My Brain On Exercise: Overcoming Anxiety & Depression

by TaylorR

**Before I get started, let me preface this post by saying that I am not a medical doctor. I am not trying to be a medical doctor. This post is written based upon my personal experiences. Please consult your doctor before changing anything up regarding your health. 

Okay, now that that is off my chest let me tell you a story that I haven’t shared with many people.

“You’re crazy.”

To me, those were the words coming out of my doctor’s mouth.  I half expected her to pull out a straight jacket and lock me away (yes teenagers can be dramatic).

As I sat on the examination table, my mom placing her arms around me, I sobbed, sobbed some more and then asked… “Why am I like this?

I felt as if my doctor confirmed something I had always known but was too afraid to admit… I wasn’t normal.

I was abnormal. And let’s face it, no 16 year old wants to be abnormal. We just want to fit in.

Prior to going to the doctor’s office my life had changed.

My first serious boyfriend had gone off to college and broke my heart. I didn’t want to go out, I confined myself to the couch in my bedroom watching television, reading books, or just starring at the blank wall in front of me. My personality had gone from bright and bubbly to dull and lifeless. I lived each day just going through the motions.

1-dep

I can laugh now but this haircut didn’t help make me happy either

I can remember sitting in class and suddenly my heart felt as if it was going to burst out of my chest. It wasn’t beating faster, just stronger. I was aware of every single heart beat as if I was wearing a stethoscope. It scared me. But in truth, I remember having episodes even when I was in elementary school. I just didn’t know at the time what they were.

So there I was at age 16 being diagnosed with clinical anxiety.

I was promptly put on Paxil to help get my brain back on track. I hated having to pop a pill but I hated staring at the blank wall in my room even more, so the pill won out.

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Down ~15 pounds right before going to college (where I would then gain 40+)

Then college came, more dark times followed. Weight gain, depression, eating disorders, sleep problems, weight loss… apparently my doctor informed me that with a “type A” personality change is hard.

1-food

At my lowest weight, around 100 pounds

I don’t like things that I can’t control and in an effort to gain control, I take the reins of my own health (in my case food).

Obviously the pills weren’t working so I stopped taking them. I was a mess off of them, a mess on them, so what was the point?

Finally, my mom urged me to talk with my doctor again and try something new. She reminded me that there was nothing wrong with helping my brain through a pill. That pill could make a huge difference and help me to live life again. Or at least live a life I was proud of and that I was actively involved in.

So I did. And it helped but I hated that little blue pill.

Each day it reminded me that I needed help to be happy. I wanted to be in charge of my own happiness (see… A-personality).

My New Drug

It took a long time to get my dose right, a really long time, but eventually I did.

I started running my sophomore year of collage. I wanted to have something for me, something where I could get away from the stresses of class, friends, etc and focus on myself.

The first time I ran, I think I made it about a quarter of a mile. Then I worked up to a mile. Each new distance, I can remember feeling energized and proud. A feelings that I had forgotten over the past couple of years.

When I completed a 3 mile run around Winthrop Lake, I called me mom crying. I did it. I ran my first 5K distance. Go me.

0wulake

I began to notice other changes, I was laughing more, sleeping better, taking on more roles in school (I became my sorority’s secretary), and feeling alive.

Yes, there were times when I worked out too much, where I let exercise become my new addiction over food but that’s a story for another day.

Good-Bye Pills

I haven’t taken an anxiety pill in over a decade.

1movemore

I don’t recommend this, I am not suggesting that ANYONE should stop taking their meds without consulting your physician, and to be honest it was probably a stupid choice for me back then. But I quit cold turkey.

I knew that I personally didn’t want to be on medicine for the rest of my life (my anxiety was on the less severe side compared to many others I know).

I knew that there had to be other ways that I could have control over my own thoughts/feelings/emotions.

And that’s where exercise has come in. It’s my new medicine.

