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I've Been Battling Depression For Most Of My Life — Here's How Running Helps

Erin McGrady
Written by Erin McGrady
Erin McGrady (she/her/hers) is photographer, writer, and content creator based in Asheville, North Carolina.
Erin McGrady

While some health issues are visible to the outside world, many people face chronic conditions that don't have externally visible signs or symptoms—also known as invisible illnesses. In mindbodygreen's new series, we're giving individuals with invisible illnesses a platform to share their personal experiences. Our hope is their stories will shed light on these conditions and offer solidarity to others facing similar situations.

My mental health journey started way before I even knew I was on a mental health journey. I had a really privileged life growing up on a small farm—I went to a great school, never wanted for food or shelter, and I felt quite safe with my adopted family. But there was always something that I hid from a lot of people. I would cry myself to sleep at night. 

I grappled with my pain for years before I had language for it.

I was a very small person struggling with very deep things that I didn't know how to navigate. It was only when I got older and began therapy that I realized I had been suffering my entire life, and this wasn't something new. Now, I have a way to shape how I'm experiencing things, and it was helpful to have a label for it (even though I don't really like labels), to know that I wasn't alone.

However, it was also very scary and brought a lot of shame and discomfort leaning into the label of struggling with depression. I'm naturally a problem solver, so once I had a name to it I decided I didn't want to be my own worst enemy. I knew deep in my core that movement was a powerful tool for me—after all, I've been moving my entire life. 

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Using movement to ease my depression symptoms. 

I played various sports throughout high school and for two years in college, but after that, I dislocated my shoulder, tore my meniscus, and got stitches—I realized those sports maybe weren't for me.

Then, one of my friends invited me to go for a run during college, and I thought, Sure I can do that, but what's the purpose? What are we chasing? But it was fun—and one thing led to the next and we entered a 5K.

After that, I started doing bigger and longer races. When I graduated college, the habit stuck with me. I liked that I could access running daily without a whole lot of money or resources, and I had the ability to put on my shoes and end up somewhere different both mentally and physically. There was real magic and power in that for me because it was something that I could do, as opposed to feeling hopeless (which I've since realized is the form my depression takes).

But with that, I had to learn how not to abuse the activity. In the beginning of my journey, I was running marathons and racing several weekends a month—but it became too much, and I got stress fractures after taking it too far. After recovering from my injuries, I realized I needed to find a way to balance my activity a little more. 

Over the last several years, I've homed in on how to balance that part of my life. I do have to force myself to take rest days, and it's very difficult because my brain usually doesn't feel the same. 

My running routine for mental health. 

Nowadays, I run five days on, two days off, sometimes six days on two days off, but I know that rest really is part of training. It took a long time for that shift to happen for me, but I realized that when I'm running I just need to go out there and enjoy myself, and it feels like a much happier, healthier place to be.

I try not to run the same route twice if at all possible. I like changing it up and having variety. I love new things. I don't really listen to music either because I need to be aware of my surroundings from a safety perspective. 

Other times, running can be playful. If I see a rock that looks manageable, I will jump off. If I see a dog, I'll stop to pet it or take pictures. This is not a serious endeavor. 

That said, at times, it's not easy to keep up the routine. A week and a half ago, I hit a really low spot. I was crying and lying on the bed, but I had enough willpower to get my clothes on and get dressed. My wife suggested that I go for a run and she would follow me on the bike for the first mile or so.

I made it to the end of the driveway, and when I looked down, I thought that my usual route seemed so far. So I started walking, and then moving faster with the next steps. I started jogging, and by the third or fourth mile, I felt a transformation. It's almost like a stranger stepped into my place, and when I get back, I felt so much better.

Advice for anyone struggling with depression.

I've come out to myself so many times throughout my life. As a queer person, when I go out into the world, I have to introduce myself to people all the time, and I have to out myself on a daily basis. 

That's kind of what talking about depression is for me, too, having to come out in a different way. For instance, I would have to explain to my mom or friends: "I'm going to be late today; I've had a really hard day, and I'm not feeling like myself."

What's more, I realized I needed to come out to myself as having depression in the same way I did as being queer. I needed to accept that part of myself, even though I wanted to reject it so badly.

In my worst days, I hated that about myself, but I think the best thing is to really try to love yourself, even when you're having a hard time. That's why my running shoes are always right there. Because even when I'm in my darkest place, I know that if I can just put them on and get out the door, I'm going to feel better. Running saved my life.

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One final note.

Nothing is one-size-fits-all. My way of managing mental health doesn't look like some of my other friends' who have struggled with depression. A lot of people are often surprised when they hear I have depression because I have a bright personality—but they may not realize I just don't go out into the world when I'm feeling bad. It's such a vulnerable place, but it's important to not have assumptions about what depression is or what it isn't.

If someone is bold enough to share that they are struggling with it, being supportive and nonjudgmental is the most helpful thing. It's a very personal experience. 

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