Exercising the mind

In the last few weeks I have become an addict. I cannot go one day without my fix, and each day I need more than the previous day as my body has become tolerant and needs a higher dose to produce results. Thankfully this pursuit that I am referring to is simply exercise.

During the last few years I have joined the gym on at least 5 occasions, and whilst initially attending 2 or 3 times a week, within a few months (6 if I’m lucky) I have quit, telling myself that I don’t have time at the moment, and I’ll rejoin at a later date. The positive effects of exercise are universally paraded around to the point that its nauseating, but you can’t get away from the fact that it is good for body, mind and soul.

For me the physical effects of the exercise are incidental, an inevitable side issue that I don’t spend a great deal of time concerning myself with. It’s true to say that for someone like myself who has zero self confidence, extremely low self-esteem and a perception of other people viewing me negatively, the idea of getting into some kind of shape certainly appeals. Whilst mental health is so often out of your hands, you can’t use that excuse for physical health, and if I could look myself in the mirror and with anything other than revulsion or disappointment, then that would certainly be a welcome change. However it’s the mental effects that interest me, rather than the physical benefits.

Engaging in an intense workout has two benefits. Firstly, during the session itself the sheer act of pushing my body to its limit leaves virtually no energy reserves or mental space to focus on other worrys, thoughts or feelings. You simply exist in the moment, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, or pedaling that extra few miles, trying with all your might to not only reach the pain barrier, but to burst through it and come out the other side. I don’t listen to music at the gym because I enjoy the fact that it is the only quiet time of the day within my mind, and I can temporarily put everything else on hold, and just exist in that moment.

The other aspect is the temporary euphoria that shrouds the body after a work out. Exercise produces serotonin, the chemical in the brain that affects mood and of which a person with depression has a diminished supply, and which antidepressants similarly try to increase. This clearly attests to the positive feelings post-exercise, but the problem lies in the reference to it being ‘temporary’. Within an hour at most (in my personal experience) the effects have worn off, and the the thoughts and feelings that have taken a brief rest begin to infest their way back in, burying deep into every pore, and ensuring that any sense of euphoria is all but a distant dream. The exercise induced tiredness, added to the medication and mental maelstrom induced exhaustion, precipitates the depression coming back all the more easily, as the flimsy barriers have little strength to resist.

Exercise, like alcohol or drugs, only provides temporary relief, and can only numb the pain or fill the emotional gap for so long. Whilst exercise is obviously a resoundingly positive pursuit, when compared to alcohol or drugs, as a way of dealing with pain, it still only provides a short term fix. This is obviously not the case for people that engage in physical exertion for fitness or appearance reasons as the results can last long term, but if you are pursuing exercise whilst praying it will help with your mental health (as I have)  then it can be only a diminutive stop gap between two difficult moments, rather than a way of vanquishing those troubling moments altogether. It is generally considered that people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs are trying to fill a void in their life and also attempting to escape their reality. For me the exercise isn’t an answer to my internal pain, but merely a way of coping until an answer does present itself (should that day ever happen). If for an hour every day I can feel slightly free, and distracted enough to be able to briefly put my anxieties and frenzied mind aside, then I will keep doing it as an hour is better than nothing. But I cannot bring myself to the resolution of this being much more than highly constrained positivity when there are still 23 hours in the day to feel lonely, insignificant and bereft of hope. But beggars can’t be choosers.

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Brutal Truths

A short post today as I am struggling for inspiration and also the energy (both physical and mental) to conjure up any lucid and meaningful thoughts. I’m very conscious of not wanting to repeat what I’ve said in previous posts, but sadly the repetitiveness of the depression ensure that every day the same thoughts and feelings surface, almost predictably on time, and with no regard for how they will affect the already fragile mind. It feels as though you are stuck in quicksand, and the effort of lifting a leg out is irrefutably exhausting, and also utterly pointless, as your next step results in being pulled back down once again into the mire.

My determination to do the right thing is unwavering, and I fulfill all of the suggested techniques, modes of thinking and action, possible distractions and potentially positive pursuits of my time, but to no avail. Any occasional relief is temporary, and a self imposed (and circumstance imposed) sense of isolation and its subsequent feeling of ‘friendlessness’, precipitates a disconnect from reality and from the fundamental human emotions and ideals. A contradictory factor of depression is that you can often not even feel sadness, frustration, or any feeling at all, as you seem to become a emotionless shadow of your formal self.

Exercise has become an important force for distraction, and also mental clarity. Not only does it provide a temporary euphoric glow as a result of pushing your body to it’s limits, but it also produces the thought that you are doing something positive, albeit for the very briefest of moments. When engaged in this physical activity, you have little time or energy to think of anything else, and this short term relief (matched only by dreamless sleep) is like a drug, the resulting high something that you cling onto, but which sadly fades away once the exercise ends.

