May Blog Entry

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Girl lifting weights and smilingBlog Entry May 22, 2013 by Lara

Find Your Power

Living with chronic depression and anxiety can mean a constant low-level negotiation between your body and your mind, for which will determine how you feel. Too often, the troubled mind wins.

For years I worked in the book business: at a bookstore, at a literary agency, and as a freelancer. The day-to-day work suited me, as I found solace in working with words and thought it was a career path especially tolerant of—shall we say—personality quirks. Still, I could not get comfortable in that centerpiece of literary promotional events, the author reading.

At readings, the weaknesses I worked hard to hide risked exposure at the voicing of a well-phrased line or an incisive observation. A good writer knows how to call me out, without having intended my distress. There was never enough free wine to quell my unease, to quiet my mind and still my pulse from the inevitable panic attack that results from experiencing the private moment of reading in a wrongly public sphere.

Still, as sometimes happens, a confluence of circumstances led me to Kathleen MacMahon’s reading at Hodges Figgis last year. I sat in the aisle seat of the back row (in case I had to make a quick escape) and listened to her read from her novel, This is How It Ends. In a passage describing the character Addie, she read that Addie didn’t believe the adage, whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, as she felt “everything that has ever happened to her has made her weaker, like someone has been kicking away at the scaffolding that was holding her up.”

At that, the old familiar panic bore down on me; I have felt trapped by a kicked scaffold for almost as long as I can remember. People say life is short; to me, it often feels long and strange. I have been in Zumba class, following the choreography, and burst into tears at the fundamental absurdity of it all, my wrists bouncing behind fake reins, Gangnam Style.

Needless to say, I stopped going to Zumba. But in other rooms of the gym I have found refuge, for there, unlike almost everywhere else, I feel strong. I have learned much from my hours at the gym, and I try to apply those lessons to my daily life.

A 2010 article published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicines supports what I have experienced regarding the benefits of strength and resistance training on mental health. Participants in the studies reported reductions in anxiety and depression, as well as greater self-esteem and better sleep. But I’ll leave the science to the professionals and stick to what I know, and that is how working out with weights makes me feel, and the parallel gains I have noticed in my body and my mind.

One of the first things you learn about weight training is that you start with a little and build your way up. You cannot rush this, or go about it with improper form, or you could hurt yourself. The same can be said about with living with depression and anxiety: Take small steps toward feeling better, and build upon those only when you feel ready. If the book party makes you hyperventilate, you don’t have to go.

But as in the daily struggle with depression, consistency in training is key, and as you continue to work with the weights, day by day, week by week, the load that felt impossible a few months ago will be manageable, then comfortable, even easy. You’ll take pride in finding that you can handle much more than you had thought possible, which is perhaps the gym’s most powerful lesson for those of us worn from being buffeted by the black dog. This is to say nothing of the physical health benefits you’ll experience, but when your body is strong and healthy, it is easier to feel more positive about life, generally.

Progress will not be constant. Sometimes getting to the gym is itself the accomplishment. Even at those times, keep at it, for focusing on the body gets you out of your head, which is half the battle. Those of us inclined toward depression and anxiety can get lost in the warren of our thoughts, so it can be good to focus that energy on repetitive, physical motions.

I would encourage anyone who is finding life difficult to see a trainer in addition to a therapist. A good trainer understands the connection between the mind and the body and will make sure you make the most of your time in the gym. A good trainer will also help keep you on track. Having a schedule helps give our days order, and we all need good people looking out for us.

Living with depression is not easy; but in doing so, we draw upon a well of strength so private and profound (and so hidden, even to us) that we don’t recognise its depths. So give it a shot: Pick up some weights, push out some reps, and get to know your power.

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