Running Through Depression Part I: Keep Going
Author’s note: This article is meant to share a personal experience about anxiety, depression and using running appropriately to deal with those two illnesses. I am certainly not a mental health professional. Everyone’s situation is different. If you are experiencing anxiety and/or depression, please seek professional help.
I knew the clouds were coming. It happened every year about that time. The holidays pass, winter in Minnesota wears on, getting out for a run depends completely on the weather forecast. For me, it’s also typically busy season at work, piling on more projects and more hours.
Looking back now, the majority of the late winter/early spring seasons were always clouded by a slight mental downward trajectory. As work and life picked up with the pace in a new year, I would start to feel anxious about what was coming around the corner. The anxiety triggered depressive thoughts about not being able to keep up. Fearing that the worst was coming.
I knew to expect this and I understood how to deal with it. In past years, running had always been my solace. The calm in the middle of the storm. The head-clearing space I needed at the end of “just another busy day.”
I should probably stop at this point and explain that, for most people affected by some mental illness, anxiety and depression often go hand in hand. Over 40 million adult Americans are affected by an anxiety disorder. That translates to approximately 18% of the population. Depression is another of the most common mental illness, affecting just about 7% of the population. In short: there are a lot of people out there dealing with these illnesses.
Like other diseases, anxiety and depression can come in waves and can be cyclical. As I was saying, for me, I knew the timing of when to expect the “black dog” to arrive. Likewise, I also knew about when it would release its hold on my mind and let me go back to life as “normal.” Except, one year, it didn’t.
Go Run It Off
It’s funny, in a sadistic sort of way, when I look back on pictures of the year that my depression decided to stick around. For those of you familiar with the smartphone app TimeHop, my post-run pictures of that year will pop up and I will instantly remember that day, that run, and how I felt. It’s so easy for me to look at a picture and say to myself “Oh, yes. That was a bad day. But a good run.”
Having an outlet like running is such a blessing. And not just for people who suffer from forms of mental illness. Running is known to be a huge reliever of stress during or after a busy day. Or a way to help you focus heading into the day. The release of endorphins and that fabled “runners high” make that all possible.
To be clear: I run because I love to run. But during my historical times of mild cyclical depression, I would use running as my cure. I would go run off my depressive symptoms. If I needed motivation to get out the door on a cold spring day, I looked no further than what was ahead on the schedule. My anxiety would kick into overdrive and out I would go! I’d lay down an easy 5 miles and return to mental stability for another day.
During the year in question, however, my “go run it off” practice stopped working.
I didn’t even need to think about what was ahead for motivation. The anxiety was sticking with me, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I look back at my training log during that winter/spring and all of the warning signs that something was off were there(for me, personally). In that year, in the months of January through May, I ran 21% MORE miles than in any other year of recorded run training. Even compared to the year that I was picking up my base training miles to prepare for marathon training.
Somewhere in the mental storm that was that spring, though, I figured something out. First, all of this running was not helping. Second, as we got further and further into spring, the “black dog” wasn’t releasing.
Taking the Next Step
My primary care physician is a great guy. We get along because he’s a runner and a triathlete. When I’ve seen him to get things looked at during spurts of injury, he knows better than to tell me to stop running altogether. He focuses on moderation.
Which was helpful for me when I finally admitted to myself and my wife that I needed more help than running was giving me with my depression. Mainly because, after explaining what I was going through, he didn’t ask, “Have you tried exercise?” He already knows I’m a runner.
Admitting that you need professional help with anxiety, depression, or both, is scary. But for me, it became necessary.
So, what comes next?
There’s far more to this story. Recovering from a cycle of depression and continuing to run has its challenges. Stay tuned for part 2 of the journey….