For the first 20-something years of my life, I was told that my depression was a life sentence I'd have to suffer through. So I listened to my doctor and my therapist and watched life happen to me, instead of taking action to create the life I wanted. This led me right to rock bottom.
People who meet me for the first time often tell me how happy I seem. What they don't know is how hard I've had to work for it.
After being hospitalized on suicide watch in 2005, I committed to changing my course, one action at a time. It turns out that hitting the treadmill was the action I needed. Working out helped me integrate my therapy exercises and boosted my mental resilience. Here are some of the ways that exercise helps me fight my depression:
1. Exercise provides a release when I'm feeling down.
Studies have found that people are less likely to relapse after recovering from depression if they exercise three times a week or more. When I was struggling, I reached for substances to help me escape the pain. Now, when I'm feeling especially down or anxious, I go for a walk or a run to relieve the darkness I'm feeling. I come back feeling lighter, even if the heaviness isn't completely gone. Knowing that I am capable of taking action for myself helps me stave off hopelessness.
Fitness-focused people seem to be happier than most (probably due to the abundant endorphins). Being around happy people helps me feel happier, too. I met my best friend and my husband at the gym, and they inspire me every day to grow a little stronger, inside and out.
2. Pushing through a tough workout boosts my self-esteem.
I can lift some serious weights, push myself through grueling sprints and hold horse pose longer than most. Experiencing physical pain made me realize that I am not easily broken. I'd always been afraid of allowing myself to feel emotional because of how dark my emotions had gotten before.
Now that I'm physically and mentally stronger, I know that no emotion can shatter me, and because of that, I give my struggle the attention it needs to heal, rather than resist or ignore it like I did in the past.
3. Being fit has made me a more confident version of myself.
When I started becoming physically stronger, I became more confident in my body. I learned how to do arm balances in yoga, I lifted huge weights and I revolutionized my body composition. I'm proud of how I look, but more importantly, of what my body can do. I've earned it.
4. Exercise helped me learn to love myself.
When I started concentrating on loving myself by devoting time to movement, other acts of self-love followed. I began eating better, meditating and practicing mindfulness, which helps me manage my depression daily.
Mantras became my savior inside and outside of the gym. I use mantras while I work out to help me push through the tough stuff. After using them for a while in my workouts, I started using them in everyday life, empowering me through tough choices I needed to make that would lead me to a happier, healthier life.
5. When everything else in my life feels out of control because of my depression, exercise provides a feeling of control.
I can't control many of depression's symptoms, which can make me feel powerless. However, I do have control over moving my body and making sure I fit some form of exercise into my day. Even if 10 minutes is all you can do, it's 10 minutes of standing up against your disorder rather than letting it call the shots for you.
6. I breathe better today.
There's a lot to be said for deep breaths. They calm the mind and relieve stress (depression is a major stressor on the mind and body!). Because I integrate deep breathing into my workouts, it's become a habit outside of the gym as well. Every time I come up against a trying situation, I hear myself taking deep, belly breaths. It's an easy way to center yourself back in the moment and focus on moving forward.
It's important to clarify that I'm not cured. With clinical depression, it's a chemical imbalance that will be with me for life. The difference now is that I know exactly what to do to limit depression's effect on me, and climb out of it quickly. I live a full, joyful life in spite of my disorder.
Photo courtesy of the author