Okay, that title is misleading because I’ve pretty much always liked gym class. There were some things that I hated, like the pacer (I’m not that much of a masochist). Despite my love of gym class and athletics, I hated when people told me that I should exercise to help with my depression. In my head I pretty much always came back with, “wow, what a novel idea.” It was rare that I actually let people know that I was annoyed by their sentiment. I knew the science behind why people recommended exercise to help alleviate my depression. It's just that when I was in the thick of it, it didn’t seem to actually help like science said it should. It was hard to keep the long-term benefits of exercise in mind in the short-term moments. It was too defeating and exhausting to really make a dent in my negative mood. Sometimes, it made my depression worse.
It took years of trying, failing, giving up, and trying again to get on a successful exercise regimen. I’d say 5-6 years actually. I would always have a solid couple of weeks and then something would naturally derail me. I would become so frustrated and disappointed in myself that I would give up for weeks until I could convince myself to try again. Normally, my next effort would only happen after enough self-disgust had built to negatively motivate me. I can’t really tell you what clicked for me to help with my consistency. I suppose part of it, was cross-training for roller derby. I was tired of feeling stuck and plateaued. After I was over the hype of cross-training and the gains I got, I stuck with exercising consistently because it made me feel more confident about my body and more powerful. So my motivation to start was never really about alleviating depression and I can’t tell you I noticed major mood changes when I was starting.
What I can say, is I definitely noticed a change in my mood after stopping exercise. I had been relatively consistent for about two years. Making it to the gym once (sometimes twice) a day for five to seven days a week. I felt like I had finally found the recipe to make it all work and actually felt weird if I didn’t go to the gym as part of my normal routine. Needless to say, the perfect system I had built was broken abruptly. After a two year fucking streak. All thanks to COVID-19. I’m a domain-specific type person so without having a specific place to work out with the normal equipment I used, I felt at a loss to continue working out consistently when the gyms closed. It's been five months, getting close to six actually - where the hell did time go? Here’s what I can tell you in the aftermath of losing the tried and true method of exercise for coping: I lost more in terms of my physical and mental health than I originally thought. Here’s a little bit of a timelapse so you can see.
5-7 days without exercise: I started to get a little more short with people (no surprise, I normally had a little bit of irritability post-quitting after a couple of weeks of solid exercise.
2-3 weeks without exercise: My irritability definitely started rearing its ugly head more, I started to feel slips in my logical thinking at times too. I felt like I couldn’t stay level headed. My objective stance on life seemed to evaporate in front of my eyes
1-2 month(s) without exercise: I lost the drive to exercise. Until this point, I was missing it and trying to figure out ways to get back into it. Then this wall hit where I didn’t care anymore. I started making reasons as to how it might be good for my body to have some time off. Previously I had bouts of overtraining where it would take my body twice as long to heal an injury. I started feeling less confident about my body, and I felt like I was starting to become more hyper-critical of my body.
3 months without exercise: This is when the changes started to become more drastic (or maybe more noticeable for me). My hormonal levels started to alter significantly. My shark week became longer (5-6 days instead of 3-4), and I started to experience symptoms that I hadn’t experienced in years like cramping and nausea. My emotions were more erratic around that time of month as well. Cravings. I started craving binge foods again. Still manageable, but definitely noticing them. This is when I started to feel the slide into a depressive episode. It's uncanny to feel a slow slide into depression, doing what you can to try to course correct, and feeling like you’re still on a crash and burn in slow motion. I started to notice major changes in my concentration and drive. I continued to utilize behavioral activation to ensure that was doing what I needed to, but it started to feel like a battle again to do the laundry, to do anything. Check the boxes. Make it through the day. My fatigue was back to a depressive level. When I was first diagnosed with Narcolepsy, I asked a friend (who is also a counselor) how I was supposed to differentiate between narcolepsy fatigue and depression fatigue since I spent the majority of my life associating my fatigue with depression. It was around this three month mark that I was able to experience a true difference. I had been in remission for at least six months. However, this was the first time in two years that I had relapsed into depression without maintaining exercise. The fatigue hit like a dense fog. I instantly knew the difference. There’s exhaustion and then there’s depression exhaustion. The depression exhaustion is soo much more convincing. It feels so much harder to fight. Your brain just tells you you should rest, sleep, detach, or escape. You know it won’t alleviate anything but your brain is in full-blown persuasion mode. My emotional regulation has slipped away over this course of time. Tears started coming way faster. Actually, I had a point in time before this all when it was difficult to cry. It was the first time in my life I had ever had difficulty crying. Don’t worry though, I can totally ugly cry again. Logic is also difficult. I can tell myself the “right,” logical things, but I don’t actually believe them anymore.
Some of the skeptics in the room may be just thinking that a lot of this is more related to depression than exercise. So how do I know exercise is actually influential in this? Besides all of the science it aligns with, this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced remission and relapse from depression. It is the first time that I had achieved such a successful remission and such a hard fall from the proverbial grace. Remission was an unheard of thing for me up until a couple of years ago. About three and a half years, I finally decided to go on medication (that is a different story for a different time). Before that timeframe, I could say that I had few instances where I had achieved remission for more than a couple of weeks since childhood. Back then, I experienced a couple days of relief and then inevitably would return to the throes of depression.
Post-medication, remission bouts were more frequent and longer in duration. They didn’t seem out of grasp anymore. However, I still experienced episodes of depression. The episodes were dominated by emptiness. I would lose drive in some instances but I could still maintain behavioral activation on a higher degree. It mainly just felt like something was always missing and like I would never find whatever I needed to feel okay long-term. During those episodes, I’d have moments of low self-worth and hopelessness, but I was still able to maintain a decent amount of logic. This is the first episode in two years, where logic left the building. This is the first episode in two years where I am having major difficulties with behavioral activation. This is the first episode in two years I haven’t maintained an exercise routine. I don’t feel like it's coincidental, but some could continue to make the argument it's just seasonal depression, or Covid got to me. I really do think exercise has had a significant impact on the course of my depression over the past couple years. As the age old saying goes "Do what works for you." I'm merely suggesting you give exercise a real and honest shot.
Try it or don’t. I can tell you the science and my personal, unintentionally anecdotal experience align with the importance of exercise for mood regulation. If you’re on the fence, give it a couple of months. If after two to three months, you still aren’t vibing with exercise, you can at least say that you’ve been there, tried it, and got the t-shirt. Worst case scenario, you find something that doesn’t work as well as you were hoping. Best case scenario, you might add a coping skill to your repertoire. You could even call it Mindfulness Medication. Haha.
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