Depression, Anxiety, and Exercise

I’ve been living with anxiety and panic attacks since I was in 5th grade.

What this meant for me, was that I needed to find a system or series of systems, to help me identify anxiety indicators; and create evolving pathways to help me walk that anxiety back, when it happens. These systems help me avoid, and sometimes prevent, full-blown panic attacks. Everyone has different ways to identify their anxiety or otherwise anxiety-driven behavior.

Exercise and movement, can help relieve or reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. It’s also important to understand that exercise and movement can also exacerbate anxiety and depression symptoms, if we aren’t taking the time to check in with ourselves.

My personal experience with exercise and movement, is that if I’m not participating in something that I enjoy, or an activity that supports a social and community aspect which is truly supportive of progress, the exercise will only make my symptoms worse. For example, It took a long time for me to acknowledge that training for and running triathlons, created a perfect scenario for depression and inflation of my anxiety.

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I found triathlon, when a previous colleague of mine offered that he didn’t think I was capable of ‘doing’ triathlon. I took the bait and via training for my first race, found that I was actually pretty good at this triathlon thing. I didn’t particularly enjoy biking that wasn’t for leisure; swimming laps in a pool, doesn’t necessarily lend to conversation; and I strongly dislike running. But, I was good and saw that I stood a chance of winning some events.

For the following three seasons, I trained completely by myself. I wasn’t a part of a running club, bike club, or swim club, because those cost money. Also, their group workouts programs are typically when I’m already at work. As a trainer, I’m training my clients, at the same time as those programs. So all of this intense race training that I was doing, I was doing completely by myself.

Humans are inherently social, and need some level of enjoyable interaction with others, on a regular basis. In my training, I also tightened up my sleeping schedule a lot; as quality sleep is absolutely integral to recovery and avoiding burnout. For almost 4 years, 6 days a week, I’d wake up around 4:30 am for work, work a full day, train for triathlon 3-4 hours, eat dinner then walk my dogs, and finally go to sleep. From the moment I woke up, I was counting the hours in that day I had until I must exercise, until I must eat, and then until I must be asleep. I was miserable.

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Prior to starting triathlon, I had been training in martial arts 4-5 days a week, and had zero time for this practice once triathlon training really kicked into gear. For me, that physical movement expression in martial arts, really relieved my anxiety symptoms and it offers a community of people who are very supportive of positive personal growth; i.e. Kaizen = constant, never ending growth. But why was it so hard for me to recognize that triathlon wasn’t serving me?

It was so difficult because of the adage in the health and fitness community: “Depressed? Just exercise! Feeling anxious? You have too much energy. Exercise will help that!” I was exhausted, in the truest expression of the word; and yet my anxiety symptoms were at an all time high. My depression was deepening. I was checked-out emotionally. To avoid the depressive thoughts, about getting through the triathlon training (that I ‘needed’ to do after long days of work), I would completely check out of the world around me, into a pair of headphones when I wasn’t at work.

I also felt and received immense pressure as a fitness professional, to continue on the path that I had started from colleagues, clients, and employers. I had anxious thoughts about what would happen if I ‘quit’, what everyone would ‘think of me.’ What would my body look like once I stopped racing? I also genuinely wanted to see how far I could push my body. For me, it took getting arthritis in my hip and severe burnout symptoms to finally see that ‘this is not working!’

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Thankfully, I did finally see it though. I quit triathlon and reignited my passion for martial arts. I choose to take time, thoughtfully making sure that whatever I chose to do, it would be healthy movement for me. I’ve also set my intention to know my limits, truly listen to my body, and forgive myself when I truly do not have the energy to move. ‘Be my best client’ 😉

My intention with this blog, is to support others in feeling comfortable in taking their time to find exercise and movement that truly works best for them. It has been my experience as a personal trainer, that many people feel pressured to exercise or move their bodies, in ways that they truly do not want to participate in. I’m standing in support of the thought that movement is specific to the individual.

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I’m creating space for us all to hopefully enjoy the journey of moving our bodies, while feeling supported enough to say ‘no, this program does not work for me’ when it is truly the case.

I am also standing in support of health and fitness professionals everywhere, taking the time to truly listen to their clients expression of self, and in taking the time to develop as coaches to meet our clients where they currently are.

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