Combating Anxiety & Depression with Exercise

the mental game

The topic I’m writing about this week has been on my mind a while. I want to be very careful with my words because the people who can relate to what I’m about to say are already suffering quietly behind their computer screens, and nobody knows what they’re going through. I’m talking about anxiety and depression.

Depression and anxiety are silent killers that destroy happiness, relationships, careers and, in extreme cases, people. The causes may be different for each person, but the results are the same: hopelessness, isolation, shame, and lives lived halfway, watching from the sidelines as others enjoy celebrations, adventures, and everything else that brings joy.

Help is out there, but many people don’t seek it. Maybe they’re embarrassed, maybe they don’t think they can afford it−or maybe they just don’t realize they need help.

The Heavy Weight of Mood Disorders

Anxiety can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By simply believing terrible things are coming tomorrow, we ruin today. And most of the things people worry about are things that they have no control over or things that will never happen. Often, they’re awful things we’d rather not think about. Yet we dwell on these potential catastrophes, over and over and over. 

A lot of people don’t catastrophize particular scenarios, but live with a constant sense of dread. Insomnia, an inability to connect with others, and an inability to experience enjoyment are commonly reported by anxiety sufferers. Anxiety and depression are thieves that steal away people’s lives on a minute-by-minute basis.
Of course, anxiety and depression aren’t the same for everyone. They occur along a spectrum, so while some people may need to speak to a medical professional, others may be able to try to improve their situation on their own. For those people, I can’t offer a cure, but I know of some things that might help.

Prayer and Meditation

I’d be remiss if I did not mention this first. My goal here isn’t to preach the Gospel to you, but if you have questions about my Christian faith, please do not hesitate to ask. Prayer is my go-to when worry overwhelms me.

If you’re not interested in prayer, meditation may be helpful. The benefits of meditation are based on science, and among the most important are stress reduction, anxiety control, and emotional health.

Mediation doesn’t take any special training. There’s no secret to it. All you have to do is close your eyes and try to clear your mind by focusing on your breathing. There are resources on YouTube and elsewhere that can help you learn to meditate.

If you are struggling, I hope you give prayer or meditation a try. You have nothing to lose from taking a few minutes out of your day to sit quietly and concentrate on the good things in your life.

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Of course you knew I would talk about training. A lot of sufferers of mood disorders tell me coming to the gym helps them feel better.

Training changed my life, as I’ve spoken about many times, and I’ve seen it change the lives of others. But don’t take my word for it: the psychological benefits of exercise are a proven fact. Physical activity improves brain function, and that’s why, “for some people, it works as well as antidepressants.”

Getting started is the hardest part. I recommend you make yourself a promise to do something for 30 days. Your goal can be something easy, like going for a daily walk or it can be a little more challenging, like taking a weekly kettlebell class or lifting a heavy barbell off the ground. Once you meet your 30-day goal, you’ll have laid the groundwork for a new habit that will benefit you for years to come.

Start to increase the intensity of your workouts as soon as possible. Do both cardiovascular and strength training exercise. Part of the benefit of using kettlebells in particular is that it is both cardio and strength, and you can emphasize one or the other simply by adjusting the weight, reps and/or rest periods.

Keep in mind that some exercise is better than no exercise. You don’t need to workout for an hour to reap the benefits. Sometimes just getting to the gym is a win, and you’ll feel better for it.

Give Yourself Permission to be Imperfect

Allowing yourself to recognize and feel the emotions that come with depression and anxiety is the only way to work through them. Meditation and movement are not a miracle cure, but they can help you manage your mood disorder. Challenge yourself to take a class. And, no surprise, I’d suggest a kettlebell class. You have nothing to lose by giving it a try.

Maybe you’ll miss a day or two. Lots of people do, and they often let that day or two turn into a month or two, and then turn into forever. Don’t let that be you. Even if you don’t feel like it, force yourself to put on your sneakers or drag yourself to kettlebell class. You know you’ll feel better after you’ve lived up to the promise you made yourself.

I can promise you that coming to the gym will definitely improve−and maybe even save−your life!

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Personal Testimonies

This article was created with the help of no fewer than 6 people. I have included an email from one of them below because I believe the personal testimonies speak louder than my words ever could. Thank you to all who encouraged this article and gave your feedback to the revisions.

