Running and Depression

Author’s Warning: this post is a lot more serious and a lot less GIF filled than anything else I’ve written thus far, but I felt this was important to share, as it goes into a little more depth than my About page. While it does not contain any detailed or graphic descriptions, the fact that it is a discussion of depression and suicide may be a trigger to some. As someone with PTSD, I’ve struggled with the concept of trigger warnings and when they are necessary/appropriate and I tend to believe they are overused. Originally I wasn’t going to put one (especially since this whole blog is dedicated to my fight against depression) but something is telling me I should, so I’m going with my gut. Feel free to skip this post if for any reason it’s not your cup of tea. My feelings won’t be hurt and you can rejoin us for the next GIF filled summary of my workout

Featured Image Credit: Works by Marco

I started this blog a month ago as a way to chronicle my training to eventually run marathons and it’s effect on my depression.
Depression is being discussed much more than it has ever been. This is in part because people like on the internet Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half  have opened up about their experiences with Depression. Sadly some of it is also because of high-profile suicides, like Robin Williams.

But even with all of the discussion, it seems like a large number of people still don’t quite understand what depression is and how it effects people. So I’ve decided to throw in my 2 cents and talk a bit about my experience with the disorder. That way we can all be on the same page.

A Quick Summary of What it is Like to Live with Depression

I don’t know how long I’ve had depression, but if I had to guess I’d say it started in my mid to late teens. I was fairly high-functioning, so most people wouldn’t know about the darkness that was creeping in and killing my joy. By the time I moved to Florida for college I was barely holding on. I would have depressive bouts that would last a week or so and seemed to be triggered by stress, but they got longer and longer and it got harder and harder to even go through the motions as my motivation withered. It is only because I had understanding, kind and caring professors who were VERY accommodating of me even though at the time no one, including me, really understood what was truly going on; that I was able to even finish college.

By the time EJ was born I was virtually non functioning. It took everything in me to meet my baby’s basic needs and that was all I was able to do, the rest of my time was spend in bed or on the couch either sleeping or watching TV/Facebooking. Sometimes I couldn’t even get up to put lunch in the microwave because it was too much effort. This was due in part to postpartum depression, but it just never went away and just stayed as full on “regular” depression.

Even on good days, it was sometimes difficult to get through the end of the day, and I wouldn’t have enough spoons (emotional energy) to do or cope with anything.

I more or less became a shut in, because I just didn’t have the emotional strength or spoons for anyone or anything.

It not only affected me emotionally, but physically. I was achy, I couldn’t sleep, I had wild appetite swings, and because I also have anxiety my heartrate would spike for no apparent reason, so I was constantly exhausted. I lost my libido and it is only because I have a loving and understanding husband that our marriage has not suffered greatly because of this.

I was sick but it took a while to figure out what was wrong with me.

So as not to just continue repeating the same things others have said, instead of continuing on about myself and making this post unbearably long, I’ll just share a few links that accurately describe what it is like to live with depression.

Depression Part 2

21 Things No One Tells You About Being Depressed

21 Comics That Capture The Frustrations of Depression

and for those who are not quite sure how to act around those with depression:

15 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone Struggling with Depression

Depression and suicide

After Robin Williams’ death there was a flurry of blog posts and articles about suicide and depression. Some were very good, others were not. There was one in particular that was being shared a lot in my social network that caused quite a controversy. (I am not sharing it because I can not stand the author and his horrible rhetoric and I do not want to give him any page views, but here is a response to it I will be referencing later on). A lot of people who shared it because they agreed with it, I feel, don’t have a very good understanding about depression, while my friends who I know either suffer (or had suffered) from depression, or are close to someone who does/did tended to disagree with the post completely, or acknowledged that the few good points he had were lost in terrible rhetoric and inflammatory statements (including the most insensitive clickbate title I have ever seen). After reading the article when it was first posted, I did my best to stay out of the comments of the various friends who shared this post, just because I didn’t have the spoons to deal with with such a deeply personal & emotional topic, but there was a lot I wanted to say.

