Exercise turned out to be just what I needed
Posted Thursday 9 August 2012
After years of severe depression, I felt that like my chances of ever leading a normal life again were slim to none. I’d stopped communicating with most of my friends, food and showering were no longer necessary, and I’d given up on any sort of daily routine. I was lucky if I got out of bed for one or two hours a day, let alone venturing out of my front door. I’d even given up on attempting to take my own life, because the whole act of trying and failing was simply too exhausting.
I don’t think I’ll ever know what was going through my mind when I impulsively signed up to run a half marathon (13.1 miles!) in the midst of my illness; I hadn’t done any form of physical exercise for years, and with my energy levels at zilch, I had no desire to start doing it either. I was always warned of the irrationality and impaired thoughts associated with depression before, and this seemed the biggest cognitive faux pas yet! But somehow, in the haze of warped perception, I’d managed to do exactly what I needed to do. I went on to train for 10 weeks, complete the half marathon in 2 hours 20, and raise just under £1000 for Mind.
People underestimate the power of physical exercise. I know I did. I was often lectured by various therapists, family members, and friends about the notion of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. But in the depths of depression, I found the concept irritating, insulting even. What did the strength of my arms and legs have to do with the strength of my mind? How could a bit of exercise possibly resolve the complex set of issues I was facing? But what I learnt when I got to a healthy mental state is that recovery isn’t usually born out of resolution; it’s through practice, knowledge, and skills. Exercise didn’t ‘fix’ me and it didn’t make me invincible to depression again. But it did equip me with tools to survive.
For me, the benefits of exercise on my mental health weren’t just about the changes in my physique, the production of ‘happy hormones’, or any kind of physical benefit. The more important thing to me was how it made me feel about myself, and the outlet it gave me for all the confusion and resentment I had for life. Running gave me a space to think, reflect, and clear my head. When I got angry, upset, or trapped, it gave me a place of solace. It gave me a structure to my day, a goal to focus on, motivation and a purpose. It gave me the opportunity to achieve something and feel proud of myself. And it gave me the opportunity to just plug in my headphones and forget about the world for a while.
Training for a half marathon equipped me with skills and techniques uncannily similar to those used for recovery from mental illness. When you can’t run more than half a mile without gasping for breath, the big goal seems so daunting, far away, impossible, unreachable. But by setting smaller goals, I built myself up, got stronger, more confident, more resilient; small goals got me to the big one. And when I stopped practicing, I got unfit again, just like I got mentally unwell again. But I had the tools and experience to recover more quickly and with less struggle and confusion.
I know that at my worst moments of severe depression, I not only felt that life wasn’t worth living, but that I just didn’t have the strength to try anymore. But even when you feel like you’ve got absolutely no strength left, there are always resources of it. You just need to find them. For me, it was running that helped me to locate that extra strength. What will help you to discover yours?
If you have been inspired to take on a similar fundraising challenge, visit our website to see how you can take part.
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