The brain tells the body how to feel

This will be a life-long lesson for me, I think. There was a time in my life, a few years ago, when I felt so good that I seriously started to wonder if there were steroids in the Chinese potions I was drinking for a mysterious illness I was trying to fix (more on that soon).

I was living in Dunedin and winter was approaching, which is usually a time to batten down the hatches in preparation for the grim months ahead. Yet here I was, bursting with energy and enthusiasm. There was a spring in my step and all I could see was beauty all around me. I was waking up early feeling excited about each day, exercising more than usual, and doing weird things like switching off the TV in the evening to do the vacuuming because I was too hyperactive to sit still. It was such a deviation from where I’d been that I was pleasantly surprised, but with equal measures of suspicion at how good I felt, like when a friend is uncharacteristically kind and helpful just before they ask for a massive favour.

It was a boy, of course, who brought about this change in me. Meeting someone new allowed me to finally and fully extract myself from the dregs of a relationship that was well and truly dead. And had been for some time. It was no one’s fault but my own, but sometimes when you’re so deeply entrenched in a situation you cease to see the wood for the trees, right?

What I was experiencing was like waking up from a very deep and troubling sleep to find that the world is beautiful, after all. Unfortunately, things promptly went pear-shaped with my new love interest and what ensued culminated into what has been the most difficult year of my life to date. But that’s not the point. The point is that I freed myself from a bad situation and I felt bloody good for having done it. I also completed my thesis that year and healed myself of my mysterious illness. I guess sometimes a bit of adversity can actually do us some good, in the long run.

More recently, I experienced the flip side. I felt so low that I was almost convinced I had hypothyroidism, or if not that then a brain tumour, or cancer. I wanted there to be a physical ailment which could explain why I felt so depleted. I was thirty-something, single, childless, career-less, penniless, and feeling like a complete failure, drifting aimlessly with no sense of place or purpose.

I was the same person as I had been before; I occupied the same body, I ate the same food, I exercised the same, yet my situation was completely different and that’s what was wearing me down. My mental happiness affects my physical sense of well-being one hundred per cent of the time, and yet so often I lose sight of this fact. Do you? It’s where my head is at that determines whether I wake up early feeling excited about life or whether I sleep late, unwilling to face the boring reality of my life. It’s my brain that puts the spring in my step, or makes my limbs feel like they’re made of lead. The brain tells the body how to feel. The brain is the master controller and the body is its vessel, to try and separate the two is folly.

 

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The Needle and the Haystack

The first multi-day tramp I did was (unsurprisingly, as I live right next to it) the Abel Tasman. I was 16 and my four closest friends and I were disbanding: one to Christchurch, one to Wellington, and one on an exchange to Chile which left the remaining two of us to finish our final year at Mot High. We wanted to do something special together before we parted ways geographically, although we are all still good friends to this day.

I’d never been tramping before and thought it was appropriate to take a change of clothes for each day – a total of five I think. A mistake never to be repeated; one set of clothes for walking and one set for the evenings and that’s it! Every little bit of weight counts when you’re clambering up a precipice for hours on end like it felt like my guy and I were doing a few days ago. I always wanted a boyfriend I could go tramping with.

The hardest tramp I’ve done so far would have to be an eight day solo tramp I did in Foirdland in the middle of winter when I was about 22. It was four days out to the coast and another four back in again. On the fourth day the track deteriorated to a scrambly mess of mud and kie kie with the track marked occasionally by colourful buoys. It was hard going and I was tired. Once I finally made it around the headland there was still a long walk along the beach to get to the hut. Somewhere between the headland and the hut my period started, the discovery of which made me feel even more exhausted, and I think I actually cried and wished for my mum.

As I dragged my feet along that beach a small plane came and landed on it, the occupants hopped out and wandered around briefly before flying off again, all before I reached the hut. I felt like shaking my fist at them and yelling “fuck you! It took me four bloody days to get here and you think you can just fly in like it’s nothing, you bastards.” It got me thinking though, about the relationship between the value you put on a place or an experience and the amount of effort it took to get there. I’m sure the sun didn’t glisten on the sea in quite the same way for those people in the plane as it did for me.

