplishments, challenges, or tips for things that I may want to improve. I write at least three phrases almost every day about things in my life that I am grateful for. It helps me stay positive, just remembering the bright side of things, and that we can always find something positive, even in the most stressful moments!
  • Working Out: Even though I’m not a fanatic about working out every day, it is an excellent endorphin source that helps me clear my mind, relax and reach internal peace.
  • Meditating: Sometimes I practice meditation and yoga, because I feel these two activities are a great way to release stress and balance my body.

Still, during this time, I struggle with rejection. But I have also come across amazing people while on my job search path. People who have offered me advice, support and comfort. My partner Victor told me, “If you do not have this or that skill, study and master it.” Thanks to him and others, I have cultivated my perseverance to keep studying and learning. 

Remember that if you do not have a skill or experience, do not feel bad. Every person started from scratch until they became masters in their field.

Do you have any tips on how to handle the emotional toll that unemployment can bring? Your experiences and advice could make a big difference in someone’s journey – share them in the comments section, or at a Low Entropy meeting.

Three Easy Steps to Conquer Paralyzing Fear

New beginnings can be scary. Not everyone can let it go and dive into the unknown, but Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Anna Bernsteiner has advice for when you feel frozen by your anxieties.

Back when I was a kid, the most terrifying feeling on this planet was change. I remember one time when I was five years old, my parents replaced some furniture, including a sofa table I loved. That’s all it took to upset me incredibly: everything new was bad.

Of course, things are different now, but whenever I’m close to a really big change and have to make a decision, I feel that crippling fear of the unknown climbing up my body again. Not knowing what comes next and not knowing if my choice is the right one . . . new beginnings and chapters still frighten me.

However, I’m learning that the new and unknown is the one thing that makes us grow. It challenges us and what we think we know. It pushes us to self-development and greater adventures. Life doesn’t stop, and the most important lesson I have learned this year is to flow with whatever it throws at you.

So when you face change and feel anxious, try to remember that, whatever it might be, you have control over your life. No matter how drastic a decision might seem in the moment, think of how it might look in a few years. Is it still really that big of a deal? It could be a breakup, a new job or a move that’s giving you the chills and makes you scared. If you look at it from a distance, it won’t have as much power over you, and you will be less anxious and more open-minded to new beginnings. Try to zoom out for a moment and see the bigger picture of these nerve-racking situations.

Another method that helps me face the new is by writing it out, or talking about it with a friend. By explaining the problem and the fear attached, it takes away some of its intensity.

Last but not least, believe in yourself. Change is rarely comfortable. We have to go through some rough patches to grow. Learn to believe in who you are.\

Look at it this way: would you rather go into a job interview telling yourself you’re going to fail, or say to yourself, “I’m scared, I’m going to work hard and give my best. I can do it.” Either way, there is no certainty that you will get the job. But if you don’t believe in your capabilities, who will?

So whatever you are going through right now, whatever change or new challenge awaits you, stop for a minute and look at the bigger picture, talk to a friend about it and, most importantly, know you have the power to do anything – if you believe it.

Okay, so maybe it won’t be “easy” . . . but it’ll be worth it! Let us know in the comments or at a Low Entropy meeting how you build yourself up to take on the big changes in Life.

The Russian Resolution: Post-2020 Resilience and Resolve

The first weeks and months of a year are usually littered with abandoned New Year’s resolutions. We are, however, all capable of improving our circumstances. Sharing his tale of his first, frigid year in Russia, persevering through solitude and an inability to speak Russian, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Salem Ziani encourages us to make the most of our strengths, work hard and see our ambitions through to the end.

Like Forrest Gump’s mom always said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.” I think the year 2020 was a bit of bitter-tasting chocolate for almost all of us. We all confronted fear and anxiety. However, we must also be grateful, because 2020 allowed us to think about our future plans, and to consider our resolutions for 2021.

This was the fourth New Year’s that I spent alone, far from my family. This past year was the hardest for me: I had just arrived in Russia, I knew nobody, I didn’t speak a word of Russian and, without a job, I found myself alone in the world.

