Exercise – sometimes it’s a lifeline

Ok, everyone knows that regular exercise helps ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety. It’s exceedingly well-documented. For the most part, those of us who exercise regularly don’t need to be told about the very real endorphin rush one receives after physical exertion. It’s not a magic bullet, though, but it is a valuable tool that is so well-known that sometimes we forget that it can have dramatic effects on our mental well-being. I want to share with you my recent experience because, to me, it was nothing short of miraculous.

In the last few months I finally realized that I suffer chronic anxiety. Armed with this new self-knowledge, I suppose I always have had it. It certainly helps to explains quite a few things in my past. It has manifested itself at times in panic attacks (which I scarcely realized were panic attacks at the time) and bouts of depression. Anyway, as they say in AA, accepting that you have a problem is the first important step. The second important step is to find a qualified no-bullshit straight talking therapist. The third is to start doing the “work” as they say. The approach is multifaceted, of course, so it’s not as easy as saying “here’s a pair of running shoes or a barbell, you’re cured”. Exercise is an important part of the tool kit, but it’s only a part.

I’ve always done some sort of physical activity my entire life so I’m well aware that exercise is an important part of keeping an even keel, mentally speaking. I’ve always wondered, almost with a shudder, how people who chronically avoid exercise battle their mental demons. I honestly don’t know how they do it.

Anxiety/depression can be a tough, tenacious son of a bitch to combat. You’ll have good periods followed by bad periods in which you’ll need every tool in your arsenal to dig yourself out. Over the past 3 to 4 weeks I have experienced an ever tightening vicious circle of anxiety. The trigger was work-related – a big problem arose that I had to take ultimate responsibility for. This engendered a chain of constant intrusive, catastrophic thoughts. (Why this particular crisis caused this reaction is something I will investigate further with my therapist.) I applied techniques I’ve recently learned to stop engaging with these thoughts, which helped somewhat. However, the damage was done, and as I worked longer hours to resolve the issue (which made me later on my other deadlines) the less time I had for family or training. This, of course, exacerbated the situation immensely.

Every day I would get home completely drained and drop into bed. I was able to sleep a few hours out of sheer exhaustion but then inevitably I’d wake up and the intrusive thoughts would spring to life. Sometimes I was able to not engage with them, but as they days and weeks dragged on I became more sleep deprived and was less successful at keeping them at bay. It’s a slippery slope trying to resolve an issue when you’re chronically sleep deprived. Your brain, at this point, has some very real impairment which means you’re not thinking straight.

My one bright spot in this episode is that I instinctively realized that adding booze to this situation would be like adding gasoline to a bonfire. Believe me, when you’re up again at 3am for many weeks running, you’ll do almost anything to get back to sleep. From experience, I was rightly scared of self-medicating with alcohol. So going into the beginning of last week I realized that this bout of anxiety was doing me more damage than anything that might happen to me professionally. The root of the anxiety in this case was fear of failure and, I suppose, that I would be fired.

The anxiety and the sleeplessness got so bad that I was really, truly suffering. Intellectually, I realized that the amount of suffering I was experiencing was worse than losing my job. If I lost my job that wouldn’t be great but it wouldn’t be the literal end of the world. I’d eventually find another one and, who knows, maybe one with less stress. Ending this particular anxiety spiral became of utmost importance.

(You might ask at this point if I take anti-anxiety medication. I don’t – yet – but I’m actively exploring which medication might be best suited to me. I used to think that exercise and “toughing it out” were enough but they aren’t. I was also afraid of side-effects but honestly, if they work even somewhat, I’m willing to accept a certain level of side-effects. I’ve come to realize that not taking medication is akin to refusing Novocain at the dentist. Sure, you can do it, but it doesn’t make much sense.)

So going into last weekend I realized that I need to make at least some changes. I needed to prioritize myself and my family. I spent meaningful time with my son and was happy to note that I was able to be present, not obsessing about catastrophic thoughts. I also engaged in an epic training with some training partners including one I hadn’t seen in years which was awesome. I started the week with my batteries at least somewhat recharged.

It turned out to be very, very tough week. I wish I could say that all was fine and that I slept in spite of everything. I couldn’t, but at least I came to the final realization that I will make it to end of this crisis and I’ve resolved to change some aspects of my life. One of these, as previously mentioned, is I’m now open to taking medication. More important is taking time for necessary self-care . Unchecked anxiety and lack of sleep is quite literally dangerous to one’s health. The irony is that imagined dangers may never come to pass, but they can engender real consequences. Finally, I was just really tired of needless suffering. Towards the end of the week the crisis seems to playing itself out. The end result was not great but neither was it the result that I was feverishly imagining, in an endless loop, at night.

So by the time Friday night rolled around I felt a bit better. I did a half-way decent deadlift training and was able to sleep semi-normally. I woke up on Saturday feeling OK, not great, but OK. Strangely, however, as the day progressed my anxiety really ramped up until I began to feel the familiar hairy cloak of depression descending. Jesus, I thought, why now? Physically I felt like shit. Worse still, the weather was just horrible. Gray skies and driving rain most of the day. In retrospect, one does not cure many weeks of anxiety attacks and sleep deprivation with one work-out and a half-decent night of sleep. I guess a brief moment of increased clarity invited the depression chickens home to roost. Nevertheless, I had a very, very strong feeling that I needed to do my scheduled bench training for that day, come what may. Above all, I desperately needed a change of scenery.

So went to the cheap, cut rate globo gym near my home. The equipment at the powerlifting club, especially the benches, barbells, etc are far superior to those in the globo gym but I needed to be around people. The powerlifting club is awesome, but depending on when you go, you will sometimes workout alone. Thus, I found myself at the globo gym using one of their funky benches and substandard barbells, surrounded by hordes of skinny, flexing teenage dudes and middle-aged “glove wearing” curl Bros. News flash – my strength wasn’t great because I hadn’t really eaten or slept very well during the week. So I lowered the weight a little bit and resolved to do all of my working sets and then accessory work. Moving the weight, even if it felt harder than it should, just felt good. The feeling of engaging my physical body was like the feeling of relief you experience when you have a bad headache and the Ibuprofen finally kicks in.

My training took 2 hours. As I left the gym, I realized that I hadn’t thought about anything but my lifts. I didn’t set any PRs but I had a slight ego boost of executing a good training. My mood had dramatically changed. When I got home I went for a 30 minute walk . I was relaxed and not doom and gloom. I’ve been training for decades but even I was surprised how one training could have such a dramatic effect. I think one of the reasons it had this effect on me is that physical training is an ingrained habit with me. Not only does my body react better to hard training but my mind gets a bit of a vacation as well. In the case of the training I did yesterday I actively worked on form, breathing and other cues which obviously is great for clearing your mind of other thoughts. Also, I was able to take a bit of pride in my skill, in what I was doing and how I was doing it.

I still feel pretty decent – the proof is that I’m writing this post. As anybody with an anxiety or depression will tell you, it’s very had to focus when in the grips of an episode. I should be clear – I don’t think you can fix a mental health issue by physical exercise alone. Can it help? Without a doubt. In fact, I’d rate the mental health benefits of training as more of a motivating factor than looking buff or setting competition PRs. What if you currently aren’t exercising or training for sport? Find something you think you’d like to try and do it on a regular basis. The only expectation you need to that you will do the activity on regular basis. Can’t run a kilometer? Walk. Can’t lift 50 Kgs? Start with the empty barbell. Sooner or later, you will adapt and will instinctively want to push further. Who knows, someday, in a surprising manner, it may prove more beneficial than you ever imagined.

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