This past February, I found myself struggling with a fairly significant episode of depression. Interestingly enough, even though I’m a therapist, by the time I actually came to the realization that I was going through a depressive episode, it had been going on for at least a few weeks. Depression can be a sneaky little bugger, it seems.
As soon as I came to the realization of what was going on, I knew I needed to take action in a few different ways. The first thing was to acknowledge the reality of my state, that I was struggling, and that I needed to be very kind and compassionate to myself. I wasn’t functioning anywhere near the “top of my game”, and I simply needed to understand and be OK with that.
The second thing was that I made a commitment to fight back against the depression by fighting back against its symptoms. I knew that if I allowed myself to simply succumb to the lack of motivation, the lack of energy, the negative thoughts about myself, the past, or the future, my depression would only get worse. I needed to do what I could do to break the cycle by forcing myself to do things that I didn’t want to do (e.g. household chores), while also paying close attention to my self-talk.
The last thing I did was make a commitment to increase my exercise routine, with the plan of going for a run the following day. You see, after I came to the realization that I was depressed, I tried to figure out what was the cause. Doing this lead to two different sources. One being some recent struggles at work, and the other being (surprise!) that my exercise routine had really done down the tubes since the Holidays.
So even though I am the co-owner of an outpatient counseling practice that utilizes physical exercise as an empirically-validated cornerstone of our mental health treatment program, and even though I have been aware for YEARS of how important exercise is to my mental health overall, I do still tend to slack off at times. I get busy, or become lazy, or it’s cold and nasty outside and the idea of running on one of our treadmills again gets me about as excited as the prospect of folding laundry. Whatever the reason, I do find myself going through a period or two each year where my exercise routine dips well below my baseline, with the end result being a decline in my overall mental health. Something that, by now, I should be able to predict!
The good news is that when my exercise routine declines and I find myself struggling with my mental health in some way, shape, or form, it simply motivates me to increase my exercise routine. As Jasper Smits, PhD, states in the book “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety Disorders” (Smits & Otto, 2012), “Not exercising when you feel bad is like not taking an aspirin when you have a headache”. This statement, in essence, describes the reasoning behind our program.
When the next day, Exercise Day, did come, I found myself in the same place I was the day before. Still down, unmotivated, lacking energy, etc. So, when I thought about getting outside and going for a run that morning, the thought that immediately followed was, “I don’t feel like it”.
Sitting here now, I wish I could have recorded what went through my mind in response to that thought. But to the best of my recollection, it went something like this…
“You WHAT?! You don’t FEEL like it?! Well, it doesn’t matter how you FEEL, you chump! Not exercising, not getting out for a run right now, is simply NOT an option!! You do not have a choice! Just get your **** on and get your *** out that door! Now!!!”
This response worked exactly as it should. I immediately went upstairs, got my gear on, laced up my shoes, and, in spite of not wanting to, went outside for a run.
As is always the case for me, as it is for many others, I came back feeling better. Better mood, better energy, more calm and relaxed. And, perhaps more importantly, I didn’t end up feeling worse because I DIDN’T do it. So, I continued to focus on getting regular exercise, monitoring my self-talk, and just pushing myself (albeit with compassion) to keep plugging away. Within a week or so, I found myself back to feeling “normal” again.
For a while now, I’ve considered myself to be a fairly resilient individual. Responding to my depression and exerting some power and control over it in the way that I did, only reinforced this sense of resiliency. I found myself feeling rather proud of this, and in reality, I should be proud of how I handled this situation. But then I discovered a man named David Goggins, and realized I still have a looooong way to go.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with David Goggins, it is hard for me to even put him into words. Saying he’s an incredible individual would be akin to calling the Space Shuttle an "airplane". He has done things through sheer force of will that I never would have thought were humanly possible. Here is just one example: he entered an ultra-marathon essentially on a whim, having never even ran a marathon before, and ran 101 miles in 19 hours around a track, without doing any training beforehand apart from a pretty intense weightlifting routine. He also weighed around 250 lbs when he ran it.
David states that he believes the majority of people are only operating at about 40% of their true capacity. When you learn about his story, you will find that before he became the person he is today, he was someone who had significant struggles of his own. He was overweight, he was shy, he lacked self-confidence, he was anxious and depressed. And then one day he made a decision to be different, to be better, and, as he puts it, he asked himself, “Can I get from 40% to 45%?" Once he got to 45%, it was, “Can I get to 50%?” And as he went along and pushed himself, he learned how he could overcome the biggest thing that was holding him back, which was his own mind.
In a nutshell, this is exactly what we are trying to do with our program at The Well Being. For many of our clients, we provide a bit of an external “push” towards getting them started with exercise. And, from that point forward, we’re trying to teach them ways of overcoming what David Goggins calls "the tactical advantage" our mind oftentimes has over what we think and do.
While I don't win every single battle that occurs inside my head, I do win a lot more than I used to. Believe me when I say it makes a difference.