I moved to Russia in September 2019 to study. From the beginning I did not like my program because it was not what I expected. As well, coming from the warm weather of the Mediterranean region, Russian winters were very unusual for me. Every day the temperature was -25C, and I had never experienced that.

The most difficult obstacle, however, was the fact that I didn’t speak Russian. I was seeking general employment in industries like restaurants and construction, but I couldn’t find anything because speaking Russian was a must to be hired. I really struggled trying to fit myself into jobs that didn’t suit me.

Then I asked myself: why am I doing this? I had existing skills that I wasn’t using to move forward and become stronger. I could do better. I reminded myself that I graduated with a master’s degree and speak four languages . . . I just needed to learn another one. So I learned the Russian language in three months.

Unfortunately, just as I was building momentum, the pandemic hit, the lockdown started and life became harder again. I remember being very worried about my family, who were so far away from me. Were they healthy? Were they safe?

I was stuck in Russia, with everything around me stopped, but I didn’t give up. I found a teaching job online, taking advantage of my knowledge of several languages. Today, I am among the best teachers of the group. I am grateful for everyone who helped me get through that period and reach the place where I am now.

There is a saying that the tragedy of life is not to aim for the top and miss, but to aim for the bottom and touch it. This year, let’s take the chance of being different. Stop listening to the useless little voices that surround us: let’s dream big. Let’s do it our own way by capitalizing on our talents, our strengths and our advantages. Being different can be a source of energy and progress, and realizing this can unlock happiness.

A lot of people wait until New Year’s Eve to make a resolution and then give up from the first day. Many resolutions are wishes that require hard work and persistence: like caring for a flower, you have to enrich the soil, water the plant and be patient. And even in failure, every day is a new chance to move forward. We don’t have to wait until January of each year to make our lives better.

My wish is that, in 2021, all of us get the best-tasting chocolate. Happy New Year, everyone.

Share your resolutions with us (New Year’s or otherwise) in the comments, or tell us other ways in which you’ve pushed forward and upgraded your life. Better yet, start 2021 right with positivity, encouragement and empathy in one of our Low Entropy meetings.

Gym Class: What Weightlifting Taught Me About Productivity

With muscle, iron and insight, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Siddharth Bala forged valuable lessons in self-improvement.

There is no question that working out can impact your mental health in many positive ways.

A weightlifting concept that turned my life around is progressive overload. The idea is that, as a novice weightlifter, you start by lifting small. The next week you lift a bit more, and then more, until you reach your peak potential. The key word here is “progress”: it doesn’t matter where you start; you just increase the intensity of your workouts on a regular basis.

Here are three life lessons I took away from the progressive overload concept:

1) Start Small: After a long hiatus from my gym routine, I was shocked to see much of my strength decrease. I wasn’t able to lift as heavy as before and was constantly out of breath. I had to start somewhere, and I disappointedly started from ground zero with really light weights. This proved to be a blessing in disguise, as within no time, I could feel myself getting a little stronger and lifting slightly heavier. From the progress I was making, I got an idea. I started inculcating this belief in my daily life as well. If I wanted to get more organized, I started small by cleaning the house just once a week. I wanted to improve my networking skills, so I started by meeting one professional a month. This made me brave enough to try new things without feeling anxious or nervous.

2) Progress Responsibly and Steadily: We often find success in a new habit we develop and become zealous and excited to quickly take it to the next level. Once I had noticed myself gaining a little bit of muscle, I overestimated my strength and began lifting weight that was a lot heavier. Initially, my excitement produced a lot of energy and I was able to manage and lift the heavy weight, but soon enough the excitement died off. I got tired easily and went back to lifting lighter. Seeing myself go backwards, I experienced that familiar feeling of disappointment once more. To recoup, I began lifting light again. Except this time, I progressed at a slow, yet steady rate. This made me feel both comfortable and proud, as I was still progressing. I decided to incorporate this into my plan to develop a solid work ethic: I started with adding just one additional task a month. This way I had enough time to become efficient in my existing list of tasks and kept my stress levels under control by increasing my responsibilities in a steady and stable manner.

