Mental Health Awareness Week Pt. 3: Productive Pain

We’re still going out of the intended order. I’m kicking the can a little on the making and breaking social connections post, but I wanted to talk about productive pain (it’s on my mind as I watch the slow, steady traffic this post gets where I recount getting brutalized by my first Ashtanga yoga class).

When I talk about productive pain, I’m not talking about the kind of pain from the last post. I’m not talking about illness, injury, etc.

I’m talking about soreness and exhaustion from exertion.

For me, this is about the importance of staying active. Soreness and exhaustion are just an indicator that I got there. I mean, you could go through a car crash and have the same feeling, but that’s not what we want.

I have a slightly masochistic goal to be exhausted every night when I got to sleep, which is for a couple of reasons. 1) I want to feel like I earned the right to rest (we’ll get to another post later this week about why that’s a little bit of a messed up approach). 2) Sometimes that’s the only way I can sleep well. My brain doesn’t like to shut up, and exhaustion is one of the few foolproof options I have left.

My affinity for this productive pain doesn’t come from nowhere. I grew up playing sports. I wasn’t any good, but I still played.

Well, when you get to high school, it’s not enough to play. You’ve got to get bigger, faster, stronger. So I was lifting. I was running. I was jumping. I was doing really weird stuff for hurdling. And it’s all in the name of getting better.

But being high school and led by high school coaches who sometimes don’t actually know all that much about safely getting bigger, faster, stronger, we got indoctrinated in the idea that soreness was always a good thing.

I’m not saying soreness is bad, but you don’t want to be in a constant state of soreness. You’ll never be in peak condition.

I know that previous sentence is true and yet I just can’t fully make myself accept it, so I still seek out soreness and exhaustion in my workouts. I like trying to sweat completely through the shirt I’m working out in. I like hitting the end of the workout and knowing that I didn’t leave anything on the table and couldn’t have given more if I wanted to.

And as much as that might not be the best state to constantly be putting my body through, sometimes it’s the best thing for my brain.

Staying active is paramount for my mental health. I deal with enough anxiety as it is, but when I can’t be up and about, it just multiplies in awful ways.

When I’m going through physical therapy for the bad variety of pain (like I am right now), I have to be careful that I don’t spiral when I’m not paying attention ’cause I don’t have as many chances to burn off extra energy that otherwise goes to my brain and suggests all the terrible things that could happen.

Going for a walk sounds like a stupid mental health plan, but I’ve done it before when I was hating work. It at least gave me something to look forward to.

And really, that’s not all that different from other activities. You train for a marathon, so you have a running schedule in place to give you a routine. If you join a yoga studio, you probably go to the same classes at the same time seeing the same people.

These things are good for mental health. They give you something productive for causing your body the good kind of pain.

Then there are times where those things don’t work. Last year as I was getting ready to move, all my yoga teachers were not teaching during the summer. As I’m getting ready for the stresses of moving, starting a new job, leaving the friend group I’d spent 3 years cultivating, and other stressors at the time, I lost the best outlet for me to have some productive pain.

I couldn’t run because of my knee, and taking a yoga class with teachers I don’t like is worse than not at all because I just become a rage monster on a 6mm mat.

But I couldn’t do nothing. I knew how that story ended, so I did what I hadn’t properly done in 8 years: I practiced yoga on my own pretty much every day.

That brutal ashtanga class led to me buying a book, and that book became my refuge. I even built a playlist.

And day after day, I was forcing myself to pour out sweat onto a yoga mat. I got better, and as I got better, I just pushed harder because complacency wasn’t going to do me any good at the time.

It was a little bit of a shame that I didn’t get to do one last ashtanga class with my regular teacher. I think she would have appreciated the progress even if she might not have likedĀ why the progress occurred.

But that was the only choice I had. I could either let stress lead to bad decisions or I could let the stress fuel me through good decisions. I also spent that time eating entirely too many salads.

Sometimes you can make stress your friend. Sometimes you can get pain on your side. And sometimes that’s all you can do if mental health is a struggle. It’s not perfect, but it’s how I learned to get by.


Productive Unproductivity

I’m going to try to make this quick because I’m running on 20% battery, and this is an impromptu post.

I mentioned this a couple of posts ago, but I want to go a little deeper, mostly because I ran across this on the Reddit, which was linked to from an AskReddit thread today. I have no idea if I’ve seen this before. What I do know is that it gels with a philosophy I’ve been trying to get better at living.

My job is mentally taxing. And emotionally taxing. And I sit at a desk almost all day, so let’s go ahead and add physically taxing.

But that’s ok. I chose this. My career has meaning.

That said, sometimes my energy is gone. If I’m not physically, mentally, and emotionally ready, I can’t do my job that well. And during the course of the day, sometimes you lose your spark. It happens. Nothing to be ashamed of.

But I still need to get stuff done.

Enter productive unproductivity. The basic premise is that when I’m not all there, I can do something that’s going to help me out when I am all there.

At work, this often amounts to me updating my CV. It’s a dumb task, but when you have to complete an annual evaluation, an up-to-date CV makes life easier. I also map out articles, lessons, etc. Not the mental work of building, just sketching. Then when I get back to it later, I already have a frame built.

