Exercising with Depression

I want to preface this by saying I’m not a medical doctor. I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor. I am just someone who has dealt with mental illness discussing what has helped me. What works for me may not work for you.

For a good chunk of my life I remember at the very least recognizing feeling down for no reason. I had these episodes at as young as 7th grade. In High School, they were particularly bad, mostly because I had no idea how to process emotions in a healthy way. So I held them all in until they came out in angry outbursts or explosive tears.

When I was in college, in the darkest time of my life and missing my entire first day of classes because I couldn’t physically get out of bed, I finally went to a counselor. I received a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. Along with the diagnosis came two prescriptions and biweekly visits to a counselor where I learned a lot more about myself and my feelings than I ever really wanted to know.

The prescriptions were awful. The pill for depression made me feel numb and also kept me awake for days at a time. The (extremely strong) pill for anxiety did absolutely nothing for me. Literally, nothing. I still had panic attacks and when I could sleep I would frequently wake up throughout the night because I felt unsafe.

I eventually self weaned off of both medications (bad, but I did have permission from a doctor to reduce my dose). At the time I had moved and was trying to start a new life in Arkansas. I was doing ok, depression-wise, but I was dealing with stress and anxiety by coming home and downing a bottle of wine every night. WOOO. Not great.

I continued this pattern when I moved in with my now-husband and quickly gained 25 lbs from the wine, stress, and a lack of activity from my desk job. I was miserable. So, I joined a gym. I didn’t do it with any intention other than “I am fat and I would like to not be fat.” But, as we all start to notice when we return to exercise, I started to feel much better on days I exercised than on days I didn’t. I had more energy and all the other things people say when they’re trying to convince you to workout.

What I didn’t expect is the effect exercise would grow to have on my mental health. Suddenly I had a channel for all of my nervous energy and anger. When I felt like I wasn’t achieving anything in life, I achieved new lifting PRs. When I felt worthless, I had a thing to go do to show myself and my body it wasn’t a waste of space. I haven’t always been great at it. Sometimes I forget exercise makes me feel better than the hole I’m in and I’ll sit in the hole for days or weeks at a time. But I’m doing better. The past couple of weeks I’ve worked out extremely consistently and have also managed to fix my hair and put on mascara for work – big things that I hadn’t been doing for a long time.

Sometimes my friends talk about how often I workout, and I try to explain to them why I do it. It took so long to transition exercise in my mind from I “have to” to I “get to” and from “this is because I’m fat” to “this is because I’m awesome and it will keep me awesome.” If you’re struggling with your mental health, I challenge you to find something to do that moves your body and really pay attention to how you feel afterward. Be present in that moment. It may change more than just your waistline.

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