3) Set Up SMART Goals: SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time bound. Like the acronym suggests, the goals must be specific, achievable and must include a time frame in which you can work on them. In my workout routine, I regularly set up fitness goals that I want to achieve. All of these goals have a clear number and timeline attached to them. My most recent goal is to be able to run 12 km under one hour by January 31, 2021. I can always gauge my performance relative to the timeline in this goal, to see if I am on track. If need be, it is also easy to adjust these numbers and timelines. By incorporating such a setup into my daily life, I find it easier to prioritize and manage time.

How has fitness improved your daily life, and what lessons have you learned while working out? Head over to our comments section or drop in on a Low Entropy meetup to let us know!

Pandemic Life, Inside and Out

In his exploration of contrasting experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Mike Vaness shows how gratitude can be gleaned from others’ perspectives.

The alarm comes to life, and your eyes reluctantly open. The room slowly comes into focus as you slam your hand down on the snooze button. The bright red pixelated time stares back at you: 6:30 a.m. You know you need to get up. You should start your morning, but lately it has been getting harder and harder to push yourself out of bed. You don’t really want to face the world. Perhaps your hesitation comes from the colder weather and dark mornings, making the warm bed much more appealing than anywhere else. More likely, it’s your growing concern about going out during a pandemic. You don’t want to leave this bubble of safety and comfort, but you also want to keep your job, so you don’t really have a choice. Your partner is still fast asleep: they work from home now, so they always get to sleep a bit longer. Jealousy bubbles inside you, but you swallow it down as you step away from your partner and start your automatic morning routines and rituals. Your partner arises for a sleepy goodbye, and for yet another day you step out to brave this strange world. You look back as the door clicks shut, already yearning for the warm reassurance and safety of home. They’re so lucky.

**********

The alarm goes off like a siren, and though you are awake, you keep your eyes tightly shut. Your partner dawdles for a few minutes before finally slinking out of bed to prepare for their day, but you remain still, cozily embraced by the thick duvet . . . you don’t really want to face yet another day of the same things, within the same walls . . . 

With a start, you awaken for the second time – when did you fall back asleep? Your partner is about to leave for the day. You pull yourself together to see them out. Not only will you miss their company, but this ritualistic goodbye is one of the more reliable methods for getting you out of bed. Motivation has become a scarce commodity, and you don’t foresee any new stimuli helping you through your day anytime soon. You shut the door behind your partner and turn to the same walls, the same furniture, the same decor you have seen day after day. You are growing increasingly weary of this monotony: the same computer screen and the same desk in your makeshift living room office. The bitter taste of envy coats your tongue as you think about your partner’s day. They can leave the house and go out into the bright, wide world. You yearn for the fresh air and freedom, the company and companionship of colleagues and clients – anything that could break this mind-numbing routine. They’re so lucky.

**********

Which of these scenarios speaks more to you? In conversations with my friends and family, I’ve found that our households have become all too familiar with this break in perspectives between partners – while one’s routine has remained mostly consistent, the pandemic has completely changed the other’s daily life. Even if your routine is familiar, with your work and commute fully operational, now it feels like maintaining this life places you in harm’s way. If you have either lost your job or transitioned to working from home, sheltering from COVID-19 feels, by now, like being trapped in a cage. Each situation comes with pros and cons, but no matter which day you are experiencing, the alternative always seems more appealing. The pandemic has put everyone into uniquely challenging positions; we have to deal with whatever hand we have been dealt. 

Businesses need to work harder than ever to stay open. In many cases, working from home is not possible. We’ve heard of “front line workers”: employees who are required to still go out into the world with the added challenge of keeping themselves, their colleagues, and their clients safe. The added responsibility can be anywhere from concerning to downright scary, as you are reliant on the public to do their duty and meet these same responsibilities. It can be hard to trust strangers, when you witness people disregarding the directions from our leading health professionals as soon as you walk outside or turn on the news. Going to work with the public makes me feel like I’m taking unnecessary risks, and there have been times I wished for a harsher lockdown so that I could find a safe haven at home.

