Last month, Busy Philipps (Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks), posted a #sweatyselfie on Instagram divulging how exercise improves her mental health:
"I have anxiety and I have a tendency toward depression, but I found that if I sweat like this, EVERY SINGLE DAY, I feel better, I’m calmer, I’m a better mom, and those fogs of anxiety or sadness seem a little lighter."
Like Philipps, I know how impossible it can be just to show up for yourself (let alone others) every day when you struggle with mental health. I've seen therapists and psychiatrists for twelve years now, but I was only diagnosed with general anxiety disorder early this year. For the better part of my life, I've had trouble getting out of bed, dressed, and ready for the day. Mental illness is a debilitating disease. Just "sucking it up" is no cure—but it turns out that exercise is.
A few months ago, I started medication that regulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is considered a natural mood stabilizer for anxiety, happiness, and mood. While I will say that I feel better than I have in my entire life, I've actually struggled with anxiety for years. Unwittingly, I had been using daily exercise to manage my anxiety and depression since elementary school; I joined the track team in fifth grade, ran cross country through high school, and continued to run for recreation and sport during and after college. When I was pregnant with our first child, I even managed to log four to six miles a day.
After moving to California from New York last year with my husband and our young daughters, working out fell by the wayside. The cross-country move, having two miscarriages, and a marriage strained by my husband's stressful new job and frequent work travels triggered my anxiety. I had panic attacks nearly every night.
When I first met my current psychiatrist, she made me promise to work out every day in addition to weekly therapy sessions and starting medication, but I resisted. I was just trying to survive day-to-day life. How was I supposed to fit exercise into the mix?
Exhausted from my anxiety attacks, irritability, and lack of sleep, I eventually caved. I started walking for ten minutes outside every day. For someone used to running half and full marathons, it felt pathetic and sad. But I kept at it. After a month, walking turned into slow jogging, which occasionally turned into running.
Seeing how much exercise was helping me, my husband surprised me with a gym membership on Mother’s Day. Putting on workout clothes (Couldn’t I just stay in my PJs?) and making the five-minute trek to the gym felt like a Sisyphus task. After gradually sampling different exercise classes two to three times a week, I slowly settled on a daily schedule of workouts and instructors I liked.
Even though that first month of adjusting to working out again was grueling (and embarrassing), I kept at it because I noticed the benefits of exercising almost right away: I was more productive at work and at home; I felt confident and proud of my mini-accomplishments; I was more energized; and I finally started to sleep better. Until then, my medications hadn't fully solved the problem of my debilitating fatigue, insomnia, and TMJ. Exercise was the affordable and accessible natural remedy the doctor ordered, and I was grateful for the daily dose. I thought working out every day was going to make my life even worse, but when I made it a top priority, I quickly found ways to make it work for me and my mental health.
It has been three months since I started exercising every day. Even if it just means doing a twelve-minute Pilates workout with Robin Long in my living room or a ten-minute walk around the neighborhood, it has helped my mental health in more ways than I ever thought possible.
Photo Credit: Elissa Voss Photography