Exercise: you know it’s so good for you, there’s no debating its positive effects on your mental and physical health. But what do you do when anxiety keeps you from it because you’re afraid of feeling your heart beat too fast or depression makes you feel like getting off the couch is just way too much for you to take on today?
Have you heard the old adage, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”? That’s how I take on new things while living with depression and anxiety. If I were to look at all of the things I need to do this month, I would freeze. I wouldn’t know where to start. It’s all too much- and quite honestly- it’s super triggering for both my depression and anxiety. The same thing happens when I say, “I really want to get in shape”. Um, yeah, but how do I do that? I am already overwhelmed at the thought of what getting in shape might entail.
The thing about accomplishing anything when you have mental health concerns is that it has to be something that you really do want to accomplish. So, why do you want to exercise? Is it because you want to be healthier? Because you want to fit in to those shorts you love? Or maybe because your friend said it helped with her depression so much? Find your why. This is crucial because if you don’t even know why you’re doing this then it’s not too likely you’re going to stick with it on the hard days (spoiler alert: there will be hard days). What is going to get you off of the couch or make you want to risk the feeling of your heart racing?
Once you have a clear ‘why’ in mind look at what attainable steps you could make for yourself to get you moving. For example: If you’re planning on exercising in the morning, one of your goals could be to put your workout gear out the night before. I do this all of the time because I am not a morning person- I need all of the help I can get to accomplish anything in the morning. The next step would be to wake up, get those clothes on and maybe just walk down to the end of your street and back. Maybe that’s all you have time to do, the stamina to do, or the desire to do- doesn’t matter. You accomplished this goal to get out and exercise. Eventually you can make a goal to walk around the block, or jog to the end of the street and back. The point is, if you want to be able to run 2 miles a day- start simple. Your body and mind will thank you.
Now maybe accomplishing these smaller tasks of getting out and exercising isn’t your problem, maybe your perspective on them is. Are you saying to yourself, “Yeah, I jogged down the street and back- who cares?! I should be running 2 miles by now.” Then you give up- because you’ve convinced yourself that where you’re at is not a good enough place to be. If that is what's going through your head, then what we really need to be focusing on is your self talk. One of the best ways to deal with that negative self talk is to offer yourself some gentleness, compassion and then reframing.
For example, you can say something like: "Yep, it's true I've accomplished more challenging things before I started struggling with anxiety/depression/whatever the issue is. But that's exactly it; I'm learning to manage an illness, which like other illnesses, changes my range of function. I am doing what is within my capacity right now.”
Or think about it from this perspective- what would you expect from someone recovering from cancer? Yes, I get that cancer and mental illness are different. But mental illness is REAL, just because you can’t see it (much like cancer) doesn’t mean it's not there. It's not something that you can simply think yourself out of. So it's more important than ever to be compassionate and gentle with ourselves as we navigate getting shit done while living with anxiety and depression.
Another thought, and I know this sounds silly, but you can celebrate what you’ve done daily or weekly as well. You can look back and say, “Damn, I got outside and walked 4 days this week. Thats awesome.” Recognize your accomplishments, no matter how seemingly small they are. Remember, accomplishing those small goals will give you the confidence to keep going and run those 2 miles- or whatever your exercise goal might be.
Lastly, sometimes it’s hard to see if something is working for you or not. I suggest making a list of issues you would like to see improved by exercise. Maybe the list is something like: I want to sleep better, be able to focus, and have more energy/drive to get me through the day. After a week or two of exercising- reassess your situation. Have any of those things improved for you? And don’t be afraid to whip out your ‘why’ and reflect on what that means to you and if you feel like you are fulfilling your reason for doing all of this in the first place.
- Find your why (I refuse to sit and watch my life be taken over by this! I am ready to do something about it!
- Be honest & realistic with what you can accomplish. Start where you are, go slow, pace yourself. (I want to run 2 miles, but first I will start with the block)
- Re-adjust expectations daily in relation to health & needs (maybe you’re on your cycle and need to take it a little more easy than normal)
- Focus on accomplishments of small achievements (Yay! I walked 4 times this week!
- Reflect on where you were and where you are now. Are you seeing improvement? (I slept so well this week!)
Exercise is absolutely essential for our mental health, there are a countless number of articles in medical journals from around the world that have proven that, but now it’s time to prove it to yourself. Remember to show yourself compassion, doing something small is better than doing nothing at all. But most of all, please don’t forget that you’re worth it.