My Brain On Exercise: Overcoming Anxiety & Depression

**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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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