I used to be very cynical when I read how depression could be improved through exercise. So many writers of articles seem to claim that they have magically and instantly overcome their depression simply by exercising; their underlying (and sometimes blatant) smugness is incredibly off-putting. It’s especially frustrating to read if, like many people, one leads an active life and still suffers from mental health difficulties. Exercise is not the cure-all it’s often made out to be, and people have in no way failed if it does little to assist them.
So I feel somewhat cautious about writing this post, because right now I am evangelical about exercise, and that’s not something I ever expected myself to feel, let alone say publicly. I can only speak for myself, obviously, and I’m posting this mostly just to put my thoughts out there, but also to share my own personal experience in case it might be helpful. I’m also very nervous about publishing this, because it is an incredibly personal post, and, well, I don’t share this stuff in public usually. But if doing so assists someone else, I think it’s worth it.
Please note, this is a post about depression: some people may find details below triggering.
Earlier this year I was experiencing possibly the worst depression I’ve ever had. I felt constantly anxious, sad, but also numb. Even basic things like eating became difficult; how is it possible that even food can taste grey and lacking pleasure? Nothing in my life seemed to have colour. I was heartbroken over an incredibly painful breakup, I felt unable to write - the only thing I could produce were tears - and I was full of self-hatred at lost opportunities both personal and professional. Even my sex drive disappeared.
I wanted something to distract me from my persistent grief and self-loathing and I discovered that external pain temporarily made the internal pain disappear. But with no partner around to whip my arse full of delightful marks, I took instead to hurting myself. Punching myself to the point of painful bruising gave me a form of release that was much needed and it also made me forget how much my insides were hurting. I liked how it felt, but it was when I wanted more, where I was constantly fantasising about cutting myself, that I knew what I was doing was fucked up (and I talked about it with a therapist) and needed to stop.
I really was in the depths then. I had got to the point where I just didn’t want to be alive, because every day that I was, I was overwhelmed and suffocated by how awful I felt and it seemed better - it seemed easier - to just quit. I felt like I had used up all my favours with friends with my incessant talking about my silly broken heart, that I was boring even myself with my permanently low mood. I longed for quiet, for my stupid brain and heart to shut up, and many, many times the idea of ending it seemed so, so appealing.
I don’t know what changed, or when it changed. There was no epiphany. This wasn’t a movie where some knight in shining armour appears, or some fairy godmother waves a happy wand. No magic pill took the pain or darkness away. Nothing radical happened. But something in me shifted. It was subtle, very quiet, but present: it was a vague desire to move. To shift. To put one foot in front of the other and walk forwards. To leave the bad stuff behind. And so I did.
My first forays were walks in a local nature reserve. I would walk until the panic I felt lessened, and instead of hearing my own whiny voice in my head, I was listening to the birdsong that surrounded me. I began walking a few times a week and soon my walks got faster and longer and more frequent. At some point, a few weeks in, I decided there was no point walking anymore, because now I wanted to run.
Running was, for me, something I used to do regularly. Indeed, in this blog’s earliest posts over ten years ago, much of it is filled with dull recounts of distances I had run and speeds I had achieved. I had begun running as a hobby in 2003, as a result of a back injury which had left me off work for six months and depressed. After my recuperation, I kept running for some years - for pleasure mostly, but also for fitness - and it’s only been in recent years that I’ve let this slip from my life.
So that was how I found myself, in the depths of miserable February, dressed in all the warm layers I could find, running in my local park when it was dark, 5ºC and pouring with rain. As I ran through the physical pain - and god, it really did hurt back then - I kept thinking: Zoe, if you can do this, if you can make it through this and how fucking grim and horrible it is outside, you can make it through anything. I do remember that day, because that was really the start of it all for me. Every day I run now, I say the same thing to myself: if you can do this, you can do anything. Four months in and I know it’s true.
And so I ran. I continue to run and run. Every step forwards is a step away from pain, a step closer to feeling better. But this isn’t just some mind-game mantra I play with myself, I know that 45 minutes in (and for me, it’s never sooner), endorphins kick in, and suddenly I feel flooded with huge amounts of positive brain chemistry which overwhelms the negative. I’m not going to cite sources or quote scientists on this, or explain how and why it happens, but for me this stuff is real. The equation, in my experience, is simple: I feel shit, so I run. Some happy brain chemistry happens, then I feel brilliant. That’s it. Nothing more.
But it doesn’t have a permanent effect, alas. For me, my depression whilst now manageable, is still very much at arm’s reach. If I don’t do any exercise on a given day, my mood immediately becomes low. If it’s a few days, the black cloud hovers directly over me and I feel awful. Its return really is that quick. So the only thing I can do is keep running - keep moving forwards - because as long as I do that, I feel good about myself.
Of course, there are other positive side effects which have helped to improve my mood: I feel fitter than I have done for years; I am constantly impressed by my body’s abilities and achievements; and I adore how my body is changing, becoming firmer and stronger and more powerful. I look in the mirror now and instead of hating what I see, I know I’m strong and determined and beautifully more muscular. I like me now and every day I run, or go to the gym, or do a boxing class, I like myself even more.
Exercise, for me, has quite literally saved my life and continues to do so on a daily basis. I want to be alive now - I love how alive I feel after running for five miles. Because of that, I began thinking: if this has helped me, maybe it can benefit others? That’s when I remembered: ten years ago I ran the London 10K race for a charity. Wouldn’t it be a nice, pleasingly-circular thing to run it again, ten years later, so that something else even more positive can come out of my depression?
That’s why I am running the London 10K race again this July 12th, on behalf of The Nia Project - a charity who support women and children who are suffering domestic violence. Running the race is not just about proving to myself that I can do it once more, but wanting to give something back to people whose situation is far more desperate than my own. I’m running for Nia because I want to help women who are experiencing violence and fear escape from it, and get back on their feet. So please, if you can donate even a quid, it would be greatly appreciated.
If this post has resonated with you in any way, I hope that it’s been for good reasons, not because I come across as smug or lecturing others on a “cure” for depression. I just hope that it might help some people, or at least shed some light on an area that is very dark and hard to talk about. And also this is my way of poking my head out of the dark waters, waving a bit and saying I’m okay. I’m going to be okay.
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