Healthy Lifestyle,  Mental Health,  Self Care

How Getting in the Gym, Got Me Out of My Head.

Depression & Anxiety are terms that are constantly thrown around these days. I have met many people who have never experienced depression or anxiety, and I have met people who had crippling experiences with it. I used to really beat myself up for being the type of person that nobody would ever think would struggle with these two demons, but it was a daily fight that I was excellent at hiding behind a smile and my sense of humor. Not only did I beat myself up for living a double life, I used to beat myself up over the fact that my problems that led to this were seemingly small compared to many others. After all, my children were healthy and alive, our financial situation was decent, we didn’t struggle with any real issues, but I was just constantly a mess on the inside. Peeling back the layers of my life, I realized that I was carrying so much baggage from my past that it was literally suffocating me. It wasn’t until I was majoring in psychology and started a counseling degree (that I eventually quit), that I really began to understand the layers that I have built over the years.

My depression and anxiety started at a fairly young age. Since I can remember, I have always been very emotional and extremely sensitive. I would absorb the emotions of others and take them on as my own. Someone could tell me a sad story and I would be crying and sad about it for days. Being this way is truly a blessing and a curse. On one hand, people who would come to me with their issues would be sharing them with someone who deeply understood their pain and was able to console and validate them in a very supportive way. On the other hand, what those people didn’t realize was how much other people’s issues took a toll on my own emotional health. I didn’t even realize this until a few years ago! My anxiety arose from being the child of an alcoholic as my home life was unpredictable on a daily basis. Combined with being surrounded by addicts and being sexually and physically abused, it created a the perfect environment in my head for depression and anxiety to thrive in. The circumstances of my childhood led me to take on a ‘mothering’ role at a very young age which was a breeding ground for anxiety. I still struggle with this as an adult, I can be easily dubbed as bossy or controlling, but that is because at a young age, someone had to take on that role. This sounds bad- but I usually take on this role because my ideas, timelines, and overall master plan of how events should go usually make the most sense and if things need to go smoothly, I need to be in charge. This mentality has obviously put a strain on my marriage because I am easily considered an alpha female and my husband just so happens to be an alpha male- can you say battle for control? Knowing this, I have to take a step back and acknowledge when I am being too bossy or controlling and have forced myself to relinquish control in many situations and go with the flow.

Knowing my depression and anxiety really emerged as a result of my upbringing, add two traumatic deaths to my life and we have a recipe for full on clinical depression. The man who was my step-dad while I was growing up was tragically killed in a freak accident when my daughter was just two years old. At the time, my husband was deployed to Afghanistan and my step-brother (his son) had been missing for 8 months and his body was recovered just 5 weeks before Steve was killed. Steve had absolutely everything to do with me being a successful person, he taught me so much in my life and I really clung to this man as he was a stable pillar of strength, love, and encouragement in my life up until his death. For the eight months my brother was missing, I knew my step-dad was in a lot of pain not knowing what happened to his son but at least when his body was found, there was some closure, although his murder has never been solved to this day. So in a five week period, my step-brother and my step-dad were both dead, my husband was on a combat deployment in Afghanistan, and I was trying to keep my mind straight to take care of my daughter. I was so consumed by grief that I had the dosage of the psychiatric medication I was on, upped to help me cope. The medication didn’t help, it only helped masked the real problems. The side-effects were horrific. At 5’9″, I weighed 125 lbs- I have never been that skinny in my entire life and I was extremely unhealthy, suffered from severe insomnia, and was an emotional zombie. I started smoking cigarettes, drank way too much alcohol, and littered my body with garbage food and could get away with it because I was so skinny. This was the darkest period of my life and I had no clue how to get myself out of the depressive grave I dug myself into after the back to back loss of two very important men in my life.

This was the turning point in my life- I had a young daughter who was getting robbed of a mother and although I was there physically and would go through the motions of motherhood, I really wasn’t there. My emotions were zombi-fied thanks to Prozac and Xanax, and I was literally operating on auto-pilot. Knowing this, I had the realization that I had to get off the medication and fix myself so that I could be a better mom, a better wife, and a better me. I made the decision to quit the medication cold-turkey and man that was rough! Not only did I quit the medication, I quit the nasty habit of smoking cigarettes that I picked up, too! I started brain-storming ways that I could help get my brain balanced and I remembered my friend who was always trying to talk me into joining a Crossfit gym. My step-dad died on the last day of June, and I signed myself up for Crossfit the first week in September of that year. I only knew a a couple people who went to this gym and it was intimidating AF to say the least. I knew that I needed a physical outlet that would improve my mental health and at last I found it. I was so skinny and extremely weak so I was literally starting from scratch but I didn’t care. I forced myself to go to this gym 3-5 times per week and I stuck to it. I made some friends there, the intimidation subsided, and I was genuinely starting to feel happier. I started eating better, eliminated soda and all the junk I was eating and what do you know? My mental state started to improve by the day. Although I was still very much in the grieving process, the journey I started of physical fitness was helping me cope with that in a way that Prozac never could. I should mention that during this same period in my life, I really began to grow spiritually and started to research and grow in regards to spirituality.

