How I manage depression with exercise.
I have a history of depression. Well go ahead and add this to the list of things I disclose here that while Im not at all ashamed of it, I wouldnt want to walk around with a sign around my neck announcing it either. That said, I feel like a lot of what I talk about here (self-esteem, body shaming, internal mantras etc) are often not discussed in a real way for that very reason. Theyre touchy subjects that make people feelvulnerable. So once again, sharing.
Ive had my fair share of difficulties both self-imposed andcircumstantialas well as many blessings. To list the things that have happened to me seems unnecessary, as everyone faces battles in their lives. It wasnt until early adulthood that I was able to evenacknowledge some of the things I have been through simply because I knew people who had it so much worse. So theres that. We all struggle. I have struggled. You might be surprised. Maybe not.
For me however, I dont think I have suffered situational depression so much as I am biologically predisposed to it. Meaning: it wasnt events that made me sad so much as I am predisposed to the chemical imbalance of depression.
The symptoms of depression are as follows:
- difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- fatigue and decreased energy
- feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
- feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
- irritability, restlessness
- loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
- overeating or appetite loss
- persistent aches or pains,headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
- persistent sad, anxious, or empty feelings
- thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
*symptoms from webmd.com*
The earliest I remember having the above symptoms was Jr. High. I didnt want to go to school. I didnt want to get out of bed. I often just didnt want to do anything at all. High school was more of the same. Warm weather (sunshine + being more active) was always good for me. It wasnt all dark and dreary but college came with more difficulties.
The first couple years of school I did really well academically. I made friends and was for the most part happy. I had serious issues with confidence which I hid well, but I think having the success in the classroom and respect of my professors did a lot for the those first years. Then things changed.
There was a series of rejections that knocked me off my new-found confidence inacademia. There was upsetting news from home. But it felt like one day I slipped quick sand and just couldnt stop sinking. I became apathetic. And I HATE apathy. I slept all day. I didnt care about doing things. I was suddenly unable to envision a future for myself so planning for one didnt seem necessary.
The worst part about depression, for me, is that it feels impossible to explain to anyone.
It looks like laziness.
I felt so desperate to be understood and yet so hopeless that anyone would understand. So I began to internalize feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and started thinking, maybe I am just lazy. I was working full-time, for awhile overnights and going to school full-time. My senior year added an internship as well. I had a lot to do. I didnt want to do any of it. While that might sound like, sure, who wants to go to work? it felt completely different. It felt impossible. I felt incapable. I felt like nothing.
I was also sick, all the time. Lots of digestive problems. Serious digestive problems that landed me in the ER on IVs more than once a year. I had to call in sick so frequently it started to feel like lies, even if I was actually in the hospital.
At one point I hadnt left my house in so long my roommate conned me into going outside, locked the doors and forced me to go out with her (in my slippers!), she was a damn good friend. I remember a really sweet and well-meaning boyfriend (short-lived relationship as I didnt spend much time with men who treated me well) suggesting I workout. He talked about endorphins and it being good for depression. All I could hear is that he was calling me fat.
After having to meet with my advisor due to my slipping grades I knew I had to do something. So I went to student health and I got myself a prescription for antidepressants and started seeing a therapist.
Therapy is great. I tend to think everyone can benefit from therapy. But you have to find the right therapist for you. This first round was not the right fit.
The dude wanted to talk to me about his morning routine (which I now understand the significance of but he in no way related that to me). After much discussion of how he takes his coffee then we would move on to talking about my father. I just rolled my eyes to myself just thinking about it. It felt like he went to school and learned that when women have issues it has something to do with their fathers and that is the only possibility. I assured the guy my relationship with my father was fine, that there was actually a lot of things I wanted to talk about and that wasnt one of them. But the more I insisted that wasnt the issue the more he felt it was. Bottom line; he didnt listen to me and I quit seeing him.
The antidepressants made me feel different.
Ive worked in psych for a long time and certainly have opinions about psychotropic medication- but basically for me it boils down to this: some people benefit greatly from their use, some people would benefit more from other measures but the American mentality is to medicate. The side effects (and long term effects) are great enough that seeking alternatives, when possible, is a good idea. **My opinion, Im clearly no doctor.**
On the antidepressants I didnt feel so hopeless but I mostly felt nothing. I didnt feel happy. I felt hollow. I felt how you do when you havent slept enough in a really long time but you have drunk enough coffee that you can go through the motions. You dont really feel anything, you dont even feel present, but you can now do things.
So I took myself off of them abruptly (yeah, you arent supposed to do that), and experienced the most incredible crash physically and emotionally. At this point I was so worn out and I had no idea what to do. I just wanted it fixed. And since the therapist didnt fix me and the drugs didnt fix me, well what the hell was going to fix me?! I felt like a lost cause. A person who once had so much potential but was now just a shell. Around me it felt like people moved on. I felt stuck.
