Depression and Exercise – Relationship Status = ‘It’s complicated’

The lovely Stu asked me if I would write a guest blog for the Dan Rhodes Foundation, offering my own perspective on depression and exercise. How could I refuse? 🙂

This isn’t a story about some miraculous transformation of my life through exercise. Exercise has not cured my depression. Sometimes it has helped, sometimes it has made it worse. Mainly, it’s complicated. Also, if I hear someone say ‘oh you’re depressed, have you tried exercise?’, it makes me want to slap them (replace ‘exercise’ with ‘mindfulness’ and I have the same reaction, but that’s another blog!).

Exercise has not always been part of my life. When I was at school, I was the fat kid. I was rubbish at PE, I always got picked last for any team. I had zero hand-eye coordination and I couldn’t run. As I reached my twenties I tried going to the gym a bit, and sometimes I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a regular feature.

When I first had a serious depressive episode in my late twenties, when I started to come out the other side, I took up rowing. Don’t ask me why or how I came to that decision. I went down once expecting to hate it and I got hooked. Mainly it was the social aspect that helped me most – I gradually made some really good friends, which helped with the loneliness that had been a factor in my depression at that point.

Over the years, rowing became an addiction for me – it’s one of those sports that sucks you in. It also became a big source of self-esteem for me. Suddenly I was fit, and I was getting fairly good at something. Winning races became a form of self-validation.

When I was made redundant in 2012, things slowly started to fall apart. I struggled with depression but more or less kept going ok (with some counselling) until a couple of years later. An unfortunate set of work circumstances on top of everything else led to me breaking down at work and taking a couple of months off. As I started to come out of the depths, I set myself a huge aim to go back to compete at the country’s top womens’ regatta. I set up a Twitter feed and blog to chart my progress. I was determined this was the key to my recovery and was hell-bent on getting there.

I pushed myself to do as much training as I could find the energy and motivation for, and constantly berated myself for not doing as much as I though I ‘should’. I decided I ‘had’ to compete in the lightweight category and for months carefully watched what I ate and obsessed about getting down to weight. In the weeks before the race I started having panic attacks in my boat again, and I could feel that things were going downhill, but nothing was stopping me getting there. In the last couple of weeks my energy levels and strength really started to leave me. What I hoped would feel like an enormous achievement, felt like a huge disappointment and failure. Outwardly I had always said that just being there and competing was the aim, but inwardly that was never true. I knew I wasn’t fit enough to get there and do any better – and unconsciously I used this as more ammunition to tell myself I wasn’t good enough, I was a failure, that I was worthless.

That point, two years ago, was the beginning of a huge downward spiral that I think (hope)  I reached the bottom of earlier this year. During this time I started seeing a psychiatrist, who told me that my attitude to food and exercise sounded very much like that of someone with anorexia. She gave me strict limits for a few months on how much exercise I could do. During all this time I felt like I ‘should’ be rowing. I had stopped enjoying it months and months before but I kept going. I didn’t do much, but I couldn’t let myself not do it. I was constantly upset about how unfit I felt, and the fact I was gaining weight (relatively little in reality, but a lot in my mind).

When I am very depressed, some days I can barely move. My body feels heavy and slow,  as if I am wading through treacle. I’ve had days when I have gone for a walk, and all I can think about is how comfortable the pavement looks for a lie down. On occasion it has genuinely been a struggle not to do that!  I’m not sure how at these points I then used to make myself go training on the other days. The restriction the psychiatrist put me on did enable me to see how much worse my mood and energy levels were the next day if I did too much.

I am still trying to learn that on the ‘treacle’ days, a shuffle around the block is enough exercise. I’m also trying to learn that I don’t need external validation – whether that be from work, exercise, friends, whatever else – to be worth something as a human being. It feels uncomfortable even writing it because deep down I still believe that I am worthless.

Ultimately, I think what helps you is very individual. Doing exercise can be a great mood-booster, but at the same time, in the depths of depression, it can deplete your energy stores too much. As fat kid-turned-athlete I think I had a very skewed view as to what was gentle exercise. I didn’t let myself listen to my body because my mind was too busy telling me how worthless I was, and how much I deserved to be punished. I think rowing is a sport which requires you to be able to ‘punish’ your body and row through the pain barrier – which made it both the best and worst sport for me.

I am hoping at some point that I can separate that subconscious desire to punish myself, and the ability to push myself in sport. I think it is possible to do the latter from a positive starting point, rather than because you hate yourself, and just maybe that is a better recipe for success too. What I don’t know is if I can ever reach that point. At the moment I feel I am having to shy away from pushing myself too much because I know how it goes.

I’m trying to remember that enjoyment of rowing I first had – and actually just in the past few weeks, I have had a few paddles on the river when I have genuinely enjoyed it. No panic, no self-recrimination, no punishment – just enjoying being out. It feels like a tiny chink of light breaking through, but after such a long time I don’t trust it yet. It feels too good to be true that I might enjoy something and it won’t be taken away from me by depression again….I don’t know the answer to that, but I can keep hoping.

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