Tag Archives: endorphins

Reshaping the Shape-Shifters

30 Dec

mental illness

This is a blog entry I never thought I would write.

One thing that everyone who knows me is clear on is that I value my privacy. Highly. Like, REALLY highly. I refuse to have a personal Facebook page, I close the curtains long before it even gets dark, and I choose my confidantes as though they may one day have my life in their hands. Because they just may.

So it goes against my nature to publicly share something as personal as my own overlapping medical conditions. But the point of this blog is to share information about fitness and exercise, and to remind us all that every day is a challenge AND an opportunity. So here I am, writing a public blog about…me. This is really weird.

About 2 years ago, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroid disease. Long story short: my thyroid anti-bodies are constantly attacking my thyroid itself, making it extremely difficult for it to do its job and regulate my metabolism appropriately. Symptoms include chronic fatigue, difficulty controlling body weight, stiffness and pain in joints and muscles, some muscle weakness, and depression.

Just as I was figuring out how to work within the confines of my Hashimoto’s, I was diagnosed with a genetic mutation called MTHFR. (My nurse practitioner conveniently pointed out that while MTHFR technically stands for methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, it may also stand for “motherfucker.” I think she’s on to something.) Symptoms here include chronic anemia, an increased risk of cardiovascular events and dementia, blood clotting, and depression and other mental diseases.

You might notice that depression is on both of these lists. And that’s the piece I’m actually writing about today: mental illness. Our otherwise modern society still fosters so much anachronistic stigma around mental illness, and it’s so hurtful to so many people. Having depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia shouldn’t feel any more embarrassing than having diabetes or osteoporosis or shin splints. And yet, we still treat these things differently, as though it is somehow someone’s fault they have a mental illness. As though it is my fault that I have one. It’s not. But I do.

I have had major depression for well over a decade now. Some of it is definitely hereditary, and some of it undoubtedly comes from my aforementioned dual-diagnosis. I guess its origin doesn’t really matter much in the day-to-day maintenance of it. I just know I have to keep a close eye on it, because mental illnesses are absolutely shape-shifters: as soon as I think I know what mine feels like and looks like, it changes itself up and becomes something just different enough that I don’t notice it until it slaps me upside the head and I have no choice but to pay attention. At first, my depression was the garden variety type: lack of energy, hopelessness, wanting to just hide under the covers all day. Then I started getting pseudo-manic episodes during which I would do things like uproot 20-year old shrubs (with 20-year old root systems) from the front yard with my bare hands; I felt like if I stopped moving, even for a minute, I would literally die. Lately my depression has introduced me to the fascinating world of acute anxiety attacks, the type that leave me gasping for air and sweating and clutching my Ativan bottle. I have, at various times, been utterly self-destructive in my mental illness.

To be perfectly clear, mental illness sucks. It sucks hard. And sometimes it feels like all the pharmaceutical advances in the world can’t make a dent in the desolation it creates.

But make no mistake: I’m not writing this because I have a sudden need for a pity party, or because I have decided I look good in righteous over-sharing. I’m writing it because even with the seriousness of my illness, I have found some kind of hope worth passing on. And of all places, I found it on a treadmill.

There is a growing body of research that proves what many people have understood for years: exercise is a key piece in the treatment of mental illness. KEY. I’m not saying a bench press can cure schizophrenia or that enough squats can cure bipolar; exercise can’t guarantee a clean bill of mental health any more than it can guarantee a clean bill of physical health. But it can help – it DOES help. It’s a bit of a paradox, because when depression really attacks, the last thing anybody wants to do is throw on some trainers and head to the gym; it literally feels like a Herculean task. But on the depressed days I can force myself to do it, I never, ever regret it, and I have never once not left the gym feeling significantly better than when I got there.

I’m a bit of a wellness autodidact, so the science isn’t intuitive to me. But here’s what I have learned:

• Even a moderate 15 minutes of exercise will immediately release endorphins into the system, which create feelings of happiness and even euphoria. They don’t last forever, but when it comes to managing depression, “forever” isn’t usually the goal – it’s more about getting through the next hour. Endorphins are a no-brainer way to make that happen. In fact, recent studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as SSRI’s in managing depression;
• Exercise also increases the body’s concentration of norepinephrine, which is a chemical that helps moderate stress levels. For those of us who also struggle with anxiety, norepinephrine is a godsend;
• Exercise has also been proven to boost overall brain function by increasing the body’s levels of BDNF (brain-derived proteins), and it works with the hippocampus to improve memory and slow down the overall brain degeneration that happens naturally with age;
• Finally, exercise can reset the circadian rhythms of the body, which regulate sleep patterns, among other things.

All of this science is directly relevant and beneficial to people suffering from mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety disorders. I have to remind myself of this on a regular basis, because the tough reality is this: I’m a person with a mental illness first, and a person trainer second. I was reminded of this fact just this past week, when I had an anxiety attack in the middle of a training session, the event that prompted me to write this blog entry. Like I said, shape-shifters.

I don’t know if I would have a mental illness if I didn’t have Hashimoto’s Disease, or if I didn’t have MTHFR. But what I know is that I do have a mental illness, and that it requires constant supervision, constant compassion, and regular body movement. I can’t cure my illness through exercise. But if I can reshape my brain’s own shape-shifters by creating new neuropathways, one hour at a time, then I can survive. And surviving is the first step to thriving.

Lily-Rygh Glen