This is when the anxiety part got worse. I started having somewhat regular anxiety attacks. These basically feel like you are suddenly dying. The worst one I remember happened when I was in the computer lab at school one night (this was before everyone and their dog had a lap top) and I felt like I couldnt breathe. I ran to the bathroom and put my head between my legs and tried to catch my breath. I felt crazy. My chest hurt. I thought I might pass out. It felt completely surreal. I had no frame of reference for how long it lasted, but I was eventually able to catch my breath, pick myself up off the floor and go back to whatever I was doing. Not a happy college memory.
I know the sentiment from some of my friends at that time is that I dropped off. And I did. But it wasnt some inspired decision to spend less time with friends or go less frequently to class. I was gone from me.
There wasnt some great ah-ha moment where everything became awesome again. What got me over the hump was eventually seeing a homeopathic doctor who recommended some vitamin supplements that worked well for me. I took them for a while and stopped when I didnt feel like I needed them anymore. I spent a lot of time alone. I used that time to work on building myself back up. I moved. I didnt have unfinished business where I went to college that I was running from but there was a lot of old baggage it was nice to leave behind. I had less on my plate and what felt like a fresh start.
I was in a good place when I met my husband. But after the euphoric honeymoon stage of our relationship I continued to struggle with the same old stuff. And then something magical happened. Lola happened.
Now lets be clear that I dont suggest having a child will cure you of depression. That is actually a scary idea. It wasnt having a child or becoming pregnant that made the difference. It was the changes I made as a result of my pregnancy and preparing to have a child.
I started learning about and eating healthfully for the first time in my life. I learned about nutrition, different schools of thought on the best diet, foodadditives, etc. I learned to cook healthy and did a lot of it. Once she was born and I had kept her alive for about 6 months (of course pouring all of my attention into my little baby) I started my journey with exercise. I was doing all of this to be a positive example for my daughter. But what it did for me was so much bigger. Healthy eating and exercise for me arent just how I lost weight, my hobbies or even my passions. They are also the things that keep the darkness away.
There were a few weeks this winter when I got too busy to get to the gym and was slacking on my cooking. Coupled with the winter of less sun and outside activity I could feel that slipping again. The difference was I knew what it was and I knew what to do. I also have a wee one and husband who deserve a Mommy/wife who is present so even if I dont feel like fighting for me I will always fight for them. I got my butt in gear with a training plan that would help motivate me to get moving. I spoke up right away to my husband and a few friends to help keep me accountable to my plan and just to reach out/touch base. I got new recipes to be pumped about and got to cooking again. And the sun kept coming out. The quick sand didnt win.
Why does this matter outside of being a little story about me?
Whether you are a person who struggles with depression/anxiety or not preventative health is a big deal. I love preventative health but perhaps that term makes you think about insurance and buzz words. How about taking care of your body in the most basic of ways. Same idea. Exercise boosts endorphins which is basically a naturally occurring happy drug for your brain. Hello?! Who doesnt like that? It improves mood, controls weight, boosts energy, improves sleep and sex and also regular physical activity can help you prevent or manage a wide range of health problems and concerns, including stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, certain types of cancer, arthritis and falls (Mayo Clinic).
Eating healthfully, besides providing energy for exercise has similar effects. A survey done by the Food and Mood Project, and backed by the mental health charity Mind, found that out of 200 people, 88 percent reported changing their diet significantly improved their mental health. (Read more link.)
This is big stuff people. Not only with regular exercise and healthy eating did I make a body for myself that is less uncomfortable to live in but I found what keeps me together. Turns out laying in bed and consuming mostly party pizzas in college was not taking care of my body and so it didnt take care of me. While that seems like a hugely obvious statement now, I didnt make the connection at the time at all.
It has been almost 8 years since I felt like I had been swallowed up and 5 since I have had any of those symptoms for any abnormal amount of time. I mean, I have ups and downs just like everyone else. I have bad moods. But I dont sink anymore.
What once felt like a completely hopeless cause to get me on track now is completely managed by taking care of my body. I feel amazing. I am often described as vibrant and full of life. In factreminiscing about it, it almost feels like that was a completely different person whos story Im just oddly familiar with.
I have never felt better or more myself. And I have the tools to deal with it if the sand pops up again.
Maybe you identify with a lot of what Ive said, or maybe you just have bad days that feel like that. Either way- try taking care of body and see how it responds. Go for a walk. Go slaughter a hill with some mean sprints. Whatever level exercise or activity suits you. Eat something that came from the ground. Breathe.
Sometimes it feels to me we have become so advanced that we have completely forgotten the most basic things. In my case taking care of my body effectively manages depression. What will it help you do?
Eat well. Sleep. Move your body.
It saved me.