Meanwhile, my partner was laid off when their office permanently shut down. The sudden loss of your environment outside the home can really affect your mental wellbeing – your home may be comfortable, but soon the lack of company and outside stimuli becomes boring and depressing. At the same time, the news is full of fear, so the outside world has become so unfamiliar and dangerous that even going out for exercise and basic essentials seems like too much of a risk. What is your motivation for the day? You are trapped inside a comfortable cage, and the walls that you found relaxing, comforting, and safe are now the source of your malaise. Working from home, there is no longer any separation between your place of rest and a place of work. It’s even harder to disconnect from the workday, often leading to longer work hours and added stress.  

Please remember that we are all getting through this pandemic together. While everyone’s situation is different, it’s as they say: the grass is always greener on the other side. There are always good things to find and appreciate, no matter where you find yourself in life. Your work may be riskier than your home, but at least you are able to get outside and interact with people. If you are at home, you have gained safety and security. No matter what you are going through, there are others who are going through the same, so don’t be afraid to reach out to friends or loved ones. We are all in this together.

How do you remind yourself to look at the bright side of life? Bring your life lessons and stories to a Low Entropy meeting, or share your insight in the comments section – and definitely stay safe and healthy out there!

It’s (Still) a Wonderful Life

It’s free, priceless, and good for the soul: this festive season, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Catherine Pulgar reminds us to give ourselves the gift of gratitude.

Christmas Christmas!!!

 I know that I am not the only one eagerly anticipating the most beautiful time of the year. At least for me, Christmas represents love, family, and friendship. I know 2020 has been a challenging year, nowhere near the one we all hoped for in the final minutes of 2019. However, Christmas has always been a perfect moment to reflect on the past year and remind ourselves to feel gratitude.  

I’m grateful that my family is safe and healthy in a year such as this. Even though they live in another country and won’t be travelling to visit me in Canada anytime soon, I’m just happy we will have time together in the years to come. 

Christmas is the most memorable season for me. Since I was a little girl, I remember my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins gathering together to celebrate the season. I grew up playing with my cousins and waiting for Santa Claus every December 24th. Sadly, for the past six years, we have not been able to keep this tradition. Due to political problems in our home country of Venezuela, most of my family emigrated across the globe, to places like the U.S., Peru, Argentina, Chile, and Europe. I know how difficult it is to celebrate holidays alone or differently. 

This year Christmas looks different for everybody due to the current world situation, but this will not be forever. A new year is coming full of unique moments. My message to every person reading this post is to stay safe this holiday: it may look different or be more uncomfortable than previous years, but it will not remain this way. New Christmases will come, full of family and friends, and with a lot of food and eggnog.

In my case, I’m working to set up everything I need to have a tremendous Christmas. I’m planning a Zoom meeting with my family, I’m buying ingredients to prepare my traditional food, and I’m grateful that I’m healthy enough to do this with them. 

I hope that you have a fantastic Christmas season.

If you find yourself struggling this time of year, here are some coping strategies, and please don’t hesitate to reach out to individuals and organizations who can offer you emotional support.

From all of us here at Low Entropy, we wish you the happiest of holidays and a brilliant new year.

Hiking Uphill: Depression and the Importance of Pushing Forward

Mired in depression, Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Kathy Woudzia found herself inspired by a tough hike and an iconic slogan.

There has been a dark cloud hovering over me for the past several weeks. Sometimes, it immobilizes me. Writing is hard.

It amazes me that my mind is so much more powerful than my physical self: I am capable of pushing my body to extreme limits through exercise, yet there are days my mind prevents me from not only completing, but even starting the least physically taxing activity. Lately, I have little interest in doing anything.

Though COVID-19 has certainly made life more challenging, I think a part of this depression stems from my new life as an empty nester. Kids – all moved out. Husband – gone. I built my life around family, and now they don’t need me anymore. What is a person who gave up their career for family to do during a pandemic?

Volunteer work is next to impossible to find. What little there is, is online, and so solitary. A job? Who’s going to hire someone who left the workforce more than 18 years ago? I built a life around cooking, cleaning, looking after kids, shopping and working out. With only myself to look after, there is no longer a need – much less a desire – to do any of those past activities, with the exception of exercising. 