I think the most damaging aspect of my mindset is that I spend much of my time thinking how I can gain the approval and affection of other people, or what I can do to ensure that people realise that I’m reaching out or wanting to gain solace in their friendship, rather than thinking of how I can treat myself better. I tend to put my own wellbeing to the back of the queue, and I guess this is also due to my self imposed low opinion of both my worth and also of my value as a person. I begrudgingly concede that the only way to help myself is to take more care of my own health, and to prioritise my own wellbeing above all else, as only then will I be in a suitable position, and have the necessary levels of strength, to finally free myself from the quicksand altogether. But alas, the irony of this supposed truth, is that I cannot do that alone.

Fighting The Fog

It’s been a month since my last blog post, mainly due to the fact I have been having a markedly difficult time and consequently have possessed very little energy or motivation to write anything, and no inspiration to formulate any coherent thoughts. After having been off work for almost 3 weeks it has been an incredibly frustrating period, although sadly something which I am all too familiar with. As my most recent blog posts made apparent, I had been heading down a steep slope for some time, and the inevitably that the ‘Black Dog’s’ clutches would eventually pull me fully down was perhaps obvious for all to see. When it gets particularly bad I have no mental or physical energy left to deal with the day to day, and it’s increasingly challenging to be around people, as I so desperately want to be part of their lives, but am unable to. It probably didn’t help that my weekly counseling sessions that I had been having for the last 10 months had come to an end, and so it felt like there was no outlet or support base for me within London, which probably instigated the implosion (obviously my family were supportive from back home).

One of the most commonly asked questions is ‘what was the trigger’ and most of the time there isn’t a noticeable one. It causes me great frustration that I’m unable to put my finger on what initially sets off an episode, because how can you fix something when you don’t know what is broken? Sadly one of depression’s key features is that often it rears its ugly head without warning, and completely out of the blue. This can be because the thoughts or feelings that precipitate it are so unconscious and so deeply ingrained that without deep psychological analysis it’s very difficult to recognise them. It’s pertinent to note that depression is also caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (a reduction in serotonin levels) and therefore this ensures that the mood levels are so unpredictable, and prone to fluctuation. Of course there are big life events that people experience (bereavement, loss of job, breakup of relationship) that are very obvious triggers, but for me 95% of the time the black fog comes without warning, and there is very rarely any sunshine to burn out the heavy mist that envelopes me.

I started reading an interesting book on depression and mindfulness (before my motivation even for that deserted me) which posited an interesting theory regarding one aspect of depression, stating: “depression forges a connection in the brain between sad mood and negative thoughts, so that even normal sadness can reawaken major negative thoughts.” (The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams , John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn)

So for example if the loss of a loved one caused a great sadness, then when we feel a sense of heartache again, even years later, then these original memories are reawakened, causing a further spiral down into depression. Or if we felt a particular sense of sadness caused by loneliness during childhood, then even a passing sadness in later life can trigger those feelings of inadequacy or isolation from the past. We may not even be aware that it is a thinking pattern from the past that is causing the current feelings. This quote from the book efficiently details the theory:

“This is why we can react so negatively to unhappiness: our experience is not one simply of sadness, but is colored powerfully by reawakened feelings of deficiency or inadequacy. What may make these reactivated thinking patterns most damaging is that we often don’t realize they are memories at all. We feel not good enough now without being aware that it is a thinking pattern from the past that is evoking the feeling.”

I’m not sure how these insights can really help me, as being aware they exist doesn’t alter the illness’ effect, just like explaining to someone why they have a headache doesn’t make the headache go away. And similarly, just because I can recognise these connections between memories and emotions doesn’t mean it can help me, as depression doesn’t allow for awareness to be a combatant against the illness. Most of the time I can recognise that I shouldn’t be thinking or feeling certain things, but that doesn’t make them go away, it only leads to further frustration at the fact that I can observe and diagnose them without this ability having any positive effect on my wellbeing. But I suppose that learning more about the illness can only be a good thing, and education can only ever be a positive weapon, as I have tried to petition through this blog.

I feel a very slight improvement upon how I was feeling a few weeks ago as I’ve had time to let the noise in my head settle down and time to reflect and recharge, although it hasn’t alleviated completely, and a medication change has left me feeling listless, bereft of energy and with an increasing foggy mind. My sense of loneliness has continued throughout as I’ve had no communication over the last few weeks (outside of family) which has let me feeling incredibly isolated, despondent and just plain sad, and only serves to confirm the conscious or subconscious ingrained beliefs that exist within. And if Mark Williams in his book is correct, these thoughts and feelings may have subconsciously conjured up thought patterns from earlier in my life. For a long time I have felt ‘why would anyone want to be friends or in a relationship with someone like myself, with the difficulties that the depression presents’? I can recognise that this is a typical negative thought pattern associated with the illness, but as the years go by these thoughts intensify in validity, making me feel that my imprint on other people is at best insignificant, at worst completely absent.

Despite a slight improvement over the last few weeks (although devastatingly slow for my liking) , I’m continually aware that it won’t be the last time I feel like this, and that it’s always lurking just below the surface. This reality is both disheartening and  heartbreaking, and leads to a desperate hope that once the fogs lifts, it does not descend again for a very long time.