I did a lot of tramping on my own after Outdoor Rec; 16 students and two tutors makes for quite a big group, and often when I feel like going bush it’s because I want solitude and to get some perspective. I went tramping when I had to decide whether or not to get my horse put down, and other times I sought solace in nature in order to try and make sense of my interactions with men who only wanted to know my body but not my mind. Bastards. My mind’s awesome.

My favourite tramp, to date, was the Wangapeka-Karamea-Leslie. It was six glorious days of summer, during which time I barely saw another soul, following one river and then another and then another before climbing up to the Tablelands and down to Flora. This one was a real journey: my brother dropped me off at the start of the track and my dad picked me up somewhere completely different six days later, no loops or there-and-back-agains. Each day my pack got a little bit smaller and a little bit lighter and I got a little bit stronger and a little bit fitter. There was a section of track on that tramp, maybe only a couple of hundred metres long, it was flat and easy going and the track was draped with giant podocarps hundreds of years old. It was still and calm and quiet and I felt so safe walking along under those big old trees, and I had an overwhelming sense that everything would always be alright.

When we were driving back home in Dad’s van it felt like we were travelling at the speed of light; I hadn’t travelled faster than walking pace for so long. Dad said he was consciously going slower than usual but it still felt insanely dangerous to me. One could rightly argue that many of our ‘modern’ problems stem from living in a world where time and space have been compressed too much.

I’m toying with the idea of doing the Wangapeka-Karamea-Leslie again. It was over 10 years ago, after all. I want to have that sense of being on a journey again rather than walking somewhere, having a look around and then walking out again. I’d tweak it so that it wouldn’t be exactly the same as the first time, maybe condense it down to five days, mix it up a bit. I want to walk along the Karamea River for days on end again, watching her get bigger and more beautiful with each passing day. Sort through the chaff and figure out what’s really important.

The following photos are from last week’s tramp which took us up the Matiri Valley, past the Thousand Acre Plateau and up onto the Hundred Acre Plateau – apparently these are New Zealand’s oldest landforms and were once a sea floor. The Needle and the Haystack are the two highest peaks in the area, one sharp and pointy, the other broad and squat.

700 reps

Seven hundred may sound like a lot, but before you get carried away thinking I’m some kind of exercise freak let me assure you that it’s not and I’m not! This workout consisted of four exercises:  50 squat-plough-squat-jumps, 50 don’t spill the bubbles, 500 mountain climbers, and 100 military squats – watch the video to see me demonstrate each exercise, as the names may well have you puzzled.

I’ve done this workout twice now; the first time was back in October when I chose the exercises as a reflection of my desire to tighten my front and loosen my back (i.e. I wanted to tighten and strengthen my tummy muscles while stretching out my lower back and hamstrings). I focussed on taking my time the first time round in order to make it easier on myself the second time round when I thought I would smash my initial time to pieces.

However, the second time round happened to be the Monday after the Saturday which marked the breaking of my six week alcohol fast. Not too surprisingly, I drank a little too much and was still feeling pretty rough around the edges on Monday. I was actually pissed off with myself for overdoing it and pissed off with the fact that I felt yuck, and thought a good blast of exercise might help alleviate my undesirable disposition. While I was doing the workout I honestly felt like I was going hell for leather and I was confident that I would indeed smash my initial time. Turns out I only scraped a measly 18 seconds off. The breakdown of the reps for this workout was more or less the same each time, as it was with 230 reps.

I don’t feel that the time the workout took or how easy or hard it felt at the time is a reflection on anything other than the conditions on the day – my level of fitness is pretty stable; it’s my energy that fluctuates wildly from day to day. Thus, fitness testing only works if the conditions are the same each time, which is actually pretty hard to achieve unless you live in a vacuum. Ideally you’d retest at the same time of day, day of week, having had the same quality and number of hours of sleep the night before, having eaten and drunk the same foods at the same times, and that doesn’t even begin to touch on the non-physical stuff – relationships, friendships, work, money, and other external stressors that surround us all every day.

I’ll do this workout again when I’m not on a two-day hangover and hopefully I can keep improving my time.