Exercising with Depression
Today I would like to take a step back: instead of sharing some practical tips or professional information with you, I would like to share something a little more personal.
As I am writing this, my precious two-week old baby is asleep in the next room – and I am finding that over the course of the last few days, I have started moving slower. My brain feels like the cogs are trying to turn through mud, and I realise that I am tired. Not just normal tired. Not just sleep deprived. But tired to my core – a weariness I feel in the deepest part of my soul.
Having struggled on and off with depression through my course of my life, the arrival of “Baby Blues” was somewhat expected after our little one made his great debut. But I had hoped that it would take longer before taking root and nesting itself into my being – unfortunately, I was wrong. Despite the sense of that numbing, dulled and dragging aura that tries to envelope me, I find myself slowly – painstakingly slowly – moving forward. In fact, I am forcing myself to keep choosing to move forward, because remaining in this space, in this state of mind, will quickly turn dangerous.
Earlier this morning, in a rare moment of clarity, I realised that the reason I am able to keep moving forward is in great part attributed to the skills I learned whilst exercising and living with the reality of depression. People are often quick to tell you that you should start exercising as a way to help manage your depression, but I don’t think anyone fully understands the mammoth effort it takes to actually do it when you are depressed.
A few years ago, I decided that I didn’t like feeling depressed. Ultimately, when I envisioned my future, images of me too tired to eat or get out of bed were definitely not what came to mind. So, I decided to do something about it, and one of the first steps to dealing with this, was getting back into fitness again.
I would like to share with you a few of the things that I found helpful when trying to get fit, despite living with depression. These are also the same principles that are helping me through this period of adjustment in my life right now:
- Have a Plan: Before you try to attack the giant task of “getting fit”, have a plan just to go to gym or just to do one workout at home. More specifically, make sure you know where your workout gear is, where your bad is, whether you have your water bottle and any other equipment you may need. Keep focused on the plan at hand whilst eliminating as many excuses as possible – because they will crop up. Trust me, I have skipped a session before just because I forgot my water bottle – in fact, to be painfully honest, I have found myself sitting in the car for an hour instead of going into gym, purely because of said water bottle. If you stick just to the plan, you can power through it!
- Do something that to you, seems productive, or successful: I call these “primers”, and such tasks as putting on your fitness tracker or watch, brushing your teeth, or putting on your running shoes seem to trigger a sense of purpose. These things make me feel as though I am acting with purpose and getting something done, and will ultimately have a more positive outcome than remaining in your pajamas – as hard as it sometimes is.
- Do Rest – But not for too long: This is a hard one. If you have experienced depression or depressive episodes, you will know how hard it is to shake yourself out of a “space out session” or period of sleep. Because this is also functional behavior in a very complicated psychological way, do allow yourself a bit of time out; however, set a timer so that you have something to pull your thoughts back to the task at hand, and instead break up the static periods with bursts of activity.
- Tackle one task, or one exercise, at a time: Thinking about whole day or the whole training programme is often very discouraging if you are already feeling low. Instead, try to focus just on completing one activity at a time. That weary feeling of being overwhelmed has often incapacitated me, simply because the task at hand seemed too big to tackle. But when dealing with tasks one bite-size-chunk at a time, it becomes doable. Don’t think of how you will climb the whole mountain – instead, just focus on the first step… and then the second… and then the third…
- Complete what you have started: If you have set out to do something, try to push through – even if it is only 5 minutes on the treadmill. Stick it out. This applies to all tasks – if you set out to do laundry, do all of it. By completing the tasks we set out to do, a sense of accomplishment positively reinforces our belief that we can If we don’t, the feelings of failure and guilt (and often shame) simply feedback into a very negative and destructive cycle.
- Set Reminders: If you find yourself “forgetting” or feeling dazed, it will help to centre you and feel a sense of “general functioning” if you set reminders and then can complete an activity. I find myself setting reminders to eat and drink water when I am feeling low – and then I actually do it. It has changed my mindset to doing the task because I know I don’t want to feel low any longer, and it will progress to me doing the tasks that make me a healthier person on the whole.
- Be Honest – Get Help: This is a big one. If you are not coping – TALK. There is no shame in not coping, and there is no shame in asking for help. If you find yourself in a place where you realise you don’t want to feel like this, but you cannot seem to pull yourself out of it, please reach out and ask for help. It is okay to not be okay – it’s not okay to continue to struggle because you have been made to feel ashamed. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.
It is my sincere hope that some of these things that I focus on to get me through when I am feeling low can help someone else too. Whilst we are not all on the same journey, I realise that what works for me may not work for others, but I also believe in the power of sharing our experiences. We may find better strategies when we share them – and just the thought that we are not alone, in itself, may help
Wishing you all the best.