How taking up boxing helped me beat anxiety – and regain control of my life

A couple of years ago, the idea of putting on a pair of boxing gloves and attempting to bob and hook would have had me (and anyone who knows me) weeping with laughter. I was always the girl with two left feet; more likely to accidentally smack myself in the face than accurately punch a boxing pad. Despite being highly suspicious of the gym, I had managed to stay moderately fit and strong through an active lifestyle, but formal exercise has always felt like something that wasn’t for me. I relied on my brain and largely ignored my body.

But in late 2017, at the age of 35, the previously tightly screwed hinges of my mind worked their way loose. Thanks to a mixture of outside stresses and overwork, I found myself no longer the confident, decisive and happy person I had been. My thoughts took themselves down a helter-skelter of worry and panic. My life felt overwhelming, and I couldn’t find pleasure in the things I loved. I was unwell and needed to find a way to get better.

As someone who writes about women’s health, I knew the list of self-help tick boxes to check off on my route to recovery. I diligently added weekly exercise to my schedule, along with therapy, mindfulness, more time outdoors and reducing my workload. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, and knew that I would need one-to-one help to motivate myself to exercise regularly. There was no way I was going to start running or regularly attending fitness classes when feeling this low.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Rebecca Schiller with her personal trainer. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian
With some financial support from my parents, I enlisted a personal trainer. I explained that I wasn’t aiming to lose weight. I had no intention of shifting my anxiety on to the way I looked. Instead, we worked to improve my balance, flexibility and strength, which showed me that I could do much more than I thought. My trainer, Jo, presented exercise in a way I had never seen before: as a way to boost myself up rather than shrink down, and to help my body be stronger and fitter for the things I wanted to do every day. With this framework, firmly rooted in investing time and energy in myself, I finally found myself understanding why I would want to make exercise part of my life.

Then one day, out came a pair of boxing gloves. I put them on and aimed at the pads before me. I had never thrown a punch before and expected to feel ridiculous. Instead, it felt good. I quickly learned how to rotate my fist and then swiftly pull it back to guard my face; how to soften my knees, and use the power in my legs and my stomach muscles until each jab, each cross and upper cut felt powerful. My fist made an increasingly loud and satisfying thunk against the pads, and we began to move back across the room with the strength of my punches.

Soon, sessions were almost entirely based around boxing. I now box during sit-ups and, with difficulty, from a low plank position. I do fast jab/cross circuits with active rest periods, running with my knees driving up to the gloves alongside slower circuits focused on technique. It is hard work, I swear a lot, and I love it.

I doubt I would win a fight with anyone; I’m not trying to succeed or compete in a conventional sense. Instead, taking time out of my schedule to box acts as a weekly reminder to value myself. And, quite quickly, I found that the progress I made physically rippled out in to how I felt emotionally. Sometimes, I would have to force myself to put on my trainers and would arrive feeling tired, helpless and frustrated. Yet, an hour of focusing my whole being on perfecting the squat or pushing myself during interval training would press a mental reset button. I would take my bad week out on the pads and leave sweaty and red-faced but feeling both clearer and lighter. Everything I had heard about endorphins and exercise turned out to be true, I just had to find the right sport and a compassionate teacher.

Challenging myself physically while feeling mentally depleted has not always been easy, but the boxing gloves have wrapped a protective layer over much more than my knuckles. In the low moments, which still come regularly, I have something new to fall back on. My body has stepped up. When I run, it takes less effort; when I can dig my garden for hours, my back no longer aches. Now, when I find myself wondering who I am and what I’m worth, I look down at my arms. Thanks to the boxing circuit, my newly defined muscle remind me of what I’m made of: the determination to thrive as well as survive.

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