At home, it’s trickier because I have a comfy couch. But I try to put a load in the wash, empty the dishwasher, etc. I’m terrible about these things, but I’m not as far behind as I could be.

But here’s where it gets even better: I made the decision to leave my job and current town a couple of months ago. I leave in a couple of weeks. Terrifying. Stressful. Etc.

And then a curveball happened: Turns out without something sitting right in front of me, I have zero motivation. I wanted to do nothing.

Then the summer came, and my yoga teacher went on vacation. And so did my backup yoga teacher. And so did my backup-backup yoga teacher. I’m officially out of yoga teachers. F#$%.

Nothing at work for me to be excited about. No yoga class to even give me after-hours plans. Also, I still can’t run. And no, I’m not going for a walk.

With some life stress, I basically lost 5 days to unproductivity, granted this was while I still had a yoga class to attend. I couldn’t concentrate at work. I couldn’t really read or watch shows I enjoyed. I just sort of vegged out, killing time.

And it pissed me off. My brain was running past capacity and nothing was getting done. I was sinking into other bad habits that could easily become problematic. I was done. That crap had to stop, and I was going to force good decisions down its throat if it killed me.

There’s a line from a Mountain Goats song: “I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”

That was the point I hit. I was officially done with my own BS.

What did I do?


I did a lot of yoga. Excepting the Super Awesome Month of Yoga, I haven’t been this active in yoga since I first started 8 years ago. With all the constraints that work and graduate school had, I just couldn’t maintain. I did a better job where I’m living now because I started going to a studio, but even that maxed out at twice a week most of the time and often only once a week.

I’ve been attacking yoga with a vengeance. I’m sure there’s some crap about loving kindness I’m supposed to follow, but I’ve been doing yoga out of spite. I’ve been doing my best to pour out sweat. I keep the AC set in the 80s while I’m at work, so I’ve been leaving it alone when I get home so I could enjoy a good sweaty yoga session.

I made a Quisto-shaped puddle. #yoga (#ashtanga) for the win.

A post shared by Quisto Settle (@applications_of_randomness) on

I’ve pushed myself hard enough to leave my shoulders barely functioning. But I’m getting better. I’m getting more flexible, stronger, and more mobile. And my brain’s better about shutting up on days I do yoga.


So many salads. One of the things I can never quite forgive myself is knowing that I don’t need to try that hard to lose weight. And yet I’m not.

‘Cause I’m lazy.

Another spiteful, good decision. For the past month or so, I’ve eaten salad at lunch most days. There’s always meat on them, and I get things like mac and cheese with them sometimes to ruin the effect, but I’m still eating salads. So many salads.

I’m almost hoping I can trick myself into thinking this is what lunch is supposed to be, and to a certain extent I have. When I deviate, I pay for it because my stomach is accustomed to the nothingness of salads, so things like the nachos I had yesterday weigh me down.


This one is a little trickier. I’m not reading as much as I’d like still, but I’m reading more than I did in my funk.

If nothing else, I’m getting consistent again, so you take your wins where you can get them.


This includes listening and playing.

For listening, I’m letting myself dwell on songs and I’m being active about finding new songs for playlists. It lets that anxious part of my brain that needs something to do act out in a productive way. Some of the gems I’ve found recently have been Cory Branan, Charly Bliss, and The Low Anthem.

When I’m in a bad mood, I’ve been letting music be a way for me to feel it without throwing a brick at someone.

For playing, I’m just playing. And playing.

I’m going after songs. I’m trying to be loud. I’m trying to be delicate. Mostly, I’m just trying to push every emotion I have sitting in my body out through a song. I’m sure my neighbors have appreciated me alternating covers of Against Me! and The Avett Brothers. My fingers haven’t stopped being callused since I was a teenager, but I think I might be finally trying to draw blood now.


You’ll notice an uptick in my writing around the Puddles of Sweat post. Without races, I wasn’t writing on this blog regularly. I was keeping my book review blog more active, but even that one had taken a temporary dive.

I keep up this blog. I keep up the book review blog. And I also keep up my own personal writing that I don’t share quite as readily.

But in all three, I’m trying to find the words to convey what I’m feeling. I’m trying to put absolute sincerity into it, whether it’s in telling you I made a Q-shaped sweat pile on my yoga towel, telling you how amazing the Ms. Marvel series is, or writing a short story based on a random encounter that one time.

So I let emotion out as I sweat. So I let emotion out as I play music. So I let emotion out as I write.

Summing it all up

I’m down to 11% on a laptop that likes to die at 8%, so where is this all heading?

Stress is pushing me to do something. I had the option to make good decisions or bad ones. I made good ones. I feel like I made good decisions for bad reasons, but they’re still good decisions. In six months, I’ll be able to look back and see the work I put in even when I wasn’t feeling it.

You can’t get time back. So if you can’t quite be yourself, why not make good decisions anyway so that when you’re yourself again, you won’t be set back?

Ok, that’s it for me. Keep it real, weirdos.