0spiderpush

There have been spurts over the years where my anxiety/depression comes back, and I think Dan can say he sees a bit of it each day in the way I react to certain events. After all, it’s a disease that I will carry for life. I have just learned to keep it at bay through a healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and healthy eating.

People often ask why I work out so much. It’s not because I’m vain… it’s because my brain needs it. My heart needs it. Heck, everyone around me needs to exercise!

Something else that has helped?

Accepting mental chaos. I know I’m not crazy. I know that feeling anxious will happen frequently so I embrace it instead of trying to push it away. Trying the latter makes me imagine trying to push a 500 pound tire in sand. No matter how hard I try, my feet slip and slide and I can’t get leverage to push that damn thing an inch.

Was I (Am I) Crazy For Switching A Pill Out For Exercise? 

I am sure there is room for debate on this one. However, the research shows that for many people (not all) exercise is even more beneficial for treating depression/anxiety than meds.

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I just finished reading Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Of Exercise & The Brain, and love what Dr Ratey had to say:

“At it’s core, depression is defined by the absence of moving towards anything, and exercise is the way to divert those negative signals and trick the brain into coming out of hibernation.”

What the science shows…

In one study a group of 80 depressed people were split into smaller groups. Some doing just light exercise, some just stretching, and some doing intense bouts of training.

Those that worked out the hardest, helped their depression by as much as 50% in just a 3 week period.

When it comes to exercise for mental health, one thing that keeps showing up in the literature time and time again is intensity. The harder you workout (doesn’t have to be a long time), the more you’re able to help your brain. Hormones become more balanced, neurons are released, endorphins are fired out.

The brain is sensitive to high intensity movement.

This makes sense, as I am not a walking kind of girl. I don’t get that “high” from low intensity movement like I do from running, sprinting and interval training. While reading all the data is new to me, I feel as if I have known it all along.

What To Do?

I am sharing my story because you’re my friend. I share it because so many are going through the same and I want you to know that you’re not alone. Mental disease isn’t something to be ashamed about, it’s not something to cover up. And it doesn’t make you crazy. 

I am not crazy (well, if you ask my husband he might say differently).

I am not suggesting to anyone to stop treatment, I am however suggesting to remember the little things you can do to help yourself be the healthiest and happiest naturally.

-Surround yourself with good people

-Exercise more (but dive in slowly)

-Eat less process foods

-Fill up on whole, natural foods

-See the sunshine

-Sleep

-Carve out time for you

Move more, rest more, and breath more… that’s what I remind myself each day when I wake up.

And if you have the opportunity read Spark! I’ll be sharing more topics from the book over time. I think it’s really important to be reminded that exercise isn’t just for weight loss or strength. It’s for balance, love and sanity!

What’s your favorite book you’ve read in the past 12-months?

 

  • http://abs-of-steel.com Abi@AbsofSteel

    Thanks for sharing your story. Exercise as a form of natural medicine is a topic I’m really passionate about.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      You should definitely read Spark then, you would love it!

  • http://www.katielookingforward.com Katie

    I am still raving about “me before you” it was such a sad story, but really an eye opener. I’ve also had to deal with depression and agree that working out is a great way to keep me healthy! I need activities or else I start spiraling. There’s also the flip side of being too involved and over committed. I’m toeing that line right now, and am really looking forward to March when I don’t have much on the calendar.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      I’ll have to check stout. I get the same way, sometimes you have to take a step back and just say enough for right now.

  • http://www.TheTinyTerror.com Amy Lauren

    Thanks for sharing. I have also gone through periods of anxiety and depression, particularly at my first post-college job.

    I don’t think adults, like your doctor, realize the kind of impact stressful situations have on teens and college kids/young adults. Obviously, a lot of things that caused stress or made me anxious at 15-16 don’t anymore, but that’s because I’m 28 now and have had those life experiences to know that things like boyfriends, drama, etc will not affect me too badly in the long run. People who are 15-16 have not had life experiences to know that yet. Their world is different than an adult’s so they have different stressors, and it is no less important to their health as adult stressors like jobs, money, etc.