You see, it is NORMAL to grieve. It is NORMAL to feel. It is NORMAL to deal with human emotions. When I was on medication, I was just numbing these emotions instead of going through the necessary process of feeling, healing, and overcoming. Not only was I numbing normal human emotions, I was also numbing my entire being. I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t the silly, funny, playful, and emotional person that my friends and family love.  During the time I was on medication I don’t think I cried for an entire year at one point which is completely abnormal for me as I cry all the time. I had the realization that I was masking who I really was and I wasn’t going to be ashamed anymore of being a sensitive and emotional person. Growing in a spiritual sense allowed me to really examine my life and begin to heal, cope, and overcome the chain links of my past that were still stuck to me.

Once we moved from Virginia to San Diego about two years after this transitional point in life, I immediately found another Crossfit gym and signed up. Yes, it was intimidating going to a new gym in a new place but I forced myself out of my comfort zone and really went for it. On top of going to graduate school, having two small kids, moving to a new place, and having a deployed husband yet again, I forced myself to go to the gym at least 3-6 times a week because I knew my mental health and stability were dependent on it. This post isn’t a post about how awesome Crossfit is, although I love it personally, you have to find something that is right for you! Whether it is yoga, spin class, running, pilates, or whatever– it is so important to find a physical outlet when you are battling mental health issues. The release of endorphins is scientifically proven to elevate your mood, so why not give it a try? For me, there is nothing more satisfying then going and lifting heavy weights when I am struggling in my mind. There have been literally hundreds of days where I was on the verge of tears or on the verge of another depressive episode where I went to the gym and crushed a workout and immediately felt better afterwards.

You see, forcing yourself to do something that not only challenges your body but also your mind, is so important for overcoming mental health issues (at least in my experience). Not only has it helped me gain full control over depression and anxiety, it has also increased my self-esteem and confidence. I never ‘loved’ my body, but after seeing the muscle growth and what it is capable of in the gym, what is not to love? It is not perfect by any means, but it is my body and I love it. Learning to love my body and treat it with the love and respect I show others was a pivotal point on this journey. An increase in my self-esteem and confidence has a direct correlation on my internal dialogue- you know that inner voice that tells you whether you can or you can’t? Once I began feeling better, that internal voice changed and is now my biggest cheerleader instead of being my biggest critic. I stopped telling myself that I ‘suffered from anxiety and depression’ and began telling a new story about myself. I told myself that yes sometimes I would struggle with mental health, but that I was also in full control of it. Once I truly believed this narrative, and combined with my diet and exercise, my entire life changed for the better.

One thing I didn’t piece together until I started researching and following Dr. Kelly Brogan (holistic physchiatrist), was how my diet was having an impact on my mental state. I am the type of person to take the term hangry to an entire new level and frequently experienced mood swings on a daily basis. I am not a nutritionist whatsoever but after listening to her, it made perfect sense that my mood was being impacted by the spikes and crashes in blood sugar. I ate healthy for the most part but would also eat packs of fruit snacks and diet soda like it was going out of style. To say that my diet is 100% perfect would be a flat out lie, but I would say I eat about 85% clean and wholesome. When I have fallen off the healthy diet wagon I feel sluggish, weak, and the opposite of motivated to go to the gym. Most people don’t realize how much of a role their diet plays in their mood, behavior, and mindset. When you eat like shit, you feel like shit; it’s not rocket science. When I eat clean, I feel great. I am energized, motivated, and feel like I could run a marathon. I don’t experience that hanger, or bad moods nowhere near as frequently and I know my diet plays a HUGE role in this.

The last point I need to make is that this is a journey, not a destination. Is my mental state completely mastered? Absolutely not, but I try my hardest every damn day. It took several years of discipline to get to a point where I can comfortably say that I have my mental health under control. I recognize when I am in a ‘funk’ or when my mood turns south and take conscious steps to not let what is going on in my head have any negative impacts on my family. Adding meditation to my life has really allowed me to think clearly during times of stress and get a grip on my hyper-active brain which has had profound positive impacts on my behavior, thinking patterns, and quality of life.

If I have one suggestion for you, if you are struggling with mental health issues, is to find a physical hobby that challenges your mind and body. For me, Crossfit was the answer, as lifting heavy weights is genuinely frightening and physically challenging but I force myself to do it and feel so accomplished and proud once I am finished. Whatever form of exercise that challenges your mental state in this way- you need to pull the trigger and go for it. Yes, it WILL be intimidating. Yes, you WILL want to quit at times. Yes, you WILL feel like a badass once you get into a routine of doing this regularly and overcoming those fears. So what are you waiting for? After all, exercise is nature’s most under-used antidepressant, why not give it a try? Your everyday emotional and mental state are worth it, trust me. Do it not only for yourself, but for your kids!

——And yes, the image at the top is actually me at my favorite gym, Outlier Crossfit here in San Diego. Guess what? On this particular day, I couldn’t finish the rep, I dropped the weight because I couldn’t stand it up resulting in a NO REP! It was very frustrating, but instead of beating myself up over it, I gave myself a couple days off before I tried it again. Guess what? I got it that next time and felt very happy, proud, and accomplished!

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