Lower-level movement and why it is scary to be still

Lower-level movement

After stopping exercise, it became clear that my lower-level movement urges — walking, cleaning, shopping-without-buying, etc — were increasing. It took me a while to work out I had to cease responding to all these compulsions too. More on lower-level movement here, but this post today is about some of the reasons it can be so scary to stop.

For me, stopping exercise wasn’t enough to stop me moving compulsively. In theory it sounded like it would work: I would stop working out, and that would be enough. In practice, all that happened was I began to fill that time and space with other, less intense but just as compulsive, movement. It dawned on my pretty quickly after stopping exercise that this was happening, but it took me a while to address it and go cold turkey on the lower-level movement too because … well, I was scared.

Reasons that stopping lower-level movement is hard:

Time and space is terrifying

I think that much of the development of lower-level movement was to fill the time gaps that not exercising left. That time that I used to spend running was quickly filled with other things like shopping (without buying), walking, and cleaning. I had a wall up when it came to the thought of having free time. A serious wall. A Hell No. Nope. No way wall.

As with many of my fear walls, it took me a while to realize that it was there. The problem is, that fear walls often present themselves not as fear, but as will. I just didn’t want to not be doing something at all times. I simply didn’t want to be doing activities that involved sitting still. Fear of not doing something often masquerades as free will, which can be confusing. Kind of. Until you call yourself on your own bullshit.

Truth was, I was very relieved not to have to move all the time. I was also very lost, because movement had filled my day for so long. The free time and space felt daunting. I would feel bewildered and somewhat panicked at the thought of a day without plans. And when I say “plans” I don’t mean “plans” in the way that normal people make plans to meet other normal people at Starbucks for coffee and a natter. I mean “plans” as in walking the dog, alone, even if the weather is baltic. I mean plans as in walking to the shops, even if I don’t need anything, even if the weather is baltic. You know, those sorts of plans. Anorexia-occupied time sort of plans.

Stillness is hard for the malnourished brain

The migration effect. Even at home I would stand or pace. The deep-rooted desire to move all the time feels biological not logical. My brain was just scared of being still, for sure. After a while, this becomes habit. For so many years I had been moving whenever possible so moving whenever possible felt like the norm. This neural network needed rewiring. Of course, my anorexia-brain gave up some resistance to that — we teach our brains with our actions. For years my actions had taught my brain that I did, indeed, need to move the whole time. So my brain had a lot to say about my new plans to sit still. None of it nice. It is a good job I was becoming a pro at ignoring what my anorexia-brain had to say.

Free time meant more time to feel my hunger and want to eat more.

Oh, this took me a long-arsed time to work out. This was another reason I was so scared of free time. Because all this walking and cleaning was there to distract myself from wanting to eat. It is hard to eat when you are walking the dog. It is hard to eat when you have cleaning gloves on. These were all distraction activities and holy fuck was I terrified of letting go of them. If I was just sat at home I would be screamingly, painfully hungry and I would want to eat more food. And that is rather a problem when you are scared of eating more food.

So yeah, I was scared of free time because I was scared of being in a position of feeling my mental/physical hunger and being able to respond to it. And guess what, I had to deal with that by allowing myself to eat.

Free time with myself felt uncomfortable.

Free time felt like an uncomfortable silence. You know, like when you are stuck in a car with someone you don’t know very well and there is a silence and it doesn’t feel right because you don’t know this person well enough yet for silence to be okay. That is what free time and stillness felt like to me. Like I didn’t know myself well enough to be okay not always be doing something. Which is rather odd, but I think that many of you reading this will get just what I am saying.

It just felt … wrong … to not do anything.

It all works out

Really. Yeah well, your anorexia-brain won’t believe me, but really.

Initially, you have to force stillness. And you have to allow yourself to eat in that stillness when your hunger comes through. But if you stick with it, your brain will learn that stillness is not a threat to you. And when it learns that, it will stop using the emotions of discomfort and wrongdoing to motivate you to move. When that happens, all you are left with is … free time without the guilt. Which is wonderful because that is freedom to do what you want to do with your time, not what you feel that you have to do.

Freedom to do what you want with your time is absolutely worth sitting though a couple of uncomfortable silences with yourself for. It is even worth sitting though a raging anorexia tantrum for. Freedom to do what you want, comes after you have the ability to sit and be still without anxiety — and many of us have to work through that in order to get there.

You will get out the other side. Be determined. Sit your arse down.

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What do you think?

  1. Hurrah!! Finally!! I have read your post about lower level movements about for hundred times and have been craving more! Thank you about this text. I have been fighting with this matter for 12 years and I think lower level movement is more difficult to get rid off than compulsive exercise (the formal one). I could not sit at school, at bus/train/tram, at home… Now I do not feel so bad about sitting at doctors office or therapy but it is still so hard to sit at home or coffee shops! Like you described well, being alone at home with nothing to do is terrible! Like being in a same, small room with stranger. That stranger is my body and I really do not know how to be with it naturally. It is silly to be scared of free time, but basically it is being afraid of eating, hunger and being not to do anything “beneficial”. I stand and pace most of the time I am at home. It is really awkward, because I am not at work at the moment and my flat is really small. I try to spend most of my day away from home and I try to invent all these “things to do”, like cleaning, shopping, taking trash out etc. Sitting and – well- relaxing is worst thing to do. “You are lazy and you will gain weight a ton if you just sit and eat!” Says mr. Rexia. I know that best thing to do is give some rest for my poor body. No matter do I stand or exercise or not. My body will know how much food it needs, and hunger tells it. I have noticed how hungry I am on those days I am not fussing around. It is so important that these things are recognized by healthcare. I thought for years that I was only one with this kind of problem. First writing I have ever found anywhere, was your blog post. I am so glad that you have picked up this subject. It is common among people suffering from ED. Thank you for your work and support. Have a lovely springtime!

  2. SoSoSo spot on. All of it.
    I would add that the inability to concentrate makes that space and time even more unbearable. I have so many books I am longing to read. I’d love to spend more time drawing. If I make the promise to not exercise, I am rewarded with time to do these things. When, keeping to my promise, I sit down with a book and find myself staring at ink on paper and 10 gazillion thoughts of guilt and terror running through my brain, it doesn’t feel worth it.
    I want to exercise less to have time for other things, but when I make time, my brain let’s me down.
    Patience & persistance are needed to push through the first weeks and then maybe concentration improves?

  3. Hi, this is all too real for me right now. I was wondering if you had any activities or tactcs you had to help fill the ‘silence’ but obviously in non-movement kind of ways. Like advice to help make it as easy as possible?
    Thanks so much