How Are You Depressed When You Run So Much?
How Are You Depressed When You Run So Much?
Well, the funny thing about that is, depression isn’t always due to a lack of endorphins. A lot of women take up running as a way to cope with mental illness. For some, running is enough of a catalyst to pull them out of their lowest point. But for others, running is merely a regular way to manage the daily symptoms of something much bigger.
My personal experience with major depressive disorder began when I was 12 years old and my dad was diagnosed with a glioblastoma (late-stage brain cancer). After watching his personality change and seeing him lose his battle with cancer, my literal biology changed. Doctors and therapists from that point forward explained my consistently-sad mood and quick temper as symptoms of my body not being able to properly manage chemical signals in my brain that should make me happy and “normal.” (This is the plain language way of saying that the neurons in my brain were not responding to serotonin or norepinephrine in my neural synapses, either due to underproduction of neurotransmitters, excessive reuptake of neurotransmitters, or reduced postsynaptic membrane sensitivity to neurotransmitters.)
Over the years, my depression eventually manifested as a general state of heaviness, fatigue, lethargy, and verbal self-abuse, including some really terrifying thoughts. I found myself feeling like I was constantly dragging my feet, thinking slowly, moving sluggishly, and wishing I no longer existed.
For me, depression is like being constantly wrapped in a weighted blanket, where every thought, emotion, and action is heavy, difficult, and draining. Sometimes, it’s downright scary.
Prior to running, I tried many tactics to manage my depression. Avoiding exercise and binge-eating definitely did not help my situation, and starving myself while obsessively exercising also did nothing for my mental or physical health. Team sports were a decent outlet to pass the time, but I never felt confident or worthy to be a part of something so joyous. All of these activities, combined with therapy and various types and doses of medication, helped me keep my head above water at my worst moments. However, I was (and still am) convinced that I will continually go through cycle after cycle of being extremely depressed for a few months, followed by a few weeks of “normalcy,” whatever that means, only to fall back into depression again.
When I found running, it wasn’t the magical cure that I hoped it would be. But I can’t deny that it did give me some semblance of strength and purpose. I started running while I was in the depths of a depressive episode. I’d grown to enjoy exercise over the years, but I was always intimidated by working out with or around other people or being a part of a team sport. I figured running was something I could pick up and abandon at any point in time, and realized it would allow me to exercise entirely by myself.
I learned to love the time I spent running alone. I initially chose to run in locations that were rarely ever populated, but as I became more excited by running, I found myself jogging around my neighborhood. Next, I was running on the treadmill at the gym, and around a very-popular lake near my city. For the first time in my life, I experienced a high I'd never experienced from any other exercise or sport. It wasn’t happiness – I was still extremely depressed, and could feel the heaviness of depression surrounding me – but I felt accomplished, proud, and strong.
Ultimately, I want to emphasize that last point: I was (and am) still depressed, even while experiencing the amazing benefits and positive effects of running. No amount of running can simply push the depression out of me, and more broadly, no amount of exercise can force the weight of depression off my shoulders. Physical activity, combined with treatment, can lessen the severity of some of my symptoms to some degree, sometimes – but having depression and being active are not mutually exclusive states.
In the past year, I’ve run two half marathons, one full marathon, and countless 10Ks and 5Ks – and I’ve done it all while depressed and “normal.” I’ve stuck with running as a new way of helping myself feel strong and capable, even when I am extremely depressed. It hasn’t been, and probably won’t ever be, a definitive cure for my illness. But it makes me feel good, even for a short moment, and it helps me keep going to meet each new day.
Why did I choose to share my story and experience? It’s not necessarily a happy one, and there clearly isn’t a clean finish to my story since I’m still in the cycle of, "Run. Take antidepressants. Repeat.". I didn’t submit this to portray a happy ending to depression, or to explain how running saved my life – because depression isn’t always cut-and-dry like that.
I wanted to share my story so that people who run and are still depressed can know that they're not alone. You don’t have to justify your depression just because you run or do some other strenuous physical activity. You also shouldn’t feel ashamed that your running habits haven’t pulled you out of grief, a depressed episode, or another mental illness.
And I submitted this story so people who don’t struggle with depression can realize that running doesn’t preclude anyone from experiencing mental illness. And when a runner voices that they are depressed – I ask that you refrain from asking this question:
"How are you depressed when you run so much?"
Instead, listen to them. Show compassion and provide support during their struggles. If needed, encourage them to keep running because of the short-term benefits it can provide.
You can be a runner with depression – They aren’t mutually exclusive. The sooner we can acknowledge and accept it, the sooner we can grow a supportive and encouraging network in the running community to help runners continue to show up each day, race and mile.