    I thoroughly agree with exercise as a treatment for anxiety and depression. A treatment- not a cure- so results may vary. Some still need medication, and that’s fine, but with exercise, they may be able to get by on less medication or either way, have a better quality of life and health than without it, and cope easier. When I started working out and changed jobs, I was able to go off of anxiety meds. I went back on them for a bit when I moved down, but then went off of them. A lot of times, meds aren’t “forever” solutions but used temporarily.

    BTW, I totally admire you for opening up about this. In the pic from high school, it’s almost like I can tell you’re not very happy. Not just the facial expression or hair, but it’s like you can see it in your eyes. I’ve noticed that in pictures too from various stages of my life. Sometimes you can smile or be around friends in a pic but still look truly sad :(.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thanks for being so open with your history as well. I wouldn’t go back to being a teenage for anything! Being an adult gives so much more perspective and so much more to come with age! Rub it in that you’re 28… just kidding :)

      • http://www.TheTinyTerror.com Amy Lauren

        Is it bad I just realized you’re not 28? LOL. I think once you get past 21 and everyone is an adult, age doesn’t matter much anymore.

        At least this means I have a good 18 months when we’re not in the same age group at local races… bright side, huh?

        • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

          Haha, nope not 28… getting ready to be the big 3-0 which is why I was teasing you.

  • Kathryn

    I am crying reading this (in a good way). You have put into words something that I have had a hard time sharing, however am becoming much more open about. I feel very strongly that the world should not have a stigma on mental illness as many people I love and myself, struggle daily with it. I will be the first one to say that even though I still rely on a little pill (Zoloft and Ativan are the drugs of choice), exercise through your bootcamp has also made a world of difference. Thank you a million times for sharing this. xo

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      I <3 you, you’re the best. I want nothing but wonderful things for you and can’t wait to see you NEXT WEEK!! YAY!

  • shannon

    Thanks for sharing that Kindal. I too have suffered from anxiety/depression. I am feeling so much happier working out more consistently. I MUST read that book! Over past 5 years, I’ve battled thyroid issues, depression, hormonal changes. Through it all I would try to exercise, but just couldn’t get the motivation and energy I needed to keep it up. I had trouble finding the energy and motivation to do it again each day. I still struggle when it comes to exercising alone, but I am feeling GREAT! I do think there is something to the intensity needed. Thanks again for sharing. I really want to do away with at least one med.Have been considering that this past month since feeling so good starting boot camp in November! Some days are still hard. It does sneak in there sometimes.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      You’re amazing. Thanks for being so open. And yes read the book, it’s wonderful if you like the science part of things. You’re feeling great and looking great!

  • shannon

    BTW…I had a year of clinical depression in 8 the grade, and I have a school picture like yours that my mom says, “I see your sad eyes there.”

  • http://cowgirlruns.com/ Ange @ Cowgirl Runs

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    I, too use exercise to manage my anxiety and depression. However, I know that I will likely almost always need to take some form of medication – at least for the forseeable future. It took me a long time to be okay with this, but I’ve realized that accepting that this is what I need has been huge for me.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Acceptance is huge. Trust me there are episodes still where i think medication would be beneficial. there is no shame in that at all. Go team exercise!

  • http://day-with-kt.com Kim

    Taylor, I love that you were able to switch out a pill for exercise!!!
    When both of my boys were really little, I was part of a moms group and over half of the group took some kind of medicine for depression (very common with SAHMs I guess). We had a DR as a guest speaker once and he shared some tips to help – one of them was exercise!!! (also, he said there really is value in eating a small bit of chocolate every day and to laugh often and at yourself)
    I loved reading your story and I’m so glad that you can stay on top of your disease with exercise!

