Running Is Not Therapy: What I Learned from Depression

Jan 18, 2021 | Mental Health, Wellness

Tracy Green says, “Exercise helps with both anxiety and depression, but only if you’re not suffering so badly from them that you can’t get out of bed.”

What I Learned about Depression that I Couldn’t Run Away From

Last fall, I fell apart. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. And that was before the pandemic started. 

For about three years, I’d focused on running — on being consistent, on getting faster, on logging more miles. I was motivated and ticked some of my goals off the list, working with a coach and setting new personal bests at basically every distance in 2016 and 2017. During that period, I also changed careers, bought a house with my husband, and adopted a dog.

My lofty goal was to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, which meant improving my marathon personal best by 12 minutes. After solid marathons in 2016, 2017, and 2018, I was struggling with a hamstring issue. Just one more attempt, I thought. If you don’t push through and run a marathon this fall, you have no chance at the trials.

At a tune-up race in September 2019, I knew the gig was up. I needed time off to heal. 

I let the dream go. Or at least, I thought I did.

Summer faded, the days got shorter, and I found myself cross training in the pool. I felt unmotivated — not just about cross training, but about everything. I felt tired all the time and asked a doctor to check for anemia. She said they’d test for thyroid but that it was “probably just stress.” (Not helpful.) My thyroid was fine. I had my iron tested on my own, and it was on the low end of normal, so I thought I had my answer.

But, iron supplements did little to improve the crushing fatigue. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to do anything. I couldn’t focus. I frequently thought to myself, “If I laid down under my desk, would anyone notice?” The fog persisted for months.

In January, a different doctor ran a full bloodwork panel but still didn’t see anything awry. Suddenly, it hit me. What if it wasn’t physical? What if it was mental? Was I … depressed?

I decided to see someone. I didn’t mention it to friends or family; honestly, I was embarrassed. I thought I was overreacting. It took weeks to navigate my insurance provider’s website and figure out who to call. Do I call a psychiatrist? A therapist? What does my insurance cover? What do I say when I call? Why isn’t there an online booking platform because making phone calls is hard for me? The process is really tough when you’re suffering from depression. My first appointment with a psychiatrist involved several screeners, and my scores clearly indicated I was suffering from depression and anxiety. The depression we believe to be largely Seasonal Affective Disorder, which made processing my other feelings — including my disappointment over running and the Trials — really difficult.

The validation was a relief. For months I had inexplicably felt bad and couldn’t figure out how to feel better. The psychiatrist made several recommendations: lifestyle changes, regular therapy, and consistently using a sun lamp. I had struggled with self-diagnosed winter blues before and already had a lamp but had used it at random.

In my first meeting with my therapist, we talked about my running. When I mentioned being injured and not being able to try to qualify for the trials, I started crying. I realized I hadn’t dealt with that disappointment — and that it was OK to feel that way. I started feeling like myself again. I continued to feel better all summer — supporting the initial SAD diagnosis — and found motivation to run and train again. Exercise helps with both anxiety and depression, but only if you’re not suffering so badly from them that you can’t get out of bed. On days the pandemic felt overwhelming and I was worried about being around people, I hopped on my basement treadmill and watched lighthearted shows. I altered my neighborhood running loop to avoid crowds; I taught fitness class virtually.

Research shows exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety by releasing endorphins and providing a distraction. Plus, it keeps me from doomscrolling on my phone. Exercise is also a much healthier coping mechanism than, say, drinking alcohol, which actually worsens anxiety and depression symptoms. As someone who is used to being active — running nearly every day and teaching Pilates several times a week — not wanting to work out is often an indicator of my mental load. If I have multiple days where I don’t feel like doing anything physical, where I just want to sleep or lay on the sofa, I know I need to talk through what’s going on. During the pandemic, my health insurance provider has covered mental health copays. Most providers continue to do so.

For now, the cloud is lifted, but there are ups and downs. As the long summer days faded, I felt increasingly lethargic and fired up my sun lamp in September. I’ve learned a lot about treating my mental health with the same attention I do my physical health. A rough mental health day might necessitate a rest day or I might feel like working out, and either is OK.

With my coach’s encouragement, I include notes about my mental health in my training log just like how I’m feeling physically. But, despite what the memes say, running is not therapy. Exercise is not therapy. It has great mental health benefits, but none of us should exercise in lieu of getting appropriate mental health support. And, excessive exercise can also be a mental health issue.

The connection between mental and physical health is important. If you’re struggling, remember mental health might manifest in physical symptoms — and vice-versa. Yes, get your bloodwork checked, but give your mental health the same consideration.

If you don’t know where to start, call 1.800.662.HELP (4357) or 1.800.487.4889 (TTY) for the treatment referral routing service provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Or, visit the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses.

P.S. How do we recognize the masks we wear to hide our pain?



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