Dan Cenidoza

I have had depression for over 15 years now. I treat it with Prozac which I take daily. I HATE that I have to put chemicals in my body on a daily basis but I know I need them to function as a normal person. 

Depression for me is like having all the life sucked out of you. Like everything I do is a struggle. I don’t want to do anything, go anywhere, or even talk to anyone. I just want to be alone and sleep. 

I image it might be similar to how you feel when you are bending steel. Not the exhilarating part when it actually bends but when you over and over and over again push as hard as you can and nothing happens. You just keep pushing. Like pushing a giant boulder up a hill with everything you do. To get out of bed is a struggle, to go work is a struggle, to pretty much do anything is a struggle.

When I’m in this mindset, I push just to make it to the next thing to push too. I struggle to get to work, once I get here I convince myself to push til lunch, after lunch I push to the end of the day. It’s constant and it’s completely exhausting.

The only thing I want to do is sleep. Literally all the time. I just want to close my eyes and sleep and not have to push to even be me. This often turns into a vicious cycle because the more I sleep, the more I want to sleep. Food for me is a quick mood booster (which is a completely different issue) but quickly feeds into my depression mind.

So how does exercise help – at BKC it helps several different ways. 

1. Just walking into the door at BKC makes me feel better. It’s like church.  I just feel better being there. It’s a safe nurturing environment. 

2.  The people there make me feel like I belong, happy, important, welcome, cared about. All the warm and fuzzy feelings help tremendously when all I want to do is beat myself up and be alone. 

3.  The exercise itself – moving, getting the blood pumping, challenging my abilities. They all make me feel alive physically which almost always helps make me feel alive again mentally. 

4. When I’m done, it often feels like a huge accomplishment that I was able to push myself to even show up and put the work in. I’m proud of myself and I don’t give myself very much credit but especially when I’m down. But I know you will except nothing but the best of my ability and I take pride in myself that I try to do the best I can and you push me to do it.  In my head I hear you say – NO, you can NOT use a pink bell.  Grab the 12, 14, Hell! get the 16. 

The anxiety is fairly new for me – maybe about 2 years. Looking back, I’m positive I was having anxiety attacks and dealing with anxiety much longer, I just didn’t know what it was.

The anxiety attacks I have usually go in a cycle. I get the over anxiousness then severe depression/exhaustion. The anxiety attack usually makes me feel like I just can’t be in my body anymore. I feel like I need to get out.

Anxiety forces me to say things like – I can’t do this anymore! I Can’t! I just Can’t! Physically for me if feels like when you get a cold chill that runs up your spine. That burst of energy that goes through your body. 

With a cold chill, it’s leaves almost instantly. With anxiety, it stays. My entire body feels all that energy all at once and it doesn’t leave nor does it have any where to go. 

My mind is racing, my blood feels like it’s racing, my emotions are all over the place – I’m on complete overload. The feeling of “I have to get out” is what gets me moving. 

Normally I just run. I don’t normally run but if I am at a certain point, I just have to run to burn energy. Almost as if my body physically needs to catch up with my racing mind. 

After running I usually feel completely exhausted and empty. Then the depression and the exhaustion kicks in and I sleep. Once I left work because I just couldn’t any more, got home ran around the park until I was completely drenched in sweat pretty much until my body was done, then showered and I slept from about 10am to 6pm. I woke up to have dinner then went back to sleep by 7pm and slept until 7am the next morning. 

There was another instance where I was in the “exhausted” phase, I was so tired but pushed to go to work because that’s what we have to do.  I almost fell asleep at the wheel of my car more than once on my way  in.  It’s a drive about 10/15 miles. 

So how does exercise help –

1.  Regular exercise helps to calm the “over energy”. By the time I’m finished at BKC, my energy is well spent. I feel that regular exercise keeps me on level ground. 

2.  The classes give me proper exercise to maintain a balance of energy within myself as opposed to running around the park until my heart feels like it’s going to explode. 

3.  Working with you, the kettlebells and the weights, forces me to push myself physically which helps me mentally. I CAN not I can’t and even if I can’t, at least I tried. 

4.  Mentally I am only able to think about my workout while I’m there.  My mind doesn’t have the opportunity to run away so I know being there exercising, I’m helping to keep mind’s sense of calm and focus. 

5.  Breathing – I’m reminded of how effective breathing helps me to recover.  I practice that when I think I’m going to pass out from a good work out which helps when I’m feeling anxious, I turn to my breathing first always.