How to exercise for poor mental health (even if depression has you floored)
It’s a well known fact that exercise can help improve your mental health, but what happens when depression or anxiety makes moving feel overwhelming? Writer and depression survivor Isabella Silvers explores.
Running gear on, Spotify playlist cued, I was so close to getting out of the door for a run one surprisingly sunny winter morning. But as I reached down to lace up my trainers, the anxiety set in. My breathing got shallower as I started to cry, and the familiar vicious cycle of thoughts began to loop their way through my brain.
I dropped down on my sofa. While one part of my brain knew that I was taking care of myself by not further spiking my cortisol levels, another blamed me for not pushing through. After all, that’s the advice I keep hearing – ‘you’ll feel better afterwards!’ ‘Just do it!’ ‘You never regret a workout!’
But when I’m crying between burpees or barely have the energy to wrestle into a sports bra, that advice is less than helpful. It doesn’t take into consideration the very real mental, emotional and physical symptoms I might be dealing with. It’s the exercise version of telling a depressed person to ‘just be happy!’
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Even though I knew getting sweaty would even out my emotions in the long run, I didn’t have the motivation to get through a workout, especially as enjoying exercise isn’t something that comes naturally to me. While some people appear to relish pushing their boundaries and reaching new PBs, I don’t feel that rush of endorphins after a session. Yes, I feel good, but it’s not enough to pull me out of a depressed mindset, and certainly, that feel-good emotion isn’t strong enough to override feelings of anxiety when I’m having an episode.
It’s a feeling shared by journalist Michele Theil, whose relationship with exercise and body image hasn’t always been easy. “I get anxious that people will see me in a certain top and think that I can’t wear it because I don’t look like the girls on Love Island,” she tells Stylist. “When I get anxious, I want to curl into a ball and cry – I don’t have the motivation to go to the gym and exercise even though I know it would probably make me feel better.”
Thiel admits that being told she’ll feel better after working out does serve as a helpful reminder sometimes, but adds that it needs to take context into consideration. “There shouldn’t be judgement or criticism that ‘you’re not helping yourself’ if you’re just lying on the sofa eating crisps, because sometimes that’s what people need or it’s the only thing they can do.”
Yousra Imran, certified personal trainer and author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, agrees. “I’ve experienced OCD, panic attacks, depression and anxiety for half my life,” she explains, “and even my career as a fitness instructor didn’t protect me – I had a major relapse when I was at my peak fitness level.”
“The advice often doled out by GPs needs fine tuning. ‘Go exercise’ shows a lack of understanding that when you’re in the pits of depression, you don’t have the mental or physical energy to even get out of bed. When you have crippling anxiety and panic attacks, high intensity exercise raises your cortisol levels and can exacerbate anxiety and panic symptoms,” Imran says.
Counsellor and psychotherapist Dee Johnson, a member of Counselling Directory, adds that “telling someone to just move more and eat better is not enough – our brain needs evidence”.
“Whether your movement is a session, walk or dancing around your house, the trick is to measure how low your emotional state (and motivation level) is prior to working out, make a mindful note of how you feel during, and then afterwards. Don’t expect to feel great straight away, just gently remind yourself that you have done something self-caring and would have felt worse if you had not done it.”
How to exercise if you’re struggling with depression or/and anxiety
So, how do you move in a way that works for your mental state? Yanar Alkayat, level 3 PT and fitness editor, advises that “exercise can act as a helpful distraction. When you’re focussed on an activity, especially if it’s a skill-based sport, you’re not thinking about anything else. That can shake you out of a bad day.
“However, it’s important to be led by your own body and mind. Move in a way that feels good and comfortable for you, on that day and in that moment.”
Here are Alkayat’s top tips for keeping active when you’re not in a good headspace:
QUIET THE CRITICISM
“It’s tempting, easy and maybe even a habit to be critical of ourselves. If you’re not feeling your best, adjust your expectations for the day and don’t beat yourself up if you don’t complete as intense a workout as you expected.
“Be patient, kind and understanding with what you’re able to do that day, like you would be with a friend. Remember that things will be different on another day and try not to judge yourself.”
“Choose something lifting and energising if you’re feeling low, or calming and gentle if you’re feeling more anxious, frantic or stressed. Learning to read the signs that your body and mind are giving off can help you choose the best approach for yourself on any given day. If you can, tracking patterns in your moods or symptoms will help you plan ahead.”
CHANGE THE SCENERY
“A change of environment can help, so stepping outside for a walk, a jog or a focused workout can make all the difference. While outside, notice what’s around you: colours, textures, animals, nature, acknowledging other people you pass. This can help shift you out of unhelpful thought processes.”
“It can be harder to stay motivated when exercising alone. Group classes can help keep you going, or why not stay accountable with friends, family or local groups?
“Remember that exercise takes many forms – you don’t have to be a ‘gym fanatic’. There are walking and talking groups like Mental Health Mates, Walk Talk Walk or ParkRun for casual weekly runs. Try things, be open and find what works for you – that might be different to what works for someone else.”
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