I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with depression and anxiety for a few years now, which really emerged in a big way while I was pursuing my MA in philosophy. Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone, but I’ve found myself able to manage my depression and anxiety through therapy and exercise. I’ve also had longstanding issues with procrastination, which contributes to the endless cycle of self-talk with “You’re not doing enough,” “You don’t belong here,” “If you were really serious about philosophy, you wouldn’t have to push yourself to work,” and other things like that.
While doing my MA, I sought therapy through Student Services and worked with a therapist there, who was herself a PhD student, and our sessions were extremely helpful to me. There are lots of really great lessons I took from the sessions, but two in particular have really stuck out: 1) I need to set significantly lower expectations for myself, and 2) action precedes motivation. As far as low expectations go, the way I think of it is this: if I tell myself that today I’m going to accomplish Things A, B, C, and D, but only end up accomplishing Things A and B, I’ll feel disappointed in myself, and that fires up the cycle of negative self-talk. But if I set out to accomplish Thing A, find that that fires me up a bit, and then also get Things B and C done, then I can feel good about what I’ve accomplished (even if it wasn’t Things A through D). As for action preceding motivation, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like: sometimes, you simply don’t want to do things until you’ve started doing them, but once you get going, it actually feels okay or even fun, and you find yourself motivated to do it.
So, what does all of this have to do with fitness?
Since starting my PhD study in a new country, the depression and anxiety have re-emerged. Thanks largely to this blog, I’ve managed to abandon the idea that exercise is for aesthetic reasons, and I now think of exercise’s role in my life as being one of maintaining general health, be it physical or mental. It’s not just anxiety that I’ve had this on-again, off-again relationship with, but also running. It’s not my favourite form of exercise (I’m much more in the swimming, weightlifting, and TRX camps), but there’s a lot about running it that draws me to it, like the relative lack of expense, and pretty minimal gear requirements. In my case, there’s also no travel time: I just put on my shoes, step outside, and start running. No need to get myself to a gym or pool first. One thing that often keeps me from running, though, is the idea that I’m just not good at it. I know, I know: how will I ever get good at it if I don’t do it? But what I’ve taken from my therapy sessions is largely applicable to running: like my work in philosophy, I need to remember to set lower expectations for myself, and remember that action precedes motivation. Now, I’m not a fast runner, and although I’m fairly tall, I don’t have that long graceful gazelle-like stride that seems to come so naturally to so many other tall runners. I get red in the face quite quickly and find myself huffing and puffing much sooner than I’d like to admit. But setting lower expectations for myself means deciding that some days, five minutes of red-faced, huffy puffy running is good enough. (Yeah, I know it’s significantly less than experts recommend. But if I try to convince myself to run for twenty minutes, I often don’t wind up going at all. Low expectations, remember?) And the other thing is, sometimes that five minutes turns into ten. And then the ten turns into twenty. And sometimes twenty even becomes thirty. Action precedes motivation.
Admittedly, when it comes to running, I don’t have much of a routine. Often, it’s just a matter of thinking, “A run might be nice,” for whatever reason (I’m cold and want to warm up, I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything that day, I want to feel strong, or I want to work through a philosophical problem that’s bothering me, for instance), and heading out the door five minutes later. I tend not to time myself or map out any particular route, because I know from my own experience that quantifying things is the fast track to taking the fun out of it. I’ll have to develop some kind of a routine over the next few months, since I spontaneously signed up for a half marathon just earlier today, but that’s quite a ways off and I still have time to enjoy the lack of structure. Again, low expectations are where I need to start.
Running is helpful in managing my depression and anxiety in two ways. There’s the obvious one: that exercise is simply good for your mental health. The second one, though, in my case, is that working at implementing those two lessons when I run is that I get that much better at implementing them in other areas of my life, notably my grad school work. Convincing myself to write just one paragraph or read just one article sometimes takes more effort than I wish it did, but the point is to start.