Depression in Midlife Women: Exercise and Whole Body Recovery
No part of my body, mind, or life remained unaffected when I suffered from severe depression that lasted a little over a year. Having gained approximately 40 pounds during that time because I cared nothing about taking care of myself, the toll on my body was the most obvious to see. However, my emotions, relationships, spiritual life, and career took just as hard of a hit as my physical body did.
This is the reason I have chosen a whole-body approach, also known as holistic healing, to regain every aspect of my health. It has allowed me to start accepting and loving who I truly am as a person but didn’t feel comfortable sharing with the world. Instead, I tried to conform to what the world expected at a great cost to myself.
What Does Whole-Body Healing Look Like When It Comes to Depression?
According to an article written by Dr. Matthew Edlund published in Psychology Today, depression is a systemic illness with multiple causes and manifestations that affects the entire body and requires a multi-faceted approach to recovery. It’s about so much more than being sad.
While fighting a fierce battle with this common mental illness myself, I found that it affected my sleep, appetite, ability to concentrate, and so many other areas of my life that it would be impossible to name them all. I was so very ill, yet the nature of the illness demands silence and isolation. Naturally, this only worsens the depression until it feels like an endless cycle with little hope of improvement.
Choosing a whole-body approach to depression recovery will look different for everyone. For me, it means that I am not focusing solely on any one aspect such as therapy or weight loss. Each aspect of depression recovery is important, but none is more important than the other. Here are the things I am incorporating into my own efforts to recover from this insidious beast once and for all:
- Diet overhaul
- Getting back to my Christian roots and personal relationship I had with God.
- Improving relationships and apologizing for the hurt I have caused, especially with my husband and children.
- Serving and encouraging others, which forces me out of my comfort zone and from living in my own world much of the time.
- Socializing more often as I truly crave the human connection, even as an introvert
- Therapy to heal from past trauma.
- Vocational changes that are a better reflection of who I am and what I value the most.
Although I still struggle with obesity, I have chosen not to make weight loss a major focus of getting better. Even though I’m losing weight and pleased with the process, I find that obsessing over what the scale says to the exclusion of everything else on the above list does me a huge disservice. It is only treating the symptom of food addiction and not the root cause. Working with a team of professionals and supportive people in my life allows me to slowly integrate healing in each of these areas.
Exercise as a Component of Whole-Body Recovery
In the summer of 2018, back before depression completely took over my life, I was walking at least 10,000 steps a day and sometimes as many as 20,000. Once I slid into the black abyss, the desire to continue doing that disappeared entirely. Not wanting to face the reality of my inactivity, I took the Fitbit off and chose to quit exercising voluntarily. It would be generous to say that my steps per day ever made it out of the three-digit range.
I knew I had to start moving again if I ever wanted to feel better. Unfortunately, my desire to get off the couch was still non-existent. I accepted that is where I was at the time and didn’t berate myself for it. That was such a crucial first step.
I began working with a life and health coach on November 13, 2019 and asked for accountability with exercise. That meant scheduling time to walk and asking her to meet me. If I had to pay someone to get me moving again, that was what I was going to do. While we still meet, I have also regained enough motivation to get myself out of bed and to the indoor track at the YMCA every morning. I would prefer to be outside, but it is what it is with winter in Minnesota.
The Positive Relationship Between Exercise and Mood
When a person is as deeply depressed as I was, the endorphins in their brain don’t respond in the normal way. Endorphins are chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters that help to regulate mood, stress, and pain. In my opinion, exercise is just as effective as anti-depressant medication in regulating the brain’s chemistry. If you have ever felt euphoric after an especially intense workout, then you know exactly what I mean. Regardless of how good you feel, however, please don’t ever stop taking any medication without consulting your doctor.
The good news about exercise doesn’t end there. It also has a positive impact on the brain chemicals of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. If the term serotonin sounds familiar, it’s because of a classification of anti-depressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). In fact, SSRIs were the first medication I ever took for my depression back in 1989 when I was just 21 years old.
Besides lifting mood, exercise releases neurotransmitters that can improve sleep, appetite, focus, and overall sense of well-being. To say that depression is a complex disorder of the mind would be an understatement. Despite the overwhelming complexity of depression, knowing that something as simple as walking laps at the YMCA every day can jumpstart my recovery is something to celebrate indeed.
Yet another benefit of exercise in healing from depression is that it lowers the amount of adrenaline the body stores. Adrenaline is what fuels our fight-or-flight response when faced with perceived danger. In my case, the effects of trauma remained lodged in my body for decades. This meant I was always in fight-or-flight mode. Just ask anyone who has ever tapped me on the shoulder from behind and watched me nearly jump out of my skin in response. My brain injury in 2016 only made my startle response and other involuntary body movements much more intense.
Start Small and Work Your Way Up
Once you finally start feeling better and taking your life back from depression, it can feel tempting to overdo it on the exercise. I urge you not to sign up for a 5K marathon just yet. This is a surefire way towards injury and discouragement that can set back your mental health recovery.
Personally, I started with a modest goal of reaching 5,000 steps each day and increased it by 1,000 steps every week. Walking is the only thing I do right now, but I’m looking forward to engaging in more physically demanding exercises as I continue to eat better, drop weight, and feel physically up to the challenge of it all.
Aerobic exercise is anything that elevates the heart rate, which in turn improves brain circulation. Whether it’s brisk walking, bike riding, or something else you enjoy, the most important thing is remaining consistent to the point where it just becomes a habit. I already can’t imagine not walking at the track every morning, and I have only been doing it for less than two weeks.
You will know that you have reached an important milestone in your depression recovery the day you stop dreading exercise and look forward to it instead. When that day comes, keep in mind that the Centers for Disease Control recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate to intense activity every week along with at least two days of strength training. For now, just put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. It is an honor to share my own journey with you.
Other Articles in This Series
- Depression in Midlife Women: The Problem of Loneliness and Isolation
- Depression in Midlife Women: Who Cares? The Problem of Apathy
- Depression in Midlife Women: It's Time to Fire Your Inner Critic!
- Depression in Midlife Women: The Healing Power of Faith and Service
- Depression in Midlife Women: Facing Our Addictions
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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© 2019 Lisa Kroulik