Those who know me, know that I have a very personal and painful story related to mental illness. I lost my older sister, Julie, to suicide in 1995, and my grandmother succombed to debilitating, borderline-catatonic depression later that same year. I've also struggled with depression and anxiety, at times going days without sleeping or eating. I know the brain fog, the paralyzing fear, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with this hellish illness. I also know the havoc it wreaks on a family to see someone you love struggle to simply get out of bed, much less perform simple tasks like going to the grocery store or reading a book.
Over the past year and a half, my mom has been battling a depression that's resulted in two hospitalizations. She finally began to improve upon receiving a new treatment-a last-ditch effort to save her life. My dad, brother, and the rest of my family are so thankful for her improvement.
Last summer, the stress of my mom's illness had my anxiety at an all-time high, and I found that the only way to feel better, besides lots of tears and prayer, was running. My body craved the large motor movement of feet hitting pavement, even when I was exhausted from the busyness of training clients part-time and raising kids full-time. I had taken time off from running while I was training for a figure competition, and returning to it was a relief.
I vowed to embrace winter running as well, and sure enough, this is the first year I haven't struggled with the lethargy, weight gain, and overall blahs that plague so many of us northerers during the bitter winter months.
I'm currently reading Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, who writes at length about the research into exercise and it's effect on learning, stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, hormonal changes, and aging. Here's a passage from his chapter on anxiety that I found fascinating:
One aspect of anxiety that makes it so different from other disorders is the physical symptoms. Because anxiety brings the sympathetic nervous system into play, when you sense your heart rate and breathing pick up, that awareness can trigger anxiety or a panic attack. But those same symptoms are inherent to aerobic exercise-and that's a good thing. If you begin to associate the physical symptoms of anxiety with something positive, something that you initiated and can control, the fear memory fades in contrast to the fresh one taking shape. Think of it as a biological bait and switch-your mind is expecting a panic attack, but instead it ends up with a positive association with the symptoms.
Isn't the body amazing?
Diet also plays a key role in fighting depression and anxiety. As Camille DePutter writes in the excellent article, Mood Food: How to fight depression naturally with nutrition:
Your brain is greedy. It needs a lot of energy to work properly and to create neurotransmitters-chemicals that send signals through the nervous system.
Without energy or nutrients, your brain won't get what it needs. If fact, one study suggests that eating a lot of nutrient-sparse foods could up your chances of becoming depressed by as much as 60 percent.
I'm so thankful for the excellent research linking nutrition and exercise to mental health, as well as the general awareness and lessening stigma toward mental illness. By no means would I suggest that medication and therapy be discontinued in favor of exercise and nutritional intervention; instead, I see how all these areas can complement one another.
Depression affects more than 120 million people worldwide, making it the leading cause of disability, according to the World Health Organization. As health and fitness professionals, let's use every resource available to fight this deadly disease.