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My therapist has been telling me for years that I need to make a regular practice of exercising in order to help myself feel better. I always said yeah, yeah, I’ll do it, but I was so busy with life and feeling so horribly mentally that this felt like an insurmountable task.
Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky also talks about this in her book The How of Happiness, which I recently finished reading. In one study, participants with depression were put into groups and the studies have found that exercise works better than medication at relieving depressive symptoms! Now, don’t stop taking your medication, but this is a huge finding!
When you aren’t feeling well mentally, whether that be a depressive low or a manic high or even a ball of anxiety, the last thing that you might feel like doing is starting a regular exercise program.
I know that for myself, when I feel depressed, just getting out of bed feels like it will take all of the energy that I have. Showers become few and far between. Meals become irregular and unbalanced. Housework goes untouched. And responsibilities can be left undone (see this post about depression for more about my experiences).
Similarly, when I’m experiencing high levels of anxiety or having a panic attack, surviving is where my priorities lie. Look for a future post about how anxiety affects me personally.
All this is to say that I finally decided to take my therapist’s words seriously and give this exercise thing a try. I had a really bad week, mentally, last week. I was full of anxiety, I had days of depression and days of hypomania – I was rapidly cycling through moods.
One day, I was feeling particularly anxious so I hopped on to my mini rebounder (trampoline) that I used to use when I was a competitive dancer. I put on some music that made me feel like dancing (The Struts – my new favourite band). And I just started to jump! It was a good cardio workout and I could feel that my legs were a bit out of shape, but jumping felt good! I only did this for about 20 minutes. This is something that is totally sustainable for a lot of lifestyles, but you can start out small with even 5 minutes of exercise, every little bit will help.
My anxiety symptoms went way down immediately after this high intensity exercise. I was shocked. This worked better for me than taking a pill like Ativan or Valium.
Now, this feeling didn’t last all day. I had a few hours of feeling good before my symptoms started to return but that was a few hours I wouldn’t otherwise have been feeling good.
My degree in psychology has taught me to not take a one-time situation like this as conclusive proof. And I’m not trying to do an actual study with proper participants and variables, but I wanted to see if this was the real deal for me personally.
Over the next 10 days (up until today), I’ve been tracking my exercise and moods. I haven’t exercised every single day, as I probably wouldn’t if I was working full time and taking care of my daughter, but I exercised more days than I didn’t.
What I found is that I almost always felt better after a 20-30 minute cardio exercise routine than I did before working out. This is huge for me! One day I woke up feeling extremely irritable, which is a symptom I often deal with when I’m anxious. So I decided to exercise that morning, and the irritability went away.
I’m going to continue with this plan of exercising a minimum of 3 days a week and see how I’m feeling, but I have hop!
I’ll add a couple of caveats here. First, this is in no way intended to replace prescribed medication. This exercise plan is something that I’m doing in addition to taking my prescribed medications. Second, the episodes that I went through last week were pretty mild for me, so I don’t know that this would be as efficient if I were in a deep depression and had a hard time getting out of bed. Third, this may not work for everyone or every circumstance but it gives me hope and I wish that it will do the same for others.
Take care of yourselves!