As a Psychotherapist, I probably shouldn’t be writing this--considering one of my specialties is depression, not to mention that one in five people, i.e., potential customers, are affected by it. But, as one who also experiences an occasional depression, my first line of defense isn’t necessarily psychotherapy, but the gym. So who would know better than a fellow one in five?
†Depression shows itself in a number of ways: A bleak outlook—nothing you can will improve your situation. Loss of interest in daily activities, hobbies, social activities, or even sex. An inability to feel joy and pleasure. Appetite or weight changes. Sleep changes; either insomnia, especially waking in the early hours, or oversleeping. Irritability or restlessness, on edge; everything gets on your nerves. Loss of energy. Feeling fatigued, sluggish, and physically drained. Feelings of worthlessness. You harshly criticize yourself for perceived faults and mistakes. Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things. Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches, back pain, aching muscles, and stomach pain.
††One approach I use for depression with individuals I work with is telling them to simply do the opposite of what the depression is urging them to do. For example, depression encourages isolation; it convinces one to not socialize. Having a bleak outlook, isn’t exactly self-concept booster in terms of reaching out. In reality these negative feelings are unrealistic and simply a bi-product of depression. Yet socializing is a practical, if not empirical means of counteracting these beliefs. Humans naturally respond in accordance to other humans. We take other’s cues as reflections of ourselves, such as one smiles, or laughs at our jokes. Social interactions provide us with responses with which we can counter the negative feelings about ourselves that depression incurs. But full-blown socialization can be quite difficult when depressed, thus going to the gym and interacting with others around common exchanges—working in, talking with the person at the front desk, provides small, but necessary social interactions. Plus, the gym simply gives one a place to be, a sense of belonging, and temporarily breaks the compulsion to isolate. Just taking a book and quietly reading on the Life Cycle provides the benefit of being some place, as well as the good feelings generated by exercise.†
Another characteristic of depression is anxiety, a free-floating nervousness, or feeling of dread which manifests in a distractibility. It’s like having multiple legs all vying to go in different directions. You may have the energy and drive to do something, but that something has the accuracy of buckshot. Making time to go to the gym can be a way of taking hold of the anxiety and channeling it’s energy in a productive manner. Exercise provides a diversion from the negative, obsessive thoughts and feelings symptomatic of depression.† We store experiences and their connected emotions in our body. Muscle activity helps discharge old feelings associated with negative events.† As well, 80% of depression sufferers cannot sleep well, and exercise helps to regulate sleep patterns.††
†In some yoga and Buddhist traditions the practice of meditation incorporates Mantras—words or phrases that hold significant meaning or purpose for the individual. We don’t often associate this with curls and shamelessly cranking classic rock, yet we might be at our peak of concentration and receptiveness while doing this. For example, Inhale on the rest (saying: let in strength, vitality), exhale while engaged in the curl (saying: let out bad feelings), bolstered by the yin or yang of power chords. Of course you’ll need to come up with your own mantra, but the brain responds very well to language and can associate messages with feeling good. Also, focusing on breathing oxygenates the muscles while it naturally calms the body and the individual. Not quite having fully evolved from the days when we were chased by saber tooth tigers, breathing deeply lets the body know were safe and out of harm’s way.
†Some of us have the good fortune of belonging to gyms that have a sauna. Taking a sauna after a work out is not only a good way to keep muscles loose, but it is also a way in which to pamper ourselves, something that depression doesn’t encourage us to do. The sauna also provides an opportunity to sit quietly with our eyes closed, feeling the contentment of an exercised and relaxed body, perhaps even trying a simple meditation that focuses on the breathing, or in conjunction uses the mantras one used during their work out. It may be a way of checking in with oneself or to prepare for the rest of their day or week.
By Larry O'Connor Marriage and Family Therapist
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