The Epiphany That Freed Me from My Body Obsession

“Your body is precious. It is your vehicle for awakening. Treat it with care.” ~Buddha

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear or see the word fitness? Do you think of an Olympic power lifting athlete, gymnast, or swimmer? The way we interpret and respond to the word fitness is a driver of physical health, but also our mental health.

From a young age I associated health with fitness, which, to me, meant fitter is better. Society fed me the image of perfection. And so the chase of fitness became a moving target that could never be achieved.

“I am strong, I am healthy,” I thought. I saw my physique as evidence of my ever-improving health. My fatigue and sore muscles were the price to pay for optimal health, or so I believed.

Friends, family, folks at the gym, even strangers reaffirmed me by complimenting me on my body. This fueled my desire to continue “improving” my fitness.

Like a house, foundation cracks take time to become problematic. For a while the cracks may go unnoticed. But then one day, leaks from a heavy rain begin to appear.

Swapping nutrition for calorie-dense meals. Chugging shakes void of any enjoyment. Eating was becoming a chore and was no longer guided by my hunger, but instead by the precisely calculated macro nutrients needed to ensure I was meeting my calorie requirements to grow my muscles.

Physically, I looked good, but I didn’t feel good. “What is wrong with me?” I wondered. I began to search for answers.

Did I have low testosterone? Were there chemical imbalances that could be blamed for my insomnia, low mood, irritability, and anxiety?

We hear these things all the time: Exercise your way to a better mood! Exercise helps you sleep! A fit body equals a fit mind!

I ignored the cracks in the foundation for a while. It was easy given all the positive feedback I was receiving. I kept lying to myself: “This is happiness. I am happy!”

I travel a lot. I enjoy seeing other cultures and meeting people. However, travel previously presented a problem: deviation from my exercise routine, thus derailing my goal of improved fitness.

Even preparing for a trip became problematic. I’d find gyms at my destination and ensure the schedule or itinerary could accommodate.

I never considered that I had an underlying issue as it related to my exercise, fitness, and physique because, again, society and everyone around me were telling me I was healthy in spoken and unspoken ways.

The Cracks Begin to Worsen

Fitness is not exponential. In fact, it is quite the opposite. “Gains” are more easily acquired when starting out and have diminishing returns as time passes. Despite knowing this concept from a biological perspective, logic didn’t win the day.

Eventually, my time and energy yielded fewer tangible results. Maintaining what I had built took diligent planning in terms of nutrition and other activities. Simply stated, my physique started to rule my every move.

Still naïve to the reality of what was going on, I decided my hormones must have been out of whack. While my testosterone was on the low end, it wasn’t terribly out of range. Even still, I decided to leap into the world of TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) in hopes that this would give me the boost I needed. (Note: This was under the supervision of a physician.)

Again, the external affirmations began to flow. But something else happened, something more serious. I began paying the price for this new boost in the form of side effects.

Insight: The Side Effect I Needed

By now my life was entirely run by my desire for more “fitness.” But I began to wonder, “Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?” I then experienced somewhat of an epiphany.

The side effects and challenges with TRT served as a desperately needed wakeup call. I began to scrutinize my goals. I asked, “Are these goals serving me as a whole person? How could I have gotten so far off course? How did my passion for fitness and my desire for self-improvement lead me here? What am I doing to my body?”

I realized with crystal clarity that I had conflated fitness for health and wellness. And more importantly, I started to understand that “fitness” should not be achieved at the expense of emotional and mental wellness. Fitness does not equal health.

For some this might sound like a no-brainer. I knew that anxiety disorders and obsessive/compulsive disorders exist. What I didn’t know is that the phenomenon I was experiencing is far more prevalent than one can imagine.

Blurred Lines

We are fed from a very young age that fitness means strong, fast, and powerful, and that fitness is something you can see. My goodness, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.

We are told to exercise and that exercise is good. And exercise is good, in moderation. However, unhealthy exercise is increasingly becoming problematic for a significant number of people worldwide. The obsession of supranormal musculature has gone from nonexistent to shockingly prevalent over the past half century.

The line between healthy exercise and too much is often blurry because, on the surface, fitness looks healthy. We look at someone with a six-pack and think, “Oh, they’re healthy,” when in reality we have absolutely no way to holistically determine someone’s health just by looking at them.

As I mentioned before, the calorie-stuffing and arguably obsessive-compulsive behaviors around eating take place at alarming levels in the “fitness” world.

Body dysmorphia comes in many shades and is defined as a mental health condition where a person spends an excessive amount of time worrying about their appearance (Mayo Clinic).

Accepting that I suffered from body dysmorphia was both freeing and disappointing. Freeing because I was no longer blind to the true source of my difficulties. Disappointing because I felt powerless on so many levels.

Somewhere along the line the fruits of my exercise had become a source of validation for my worth and existence. Sure, being strong and fit is good, but at some point, that goal was 100 miles behind me.

My New Perspective

The side effects served as my awakening, and it was time to get to work. I know first-hand, from my work, that changing one’s perspective, though difficult, is doable. So I made it my mission.

This process was slow. Relearning is as much biological as it is emotional in that creating new neurocircuitry doesn’t happen overnight.

I started to conceptualize fitness as more than the summation of strength or speed. What if I include what I can’t see: how I feel, physically and emotionally?

I reassessed my values and started making sure my goals were in sync with them.

This new way of thinking demanded that I approach fitness and self-improvement from the inside out, not the outside in. The driving goal became a desire to feel whole, content, and enough.

Before, I felt physically drained and fatigued. Emotionally, I felt empty, shallow, and lost. My motivation was external. My relationship with my body was one of disrespect.

It took time, but I am now able to see physical activity in a new light—as a way to keep my body operating optimally. My relationship with food is driven by my desire to fuel my temple, to connect with nature as a sustaining source of life, and to replenish and nourish my life.

Where I am Today

I push myself physically, but not in the same way as before. Today, my body is my temple. I exercise several times a week, but I listen closely to my body’s whispers. Soreness and fatigue are signals that it is time for rest.

I believe fitness is the byproduct of health, not the driving force. To me, fitness is not the reflection in the mirror. Fitness is how I feel physically and emotionally. Fitness is feeling whole.

The improved relationship I have with myself is proving to be worth it many times over. My relationships with those close to me have improved. I feel at ease in the company of others because I’m not waiting for their affirmation to boost my self-worth.

I know there will be good days, weeks, and months along with bad. But now that I have had a taste of stillness and peace, I am confident the good will outweigh the bad.

My body is my best friend. I now treat it as such.

About Ryan Sheridan

Ryan is an integrative psychiatric nurse practitioner at his private practice, Proactive Psychiatry in Washington, DC. As a holistically minded provider, Ryan utilizes exercise, nutrition, therapy, coaching, and sometimes medication to help others optimize and improve their well-being. He believes in sharing personal stories, challenges, and growth as a means of forging a strong therapeutic relationship. If you’re interested in connecting with Ryan, feel free to reach out to him here.

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