Now everything has finally lined up in such a way where I feel comfortable being VERY real and open about my experiences with depression and suicide.

During my junior year of college I was in a car accident. I’m not going to go into all the details, but short form is I was in the passenger seat of my car (a friend was driving), we lost control and hit a tree. I had a compression fracture of my L5 (5th Lumbar vertebrae), my neurosurgeon (if you are wondering, he decided that because of the location of some bone fragments surgery was riskier than just letting it heal as is) said I was lucky to be alive and I was a “miracle child” that I walked away from the accident (to the point that at my first checkup after discharge he, no joke, took me around to all his colleagues in the office to show me of). The recovery & the therapy was tough and we had to postpone the wedding because of it. On top of that the friend who was driving when the accident happened (who I felt very close to) essentially cut ties completely. I was crushed and felt utterly betrayed. At this point I plunged into deep depression. I will admit in the midst of this I said some things I now regret that did not help our relationship, and what I am about to say next is not to try to make excuses for what happened, it is to illustrate an important point about depression that a lot of people don’t get and one that I will be emphasizing throughout this post.

When you suffer from depression, you are not just sad or lacking emotion, you are literally not in your right mind and you will do and say things that you wouldn’t otherwise.

This brings us back to that controversial post I mentioned earlier.
One of the author’s premises is that depression doesn’t kill because suicide is a choice.
The response I linked above has a great takedown of it (I’ll even link to it again, in case you didn’t go read it when I linked it earlier…it’s ok, I’ll wait), but I’m going to offer my own analogy in response.
As I said, when you suffer from depression, anxiety (let me tell you the double whammy of both is NOT fun) or any other mental illness, you are not in your right mind. You are more or less in an altered state of reality and your brain does not function logically or properly, even if you seem more or less “fine” to other people. As the response article I linked explained, depression doesn’t just impair your ability to feel, it also impairs your ability to act (which is why I track motivation as well as emotion in my workout stats). When your depression is improving your ability to act comes back before your ability to feel, or think logically.

While I don’t have the statistics, I am willing to bet that most suicides by people with depression are not pre-meditated, but instead are done on impluse. This is because the brain is only working well enough to know it needs to act, but the “filter” part that stops your brain from acting on the impulse is still not necessarily working. The important thing to remember (yes I know I keep repeating this) is that when you are suffering from depression you are not in your right mind. And now we finally get to my analogy. Depression and suicide is like hypothermia and paradoxical undressing. Technically, yes your brain is making the “choice” to undress while you are actively dying of exposure, but you are so mentally impaired that not only does this not seem like an unreasonable thing to do, but you are not necessarily even actively thinking “this is what I should do” you may just be acting, for lack of a better term instinctively. Depression can and does put you in a similar state where the brain does not think logically.

I have been suicidal twice, and until very recently not even my husband knew that. The first time was after the car accident, the second was a month or two after EJ was born (I suffered from postpartum depression). Both times I never actually tried to kill myself, nor did I really think a lot about ways I could end my life. I just wished my life would end. I never endangered myself, I just wished it. But here is how non-logical brains can be when that deep in depression: I talked myself out of wanting death both times because every time I thought about being dead I would think about how I couldn’t (and this was the exact thought I had) live with myself knowing the grief my death would cause Hubby, or how difficult it would be for him & newborn EJ if I was gone. You can see how little sense this makes. Regardless of your belief about death and what happens when you die, it is physically impossible to feel guilt (or any other emotion) when you die. So the fact that I would feel guilty about my death after I died should in no way have been able to convince me that I didn’t actually want to die, and yet it did, because I was not in my right mind.

While there are common symptoms, not everyone who has it suffers from depression the same way. So I am not saying that because I have been able to “overcome” the times I was suicidal doesn’t mean everyone else will. Overcoming suicidal desires is not just a battle of the will, for some people it can only be done with the help of trained medical professionals.

How Does Running Fit into All This?