I awake in the morning with a pit of anxiety in my stomach. What am I going to do to fill all the hours the day has to offer? That anxiety spirals into a well of depression, where I am no longer motivated to do some of the things I used to love to do: reading, writing, and even exercising become nearly impossible. Without these activities, I spiral deeper into depression – it’s a vicious cycle.

When I do have an activity planned, I find it difficult to follow through. I find myself partaking in compulsive behaviours that are detrimental to my health. I overeat, for example, only to immediately regret it, something I never did six months ago.

My mind is in a haze most of the time. I have no personality, and nothing to say because I don’t do anything meaningful all day long. I used to be the talkative one in the room; now I don’t have anything to contribute to the conversation.

I’ve been listening to audiobooks on mental toughness that encourage me to do activities that I know will make me feel better afterwards, so I signed up for a Saturday group hike. Hiking is a physical test, but believe me, it took all of my mental strength to get there.

Even though I knew I was more than physically capable of completing the climb, mentally I was not prepared. I awoke at 6 a.m. to ready myself for this event. I began with meditation. Then, three impulsive cups of coffee. I begrudgingly packed my backpack in a fog of self doubt. Worried I was forgetting something, I packed and repacked my bag several times. I took my dog out for his morning walk, and when we returned home I felt frozen to the spot. Minutes turned into an hour . . . it was time to go. I knew that if I didn’t get in my car at that moment, I would miss the hike, so I took on the attitude that Nike is so famously known for: just do it.

I arrived on time at the base of Grouse Mountain, gathering with a group of 25 hikers from meetup.com. I immediately felt better; just knowing I’d gotten myself up there was a major feat. The leader decided to take a difficult new route called the Flint & Feather Trail. I had been hiking the regular Grouse Grind during the summer, so this was a welcome change. It was challenging and exhilarating, and the views were spectacular. I had a lot of fun and was happy I partook in it. When we finished, I felt intoxicated with euphoria and proud that I had mustered the mental courage to join the group.  

Mental health is a difficult thing. Struggling through depression is far more arduous than anything physical that I have had to endure. Mental toughness means overcoming the voices in your head that tell you that you can’t do something. Physically, your body can do anything, but if those voices make you feel incapable, they can leave you mentally paralyzed. I have to avoid overthinking things every minute of every day, and in everything I try to do. It has been a challenge, but for me, the most important step is, truly, to just do it.

Let us know in the comments which activities bring positivity to your day, or better yet, drop in on a Low Entropy virtual meet-up to join others as we trek along life’s winding trails.

Kathy Woudzia ascends one of the rocky cliffs on the Flint & Feather Trail.

It’s Okay if You’re Not Okay

Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Gurleen Mann, shares the moment she opened up about her mental health struggles, and how she learned to trust those who cared about her.

I’ve had depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. As someone who comes from a family and cultural background where mental health is not something you discuss aloud, I always felt alone in my struggle. I always felt the need to mask my issues to avoid being stigmatized. My smile would often be the brightest in the room so that no one would be able to see how lifeless I felt inside. I kept to myself, my head always in a book, never letting anyone get close enough to take a peek inside my mind. This came easy to me because I was high-functioning most of the time, doing well in school and extracurriculars, so no one ever really noticed that I didn’t feel okay. 

Whenever I was debilitated by my anxiety or depression and couldn’t make it to school, work, or a commitment with friends, I would just say “I’m sick,” rather than admitting that my mental health was suffering. I could never ask for a “mental health break”, because just saying the words “mental health” seemed like too much information. For years, I silently suffered while maintaining this facade of happiness. 

It wasn’t until one day, about six years ago, that I finally opened up. I was at a particularly low point and finding it more and more exhausting to hide how I felt. I had just driven myself and one of my best friends to soccer practice. As I was getting out of the car, I dropped my cell phone, and the screen cracked. I don’t know why that moment was the turning point for me, but it was. I picked up my broken phone and, before I knew it, I was crying.

