No lifter worth his weight in iron thinks his workouts are for the benefit of – or fuelled by – just his body. You know that with each rep, you’re training your muscle and your mind to be strong and powerful, and that you use both to achieve your desired results.
It was probably a combination of the two that motivated you to start working out in the first place. Setting a goal to be physically strong and fit usually comes from a desire not to feel the opposite mentally. Perhaps you made up your mind a long time ago that you never (or never again) wanted to feel unable to accomplish something. You found a healthy way to achieve greater control over your life and how you feel, and you started working both mind and body. Working out became a way of – and a way of coping with – life.
Yet while exercise can generally help you beat the blues and stave off negative feelings, it “doesn’t guarantee that everything in one’s life will run smoothly,” says Kate Hays, a Toronto-based psychologist who practises sports psychology.
In the face of a major stressor, you can begin to feel just as you did before you started working out: unable to make something happen. It’s at these times when you may be vulnerable to depression. If negative thoughts or a depressed mood become more frequent, more intense or last longer than usual, it’s important to seek professional help. Studies have shown that a combination of exercise and psychotherapy is the best prescription for depression. Like going to the gym, seeking help for depression requires commitment to the process and patience when it comes to seeing results. And just like starting a workout regime, most people feel better right away simply for having taken the first step.
MORE THAN THE BLUES
Sure, you believe that you can work through anything by working out. But even the toughest guy should know about some common triggers for depression:
Injury: Since working out is part of your coping strategy, routine, identity and even your social network, a physical injury can be a real mental setback. Furthermore, since exercise can function as an antidepressant, “When you can’t exercise you’re prevented from getting the physiological improvement in mood,” says Hays.
Overtraining: “One of the typical signs of someone who is overtraining is the [his or her] mood gets worse,” Hays notes. You may find that you have difficulty concentrating or trouble sleeping, or are irritable. Hays cautions that a “negative spiral” can develop if you attempt to alleviate these symptoms by training even more.
Personal loss: A sudden or tragic event can alter your routine, your resources and ultimately your mood.
Family history of depression: According to Hays, you can decrease your risk of developing depression by working out, but exercise “doesn’t prevent depression from happening.”
Chronic negative perceptions: Athletes who respond negatively in the face of stressors are at risk of depression. Not seeing desired results in the gym? Depression can set in if you interpret the setback negatively. Tell yourself, “If I haven’t set realistic goals”, instead of, “I’m weak”.