About 2 weeks after we moved back to Florida, I realized I needed help. I didn’t want to stay in the same dark hole with my life falling apart around me. I was in a new place and it was a chance for me to have a fresh start. So I started asking neighbors and looking online for recommendations for medical professionals who specialized in mental health . But there was a problem, I was in a lapse of insurance as my husband switched jobs and did not have a lot of money. But I had taken the first big step, I recognized that I needed help and I wasn’t afraid to go get it.

As I explain in my About page, after a few weeks with a lot of physical activity, I found myself feeling more motivated and more not sad/empty than I had in years. This triggered something I remembered reading somewhere at some point: that exercise, especially runing can help with depression. And it just so happened that this was right around the time that members of a Disney fan group I belong to on Facebook started posting pictures from the Disneyland Half Marathon on the member’s page. Now Disney is one of the few things that I can still find some pleasure in. So I thought that doing RunDisney events would be a good way to encourage myself to train for an event. And at the advice of runner friends, because I was not accustomed to running or any sort of exercise, I decided to use the Couch to 5k program as my first step. But before I would even do that, I first had to do some research on the relationship between running and depression.

The first thing I read was this article from Harvard that reported

[A] study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999, divided 156 men and women with depression into three groups. One group took part in an aerobic exercise program, another took the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft), and a third did both. At the 16-week mark, depression had eased in all three groups. About 60%–70% of the people in all three groups could no longer be classed as having major depression. In fact, group scores on two rating scales of depression were essentially the same. This suggests that for those who need or wish to avoid drugs, exercise might be an acceptable substitute for antidepressants. Keep in mind, though, that the swiftest response occurred in the group taking antidepressants, and that it can be difficult to stay motivated to exercise when you’re depressed.

That just blew me away. I didn’t have health insurance, so I wasn’t in a position to get on any sort of antidepressant medication (not that I was/am opposed to doing so, but that stuff is expensive even with insurance and money is not something I have a lot of). So the fact that exercise may be a suitable substitute for medication had me hopeful, and even if I did start taking antidepressants the exercise could still help with improvement.

Then I continued reading the article and learned

A follow-up to that study found that exercise’s effects lasted longer than those of antidepressants. Researchers checked in with 133 of the original patients six months after the first study ended. They found that the people who exercised regularly after completing the study, regardless of which treatment they were on originally, were less likely to relapse into depression.

Holy Cow! The effects last longer and relapse is less likely. Well, that means I could be essentially depression free for the rest of my life, because why would I stop running because I’m feeling better? So I was all over this. Even though I don’t currently have a primary care physician or a mental health specialist, I talked to several health care professionals I know and they supported my plan.

So how does running have such a positive effect on depression? Well, no one is really quite sure but according to the Mayo Clinic, the best theory is

Regular exercise probably helps ease depression in a number of ways, which may include:

  • Releasing feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids)
  • Reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression
  • Increasing body temperature, which may have calming effects

Regular exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits, too. It can help you:

  • Gain confidence. Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Take your mind off worries. Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
  • Get more social interaction. Exercise and physical activity may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others. Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
  • Cope in a healthy way. Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

Frankly, to me it doesn’t really matter WHY it works, so long as it works. I may only be 4 weeks in but I am hopeful I will start feeling the lasting effects of this treatment soon.

Please remember, I am not a fitness, medical, or mental health professional. I’m just someone with depression doing my best to fight the darkness. Do not take anything I say as advice. And always seek professional help if you feel you are struggling with depression, contemplating suicide, or starting an exercise regiment.

 

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8 thoughts on “Running and Depression

  1. Stephen says:

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks now but I also keep coming back to this post. Some of it is very familiar to me and your analogy of suicidal thinking to paradoxical undressing rings very true.

    I wish you the best and am sorry that you’ve been suffering. I look forward to reading of your progress. Hang in there.

    Like

  2. angela says:

    I totally identify with the not being able to live with yourself if you weren’t alive comment. I too am training to run disney to battle my depression without medication! Don’t give up the ship! You are not alone!

    Liked by 1 person

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