My friend told me not to worry and that I could get the screen replaced. Through tears, I told her I wasn’t crying because my phone was broken, but because I was. I remember finally saying the words “I am not okay.” I told her how sad and hopeless I felt, and how difficult it was to continue to keep things inside me. My friend said the words I’d needed to hear this whole time: “It’s okay if you’re not okay.” She normalized my experience and provided the emotional support I needed. She suggested I go to counselling, which I agreed to try. 

Gradually, I opened up to all my trusted friends and my mental health was no longer a secret – I finally started getting the help I needed. It was a while before I mustered up the courage to sit down with my family and explain what was going on with me, but eventually, I did. They didn’t quite understand at first, but that was okay – I knew it would take time. The important thing was for me to speak up, because the only thing worse than having depression and anxiety was having to hide it.

What I’d like to share with others who are struggling to acknowledge and speak out about their mental health, particularly due to cultural stigma, is that it’s important to not keep it a secret, because problems grow in the dark. When we’re ashamed of our mental health and hide how we’re feeling, we suffer alone and we suffer more than we need to. When we talk about how we’re feeling, even to just one trusted friend, we can find the support and acceptance needed to fight our demons. So please remember: there is nothing to be ashamed of! It’s okay if you’re not okay.

Is there something weighing on your mind or your heart? Low Entropy offers a range of Services to help you explore your thoughts and feelings in a supportive, inclusive environment.

Physical Activity as a Coping Mechanism: My Life Journey

Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Kathy Woudzia shares the positive, lasting impact of exercise on both her physical and mental health.

Please note that this article discusses relationship abuse and substance use.

I have spent the past 50+ years with many ups and downs. With more downs than ups, I’ve found constancy and solace in physical activity and exercise. I grew up in the small farming and summer resort town of Osoyoos, BC. My immigrant parents escaped penniless from Slovenia to Canada to find a better life. Dad was in the business of purchasing land and building homes. Mom was working hard at the fruit packing plant. We were lucky Dad had the foresight to purchase a large piece of land on Osoyoos Lake where he built our first home. In those days, land was cheap, so though we appeared rich owning lake property, we were truly anything but.

As children, we spent our days swimming in the lake, playing in the sand, and riding second-hand bikes that were far too large for our small statures. Although more time went into biking accidents than actual riding, we always climbed back onto the seats triumphantly. When Dad saved enough money, he bought a used ski boat so my brother and I could learn water skiing. The boat was constantly breaking down at the most inopportune moments, including the middle of the lake, so many days we were paddling to shore rather than skiing. When we became proficient at two skis, Dad insisted we try one. While most people learn to slalom ski by dropping a ski once already in the upright riding position, Dad was adamant we learn from the more challenging one ski, deep water, start. After weeks of practicing, my brother and I succeeded on the same day, greatly pleasing Dad. In the winter months, we skated on the frozen lake, where Dad spent his scarce free time clearing snow for hockey games on great spans of ice. He bought us snow skis so we could ski on our local mountain, too. Growing up, I never thought of these activities as fitness; it was just life. In hindsight, they were my first introductions to the amazing psychological benefits of exercise.

Dad was a control freak who dominated every aspect of my life. I was his project. That meant straight As in tough academic courses. I coped, during these rigorous senior high school years,with cannabis use. Growing up, I did not see myself as athletically inclined. I simply wasn’t doing the kinds of things typical athletes did. I was a second-string basketball player and a third-string field hockey player. My brother was a fourth-string hockey player. In order to escape the pressures of academics, I enrolled in what I presumed would be the easiest course: PE 12, or 12th Grade Physical Education. Once I understood that the opportunities my parents gave us as children were, in fact, a form of physical exercise, I came to the realization that physical activity was not only fun, but powerful for coping in life. It was in PE 12 that I learned about the freeing power of distance running as a coping mechanism. Running was the antidote to an overbearing father.

