When I was first diagnosed in my late teens/early 20’s pretty much the first thing that the Dr asked me was “How much exercise do you get?” and the second was “When you wake up in the morning, what do you do?”. These questions surprised me a little. I was here for my mind, not my body. It turns out that the two are very much linked though…
To be my usual topsy-turvy self, lets take the second one first. One sure way to invite the black dog to spend the day with you is to lie in bed after waking. It’s the perfect time for thoughts to run around in your head. In a person that doesn’t have a mental health issue this is fine, it can help start the day, provide solutions to ideas that you have ‘slept on’, and generally be a nice snuggly lazy way to start the day. For those of us that are unfortunate enough to have depressive tendencies however, it’s very different.
Lying in bed with nothing to do but think is a terrible idea. In a lot of ways, thought is the enemy. Well that’s not quite true. Undirected thought is the enemy. As I have written about before, well focussed thought can be a mindful relief, but that isn’t what happens the first thing in the morning when you have just woken up. Doubts and fears swirl and grow in the quiet dawn. Those nagging little gremlins that can be kept at bay with day-to-day action have no barrier when you are just lying there.
So, some of the best advice I was given very early in my depression ‘career’ was to get up when you wake up. I still do, and I still find it helps
Excercise. The bane of modern urban living. We don’t get enough, I think that is generally accepted. Your average bloke or girl in the street gets half of the aerobic action they need, and that’s being statistically optimistic! We are a world (Meaning the western, plump, rich world) of ageing, fattening people. This aside though, your brain needs exercise too. The same Dr that got me to jump out of bed in the morning also told me to take a hike. Literally. It turns out that one of the best things that you can do yourself with no help at all is just to go for a walk. It can be difficult when you are having a black dog day, but boy does it work when you can manage it. I have lost count of the times where I have managed to drag myself out of the depths with an autumnal stroll. Nothing more than that. No stern talking to myself, no mantra, no yoga (although that would help too), no pills (other than the usual daily ones). Just a stroll.
Breathe the air. Look at the sights and sounds. It doesn’t matter where you live, it could be next to a steel works or an airport but there are still things to see, hear and smell just as if you lived in an idyllic forest. Focus on the external. Let the internal conflict, fear and hatred flow away and wonder at the beauty of the world.
Excercise stimulates the release of chemicals in your brain called endorphins, which contribute to that ‘natural high’ that keen excercisers mention. Swinging your arms and legs shakes out any stiffness, holding your head up and looking around clears your airways and helps with neck and back pain. There are myriad physical reasons to just take a walk. Add those to the mental benefits and it becomes impossible to argue against.
So get out there and take a hike!
Some useful links :
mentalhealth.org on the benefits of excercise
webmd on depression and excercise
helpguide.org has a great page on living with depression. Good general advice here but #4 is particularly relevant here