Walking the Dogs (Stress Management)

Picture of a picnic table and some trees with late afternoon sun coming through them.

Took this pic on a walk in the Exchange last week.

I resist doing the things that are good for me. I hate the little voice that snarls and nags at me to eat well, exercise, keep my house clean, be polite, stand up straight, be silent, be nice, keep up appearances, worry about what the neighbours will think, don’t rock the boat. That fucking awful voice from the past mixing up the things that would really work for me with the things that harm and crush and make a life small.

Yesterday I got home from work in a foul mood. Work stuff, friend stuff, family stuff, and general anxiety and depression. You know those days? All I wanted to do was buy an armload of ripple chips and onion dip, and maybe a pail of ice cream. Because yeah, I’m a comfort eater. But I am too broke to blow money on junk food, and also I did manage to remember how it just makes me feel even worse afterward, after the joy of the actual eating is over.

It was very clear to me, as I stomped around the house trying not to angry-cry, that I needed to make myself a decent meal, do some art, go for a long walk with the dogs, spend some time tending the vegetable garden, anything healthy and calming that moves me more toward the life I want to be living and away from the Bad Places. But it took me almost two hours to move from restless irritated pacing to actually putting on my shoes to go for a walk.

First I took The Brindle Dog to the little park at the end of the street. She was tired from her adventures the day before, so we just ambled along. She is sweet and old and creaky, and takes her time with sniffing the world. She is also very bad with other dogs, so walking with her means I have to come out of my head and pay attention to her and to the world around her.

Then I walked The Fluffy Dog, who is pretty much the world’s happiest and most social guy. He’s big and unruly, so walking him means leash training, and lots of sit-stays when people go by. So again, it takes me out of my head and makes me pay attention to the here and now. The Fluffy Dog likes to be given choices, so as we come to an intersection, he checks with me and I direct him or let him choose. Last night we did a long loop and ended up walking along the river behind the hospital, disturbing a mama goose and her fuzzy goslings. The sun was still hitting the water, blinding bright. The trees along the bank cast long shadows across our path at the top of the dyke. The Fluffy Dog was delighted to lift his leg quickly to each bush and post, and trot to the next.

By the time I had walked both dogs, I had been out for an hour and a half. My legs were starting to get sore (the totally unsuitable but very cute little Keds I was wearing didn’t help with that). And my mood was much improved. I was still mad and worried about specific things, but it was no longer a general stressy rage. Just being out with these dogs whom I love, walking through my neighbourhood, greeting other walkers, looking at people’s yards and gardens, seeing all the gorgeous tress, walking along the water, and coming back up to my own home… It was good to be out in the world rather than trapped in my head.

Afterward, I gave the dogs some fresh water (The Fluffy Dog is particularly fond of fresh water), washed the sunscreen off my face and arms, and sat down at the kitchen table to listen to music and draw while letting my mind float around the things I’m mad and stressed about. Not focussing on them, but just sitting with them calmly, and trying to trust that if I take care of myself and try to keep some perspective, some strategies will come to me.

It’s hard, though. It’s hard to take care of myself when the barrier to actually pulling on my shoes to go for a walk is so high. When I exercise or eat well or vacuum my house, I feel like I am still obeying those people from the past who also told me that I am not good enough, that I am unacceptable, that I am unworthy of respect or love, that I should shut up and obey, that whether or not my shirt is ironed is more important than my ideas and dreams. When I go for a walk, I find it very difficult to frame it as something that is good for me, because the people who always told me that also told me THEY were good for me, even as they ridiculed and dismissed me. It’s all mixed up in rage and shame and resentment.

So instead of telling myself a walk would be good for me, I have to tell myself “I’ll sleep so well tonight if I go for a long walk!” Or “The dogs would love to go down to the river today!” Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But last night, instead of waking at 3 am to stare at my anxieties in the dark, I slept for six solid hours. And that is a victory.

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