By the age of 19 I met Joe. I escaped the control of my father by marrying this man who was abusive and yes, controlling. Before the age of 26, I gave birth to three children. Due to his struggles with alcoholism, Joe was neglectful in raising our children, while his abusive nature made it more difficult to parent than if he had left us entirely. In order to cope, I went back to what I knew best: running and cycling. In the early hours of the morning, while my children and husband were asleep, I would lace up my running shoes and go for a beautiful 10k run. If just for an hour, I felt a sense of freedom on those daily runs where there were no restraints on me or my life. The high I felt from the running endorphins enabled me to carry on with each day.

After birthing my third child, I developed lymphedema in my left leg: a physically and emotionally debilitating disease. I was being challenged and controlled yet again, as the disease caused extreme swelling in my leg. I wore a support garment, which made me feel self-conscious. Doctors told me that any and all forms of exercise may worsen the lymphedema. Back then, lymphedema studies were the wild west and my physicians hardly knew how to treat me. My entire world was crashing down. The anxiety was relentless. I went through a period of deep depression until I determined that I could not accept this fate. Knowledge is power and I took initiative by educating myself about lymphedema. I searched for a physician who supported fitness as an invaluable coping mechanism. I implored him to write me a letter as proof that I could, in fact, continue to keep physical activity in my life. I resumed my running and cycling. These activities provided me a renewed sense of freedom: freedom to move and move on; to accept my disease. In fact, when you read about lymphedema now, there is great emphasis put on physical activity in treatment of the affected limb, as well as emotional coping.

The ups and downs have continued. I went through divorce, remarriage, the birth of another child, and then a big blow when one of my daughters and her partner became addicted to OxyContin and later, heroin. My granddaughter, their child, was born addicted to opioids. Three years later, my daughter succumbed to her illness and passed away of an accidental overdose. One year afterwards, my brother and only sibling passed away from complications due to alcoholism. Six months later, my second marriage deteriorated, and I now find myself living alone. Throughout these years, there was one thing I could always count on: whatever you call it, physical activity, exercise, or fitness, it always comes to my rescue. I’ve hiked, walked, ran, cycled, lifted weights, and attended spinning, aerobics, and yoga classes. You name the fitness activity, I have done it. Moving my body, whether a few minutes per day or a few times per week, provides a sense of freedom and a break from the overwhelming challenges life offers.

Enter COVID-19: I find myself alone in an apartment with very few connections. My life, once completely enveloped in the raising of children, is that no longer. Three of my children left home, as they are now grown up and leading their own lives, while one is no longer with us. I find myself very lonely. I gave up a career and friends to raise my children. Now I find myself with spans of time and nothing to do. In addition, COVID-19 has turned the lives of many upside down, with social distancing putting many of us in the precarious position of further social isolation. Despite these challenges, I remember that I have complete control over one important aspect of my life; what remains a constant in my life and something that I can always count on is fitness.

According to American psychiatrist Dr. William Glasser, our behaviour and choices are determined by the five following genetically driven needs: survival (food, shelter, security, breathing, personal safety), belonging/love, power (significance, competence, control), fun (learning), and freedom (autonomy). Fitness has the ability to fill those voids. You might ask how fitness can possibly do this: Love/belonging? Join a gym, a live fitness streaming group, or an online meetup group. Power? Fitness can give you a feeling of strength and confidence to overcome difficult situations as they arise. Fun? Fitness can be fun if you choose something you love. If you hate running, don’t run. Find something you love to do and you’ll keep doing it. Freedom? It is freeing to make your own choices, whether big or small, and fitness is that completely personal choice.

There have been many days where, in spite of years of knowing that each time I exercise, I feel better, I could not bring myself to perform an activity. I was worried I would not be able to finish that 10k run, or work hard enough on my bike. But I have also given myself permission to fail. I give myself a choice to attempt the activity for five minutes, and if I am not “feeling it”, I give myself permission to stop. Inevitably, I end up enjoying myself, immersed in sweat and hard work. Between the endorphine release and feelings of accomplishment, I feel ready to continue on with the rest of my day and the challenges life has to offer. Whatever the emptiness in your life, fitness is a way to gain your control back.

What role does fitness play in your life? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments section, or join one of Low Entropy’s free personal development meetings to learn from and connect with others who have navigated their own difficult situations.