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Exercise is the best! And yes chocolate… oh dear, sweet chocolate!

  • http://www.cottercrunch.com lindsay

    thanks for sharing your story friend! and you are encouraging others to get help too. Drugs or no drugs, it’s about finding the HEALTHY way for you. Exercise and diet can cures so much though, yes!

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Exactly, we all deserve to find that happy you! Whatever ways it takes us to get there!

  • http://www.caitplusate.com Caitlin

    Part of my ED recovery involved starting sertraline (an SSRI aka anti-depressant) to put a damper on my obsessive thinking. I don’t know how much it helped but I do know if I miss a day or two of the pill I definitely find myself getting more anxious…maybe it’s in my head but I will even feel that way before remembering that I forgot to take the pill. However I also have been into exercising since before I started my SSRIs so I don’t know if exercise or eating more whole foods (another thing I already was doing) would help me enough to make me go off the pills. My plan is to slowly ease off them, and it’s something I plan to discuss with my therapist soon.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thanks for being so open. All you can do it take it one day at a time, right?

  • http://purelytwins.com purelytwins

    oh gosh girl thank you for sharing your story!!! So happy you are doing better and found peace! The body is an amazing thing, right? If we take care it, it will take care of us!
    xoxo

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thanks. Such a great way to word it!

  • Cate

    Thank you for that Kindal! I have battled with depression and anxiety my whole life, and am currently in the middle of a pretty bad episode. I feel so crazy sometimes, and it’s hard to explain it to people that just don’t get it. I definitely needed to read your experiences and thoughts!

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thanks Cate. I am here for you. I read your posts sometimes and wish you were closer to give a big hug to and for me to say… “you’re not alone and you’re not crazy!”. xoxo

  • http://www.althegalruns.com Allison

    I battled depression, anxiety and went though a bad breakup. I started to run again after years of no physical exercise and I too ditched the pills and have been running and happy ever since! Thanks for sharing your story.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Awesome! So good to hear.

  • lynn

    I know all too well your story. When I was working out with you I felt great and stopped taking my depression meds. Then when I stopped working out the depression kicked in with a vengeance. I have been prescribed something new and will get to to boot camp once I level out. I actually enjoyed working out even though I’m cursing all the while doing it.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      I’m glad you’re taking steps to get better! I want nothing for the best for you

  • http://bonnielangfitness.com Bonnie

    Wow. Thanks for sharing your story with us so candidly! I have not suffered from similar attacks or feelings but I know that anytime we open up there are others who benefit from our vulnerability. How neat that exercise has played such a huge, formative role in who you are now and how you help balance your life out! You inspire me, Kindal…Wish we lived closer and could run some bootcamps together! :D

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thanks friend. Trust me I wish you lived closer too! I would love your skills in my gym!! Best boot camps eva!

  • http://aloveforliving.com Sarah @ A love for living

    Thank you for sharing this. I know how hard it is, I’m suffering from depression and I don’t have much of a support system. And my type A personality so badly wants to have control back of so many things in my life. Right now, I’m feeling good and I haven’t been on medication in years (simply because they made me totally sleepy 24/7), but I also know the next attack is lurking somewhere around the corner.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      I hope you find a good support system, that’s so helpful. If you need anything let me know!

  • http://www.kaylainthecity.com Kayla

    love this post, so much of this rings true for me and why fitness became a bit part of my life

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thanks!

  • http://www.boun-see.com Jessica Marie @ Boun-see

    I’m so sorry you had to go through all of that. It’s not something I would wish upon my worst enemy. And I’m so glad you found relief. I suffer from anxiety/panic, but exercise wasn’t enough to take care of mine (going off meds whilst exercising didn’t work). I definitely do think that it helps though and wouldn’t give up running for the world because of how great it makes me feel.

    • http://www.fitwomensweekly.com TaylorR

      Thank you, I agree not something I ever want anyone else to have to suffer with. Best of luck to you!

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