Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Running as a way to mitigate depression and anxiety?

I've been away - not at the loony bin (though sometimes it's certainly a distinct possibility), but at a professional conference. Actually, wait. This professional conference IS like a loony bin, except that few of the people there actually recognize they have issues and the majority of them don't see psychiatrists. Same issues, less recognition. Always interesting.

Anyway, so first I was preparing for this conference (in the form of putting together a talk, which took a ridiculous amount of time and which put a spotlight on my poor graphic design/PowerPoint skills), and then I was at the conference, and then I was drinking and eating and giving my talk and reuiniting with people I hadn't seen in a while. And drinking more. 

Very little running was involved, unfortunately. I mean, I DID run, but they were relatively short workouts on the hotel treadmill. I should have run 18 miles on Sunday and it just didn't happen. Good thing I am in taper mode, since the marathon is in only 2.5 weeks away. I'm thinking of doing 18 miles this Sunday even though I suppose Hal Higdon would not approve. But would it really pose that much of a problem? I have two weeks after that to rest.

Speaking of running...

The last conference I went to was last June, and for whatever reason, it left me reeling and depressed. I don't know whether it was the stress of traveling, dealing with huge crowds of people, being away from my family, or what, but all of a sudden I went from feeling really stable (for the previous 4-5 months) to hitting bottom again. The situation was not good. At one point I wondered whether I might need to check myself into a hospital. The trigger seemed to be this academic conference experience. Thus, I was concerned that this very recent conference - which involved just as many people, almost as much traveling, and a strong dose of stress - might send me reeling down the same path.

Thankfully, it did not. I've been trying to figure out what the difference was between now and last June.

Things that are the same: I'm still taking an antidepressant, same dose. I'm still seeing my therapist every other week or so (actually less these days). Actually, if anything, the summer conference should have been less stressful: I wasn't teaching any classes at that point. I had to present at both meetings.

So what is different? The only major difference is that I'm now training for a marathon and attending butt-kicking barre classes on a regular basis. So could the extra exercise be at the root of this newfound stability (relatively speaking)? In a way, it seems counterintuitive. Marathon training itself takes a lot of dedication and a certain amount of sacrifice. It cuts into work time, family time, and rest time. Then add to that the barre workouts - if I do them 4 times a week, that's another 6 hours where I'm not really attending to my responsibilities. And yes, on a day-to-day basis, it does feel like a lot. I do feel the strain.

On the other hand, my immersion in these activities means that:
(1) I have more energy during the day and I sleep better at night.
(2) I have less time to worry/stress, because when I'm working out I'm very focused on the task at hand.
(3) I'm forced to make transitions more quickly. For instance, even if my mind WANTS to stay in work mode all evening, when I get to barre class, it simply can't. There's not enough energy for that.
(4) I have a better social life. I'm opening up more to RF, getting to know her friends, and starting to get to know the people at Xtend Barre.

Ultimately, I keep myself so occupied that I do not leave as much room for ruminating, worrying, planning, obsessing. I think that's a big part of it. Maybe I've been underestimating the positive long-term effects of exercise on my mental state. Maybe it's kind of like the antidepressants themselves: one pill here and there won't make much long-term difference; you have to take them every day if you want them to work, and they don't work right away. If you miss a day, it won't hurt you much so long as you get back on track the following day. Perhaps the influence of exercise on the brain is similar: the long-term consistency is key.

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