habits · self care

Working Out When You’re Experiencing Depression

Feature image credit: Anthony Tran, via Unsplash

I have experienced depression off and on for most of my life.  I also now experience symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder which can feel a lot like depression, with moments of low moods coming seemingly out of nowhere, triggered often by nothing of which I am aware.  It can be very difficult to maintain exercise and nutrition habits while feeling like crap for days at a time.  The nature of depression is to feel like nothing matters, to feel like life is beyond our control and out of our depth.  These are not motivating, inspiring feelings!  So what do you do if you find yourself feeling low and notice it impacting your healthy routines?

I try to start with some self-compassion.  My self-talk can be especially self-critical during these times, and it’s important for me to notice that and counteract it with less judgy thoughts: I’m doing the best I can; I’m just having a hard time right now.  These moments come and go and they don’t define who I am or how I live my entire life.  If I can remember this last point, that the feelings of low mood are just that, feelings, and by definition feelings are impermanent and changeable, it goes a long way to helping me feel ok with where I’m at in the moment.  It’s just this moment, not forever.

Related to this last point, I try to focus on what I am doing rather than what I’m not.  Most of us don’t throw in the towel on EVERY healthy behavior when we’re feeling down.  Still brushing your teeth and taking a shower?  Still eating breakfast and taking your medications?  Took some time to connect with your sweetie?  All these count and are good.  If you can talk yourself into taking a walk or doing 5 minutes of exercises, that’s great, too!  Give yourself credit for doing that much and know that tomorrow, you might feel up for more. There can also be an element of emotional inertia to these small behaviors, when I can find that doing one small thing for myself helps me feel more up to doing something else I know is good for me, too. 

Speaking of taking a walk, I have found that time outside is one of the most restorative things I can do for my mood.  I almost always feel better.  Sometimes, all I want is to sit on the porch or do a little gardening.  Even that much is a boost. Especially in winter, any moment of sunshine or even just a bright patch of clouds relative to the darker grey around them seems to help.  If your outdoor space doesn’t accommodate some gardening or lounging, or the weather is too miserable, try setting up in a sunnier window.  Put a comfy chair where your face will get hit with some light and take a moment to bask.

During moments of depression, it is especially important that we connect with others.  If you have a routine of exercising with others, even virtually, you may find that these connections help to lift your mood.  I’m very introverted and I don’t seek out a lot of time with others, but I still benefit from feelings of connection.  I try to spend more time playing or snuggling with my cats, to hang out with my husband, or to send notes to friends I haven’t heard from in a while.  Even exercising to a familiar old workout video can give me the illusion of company and help me feel better.  I also like to relisten to beloved audiobooks while I go on my walks or to put in the actors’ commentary for one of the Lord of the Rings movies to play in the background while I’m lifting!

Finally, I try to notice when my depression-related behaviors seem more unhelpful or counter to my long term goals and gently attempt to prevent them from becoming new habits.  I don’t expect myself to never soothe myself with food or to always go to bed right on time.  However, if I find that emotional eating has become more of a norm, or I’m fighting going to bed early enough night after night, then I try to gently redirect those behaviors.  I notice when I’m eating when I’m not hungry and consider if there’s something else that would feel good.  I notice that I’m staying up too late again and consider turning out the light 10 minutes earlier.  This isn’t time for drastic, life-changing transformations but gentle nudges back in the direction of my health and long term happiness.

Feeling crappy sucks. But, there are things we can do to help us move through it and make it slightly less awful.  We will come out the other side; we will feel better again.  I’m going to keep trying to give myself the time and space to be where I am now to know that it is not where I will be forever.  When I can, whatever exercising I can do will help to reduce the impacts of my depression and trauma, and may reduce the length of time that I experience those feelings.  If you can relate, I hope you can also give yourself the space to do what you can do today and be kind to yourself along the way!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher.  She can be found getting a little sunlight in her eyes, picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

Photo description: Woman sitting in a sunny windowsill reading a book. She is wearing a white tunic and boots. Photo credit: Thought Catalog IcU, via Unsplash.

11 thoughts on “Working Out When You’re Experiencing Depression

  1. Yeah this is me too and the pandemic amplifies all the challenges with depression and winter and trying to work out. For years my key tool for managing depression was going to the gym. When the pandemic shut that down I found it very hard to work out on my own. Now taking steps to get back in the routine – the FB group helps for me! And all of your suggestions are on target. Implementation is the challenge isn’t it!

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  2. Yes. It is difficult to remember anything helpful in the midst of depression. It is so heavy and overbearing.
    I have a few tattoos to remind me that things are not over and I have not flailed. They do help. At the very least, they remind me to ask for help when I feel like I am drowning.

    Anne

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    1. That feeling of overwhelm really is terrible. I’m in favor of any strategies to help us stay connected and to remind ourselves it’s temporary. I haven’t tried using my tattoos that way, yet, but I totally get it! My little stick notes keep losing their sticky and needing replacement. 😉

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