Mental Health – It’s not just in your head

Over the past week, I’ve seen a number of things floating around pushing the importance of exercise for your mental health. One article (which I will not link) went so far as to imply that in many cases of depression, exercise works just as well as medication. And we’ve all heard the saying “Running is cheaper than therapy.” And that’s true. Exercise is great for helping you feel better.

Until it doesn’t.

Recently, Outside magazine had a phenomenal article about anxiety and mental health. This is one of the best descriptions of anxiety that I have read in a long time. For those of you who have experienced it, you will recall the feelings immediately. For those of you who haven’t, I recommend checking out the whole article.

When the anxiety is at its worst, I’m not present for anything. It’s as if I’m going through life with my hands in front of my face. It’s an overwhelming and devastating feeling that is very different from what I used to think anxiety was (feeling exceedingly nervous before a public speaking gig or butterflies on the start line of a marathon, for example). It can feel like I’m two different people. During “normal” periods, my non-anxious self knows how irrational my anxious self is being, but my anxious self doesn’t abide by reason.

Read that last sentence again. It’s so incredibly true. People with anxiety can see that their anxiety is often irrational, but when trapped in that anxiety, you can’t see the way out.

I have suffered from anxiety for years. Probably the majority of my life, or at least since I was old enough to be anxious about something. At its worst, I had a doctor look at me, tap his pen against the running shoes I was wearing, and tell me that I needed to be using those shoes for their purpose and not just wearing them to walk around. At the time, I was in the middle of training for a half marathon.  Clearly, exercise wasn’t going to work, and honestly, it was really insulting to hear that from a medical professional.

Now that’s not to say that exercise doesn’t help.  I do feel better when I’m getting the extra endorphins from exercise.  I think I’m a happier person when I’m able to workout.  But I’m not sure it has a huge effect on my anxiety levels.  My anxiety is a product of screwy brain chemistry, and what works is medication.  And I’m not ashamed of that.

Current society has such a stigma against mental health medications.  We don’t shame people for needing glasses (okay, so some kids will tease other kids with glasses, but that’s a different story).  And what are glasses but something to correct vision that doesn’t work quite right thanks to changes completely out of our control.  And sure, there might be some things you can do to help your vision, like taking a break from the computer every hour, but these things are very minor, and for the majority of people who need glasses, won’t help much.

Medication for depression or anxiety is the same.  Sure, there are some minor things you can do to help your situation, but often times, the issue just can’t be fixed without medication.  Can you function without it?  Sure, some people can.  But for others, it is excessively challenging, to the point of being unable to get through daily functions.

I’m not saying that everyone on medication for mental health needs to shout it from the rooftops.  We all have a right to privacy, and no one has to share anything about their health with the general public.  But we should remember that there are many people out there who take medications for their mental health, and there are many people who are too ashamed to talk to their health care providers about medications because of the stigma.  No one should ever be ashamed of their health status.

So yes.  Exercise can help improve your mental health.  But it’s not the only solution and for many people, it’s not the best solution.  So if you need something more than exercise, you shouldn’t be ashamed or feel like you’ve failed in any way.  It’s ok to not be ok.

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