I suffer from depression. I have my whole life. It is my deep dark secret. It started when I was in middle school and has continued to this day. However, within the past few years I have finally reigned it in and learned how to control it – for the most part. That does not mean that I couldn’t control it at all before – the fact that I have managed to live a full, productive life proves that – and it doesn’t mean that I no longer get sad, I often do. It just means that I understand it now and I know how to “move” through it better.
When I was younger and I went through these hard times I didn’t always know how to handle them and I found myself in a dark place I didn’t know how to escape. What I learned over time is that these feelings happen in waves. One moment you are feeling okay and then something pops into your head that makes you doubt yourself. Then that doubt begins to fester and boil and suddenly you find yourself completely in a panic. You hate yourself for the silliest things – you wore something out of fashion or you said something that you think might have been misinterpreted and hurt someone’s feelings. You decide you should never be around people again and the world would be better off without you. Over many years I have learned that this feeling can go away as quickly as it begins – especially if you can redirect your thoughts to more positive or funny things. But sometimes when you are alone that is really, really hard to do.
For some of us depression is something that erupts from external circumstances – the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or something traumatic that makes us wonder why we are here, if all of our hard work is really worth it. When we lose someone we care about or someone is horrifically injured we sometimes can’t find the strength to go to a job that feels mundane and petty and unfulfilling. We wonder what the point is of all of that work. Do we go to work to pay the bills to live to work? Are we really on this never ending hamster wheel? I have found that if I can find a way to once again feel like I am making the world a better place, that can help.
That is how I learned to “move through the pain”. I discovered this initially when I began began running more seriously. I was not a great runner by any means. When I first started I couldn’t run an entire mile without having to stop and walk to catch my breath a couple of times. But running was literally my escape. When things became too awkward or difficult at home I could literally walk out the door and run away. It wasn’t forever – just enough time for me to get my thoughts straight, and I could let my emotions flow through my body and out onto the street where I could leave them behind. Sometimes I would start slow and confused and simply move my feet. As I tried to relax my shoulders I could feel the stress wear off and my head began to clear. Sometimes I was angry… furious… and I would take off at a tear and run as hard as I could until I couldn’t do it anymore. Every time my feelings started to pour back out again and I could feel my body tensing back up I started running again. It was something I needed to escape and I didn’t want to stop until it was over. That was the first time I discovered that it’s hard to cry when you’re running. So whenever the tears threatened, I ran… and sometimes I ran and ran and ran.
At the same time I began running I also began kickboxing. I was in a difficult place in life and I was miserable and angry and scared and I doubted myself. When I arrived to kickboxing class I felt burdened with those feelings as if they were a pack I carried with me. Sometimes it felt as if the feelings were binding me and I needed to escape them. As I warmed up in class I slowly began working those feelings out. The rolling of my joints was like oiling a tin man and as the stiffness dissolved the feelings did too. As I went through the movements I thought about all of the issues I was working out in my mind. Sometimes I would stiffen back up and I could feel the tenseness in my movements. As we began hitting the bags and doing the cardio work I allowed my feelings to push me through the workout. Sometimes I was slow and weak. Sometimes I would go all out on the bags and hit as hard as I could. I didn’t care if I hurt my hands or embarrassed myself, I just wanted to let everything out. Sometimes I would cry while I hit, but usually I was so focused on the effort it took to hit the bags and continue breathing that I didn’t have anything left to cry. When the class was over I was spent… too tired to cry, too tired to do anything but lie on the floor and catch my breath. In that moment of catching my breath and knowing that I gave everything, I felt strong. I felt amazed at what I had just accomplished. I felt like if I could do that workout and expend that much energy and take on that work, then I could do anything. I could make it through this difficult time.
Over time I began to feel better and decided to try a Paleo diet. This was life-changing for me. I discovered that certain foods, especially those high in sugar, put me in a bad mood – and more appropriately an ill-functioning mood. By that I mean that I couldn’t focus and became distracted and sad easily. I also discovered that being extremely low on sugar (going all day without eating) did the same thing. I needed a balanced diet that regulated my sugar throughout the day. For me a Paleo diet has helped immensely. I am not fully paleo by any means, but I have figured out what foods can trigger difficult moods for me.
Over the years I have had several times of difficulty that threw me into differing levels of depression and sometimes panic. Just being a single mother to 3 kids and starting my own business is enough to send me into an almost daily spiral of self-doubt. Can I do this? What if I don’t succeed? What if I can’t feed my kids? Are my kids getting enough attention from me? Am I screwing them up?
Now my workout of choice is CrossFit. I recently found myself in the middle of a depression workout barely aware of what I was doing because I was feeling so unsure about myself and my life and my ability to be the person I feel I need to be. I was just going through the physical movements, doing what I was told – not thinking about any of it, sometimes crying. At one point a car drove by the gym behind me and created a shadow of me on the wall in front of me. As I was lifting the heavy weights, and jumping rope and jumping on boxes I became more aware of that shadow passing in front of me again and again every time a car drove by. I couldn’t help but look at it and wonder who that woman was? She is strong and fit and capable and I want to be like that, but I feel like such a small, incapable wretch. The more I moved and the more I watched the more I saw myself in that shadow. I very slowly realized that I was that strong, capable woman and that I was going to be okay. At one point I actually caught myself smile… and that made me smile even more, because I realized the moment was over and we were all going to be okay.
I realize that this is my journey and it is different from everyone else’s journey. However, I have seen people come into this place with heavy hearts, and I have seen them find lightness and happiness. I have seen them smile in the middle of a workout and then turn white thinking that they had no right to happiness and then slowly push through the pain. I have seen people go through enormous loss and survive and get strong so that they can live the full beautiful life that they were intended to live. What works for me and for these people may not work for you or for anyone else. But if I can help just one person move through the pain, and figure out how to move back to that happy place, then I will shout it from the mountaintops. If you are one of those people, I urge you to try it. The next time you find yourself in that place – just move. Walk, run, dance, hit bags, lift weights, do pushups and situps. It might not be the answer for you, but you will never know until you try.
Besides lifting your mood, regular exercise offers other health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure, protecting against heart disease and cancer, and boosting self-esteem. How often or intensely you need to exercise to alleviate depression is not clear, but for general health, experts advise getting half an hour to an hour of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, on all or most days of the week.
Exercise can also helps us to get active and meet new people. This stops us from feeling isolated. It can give us new goals and a sense of purpose. We have something positive to focus on and aim for.
One study even found that exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of antidepressants. Researchers checked in with 133 of the original patients six months after the first study ended. They found that the people who exercised regularly after completing the study, regardless of which treatment they were on originally, were less likely to relapse into depression.