Saturday, February 1, 2014

Why working out won't cure your depression

Ever since working out became fashionable in the 70s we have been hearing about how good exercise is for you, both physically and mentally. Especially nowadays, there is an endless flow of advertisements, gym memberships, motivational videos, before and after pictures all of which are trying to sell you one thing - the belief that physical activity is good for you. Now, don't get me wrong. I am not advocating a couch potato lifestyle, regular physical activity (especially if it's moderate) is really good for you. Human beings evolved to move, not to imitate a houseplant. However, I an saying that exercise is not the elixir of life it sometimes appears to be. 
For starters, a lot of people, including medical professionals will try to tell you just how good exercise is for people who have mood disorders. They will list a whole plethora of benefits, from your body releasing endorphins which give you a "runner's high", to better sleep and a feeling of camaraderie with your workout buddies (who will double as your support group). The way they present it, you could toss your happy pills right out the window. go for a jog, and the whole world will turn into fluffy unicorn barf. Why are we not all doing this? Well, because it doesn't really work that way...
What pop-psychology somehow always fails to mention is that the human body and mind are complex and intricate systems with many factors working in synergy, and quite often working differently in different people. Physical activity does help with moderate depression and anxiety, but it is not as simple as flipping a switch and turning off the bad mood. It also seems to help protect people from depression later in life, but again it is not the Holy Grail some portray it to be. There is mounting evidence that exercise can help people who suffer from mood disorders, but most of it is not clear-cut and the most successful trials have been done in a controlled environment where people received medication, counseling, support from their piers AND a tailored exercise regiment. For those of us who were not lucky enough to become pampered lab rats test subjects, this is what physical activity might bring you: 

As someone who has been physically active most of her life, I think I can speak for most active people when I say that exercising sucks a lot of the time. Specifically, if you are training for some kind of competition, like a marathon, and you plan on winning (as you should be in a competitive sport) most of your exercises are going to suck. You will be overworked, tired, you will have to watch what you eat (and I'm not just talking eating healthy, but a specific and very restrictive diet) and you will probably be nursing minor injuries all of the time. That does not spell mental health. In fact, it could mean just the opposite. Think of how many professional athletes crack at one point and just do something stupid and/or dangerous. If anyone gets enough exercise, it is them, yet they still crack under stress. 
On the other hand, if you are just trying to stay fit and do some exercise you enjoy, without the pressure of wining a gold medal or trophy, you might be in a better position to reap the benefits without so many costs of exercise. For starters, the stress is lower since you are not doing it to beat others nor in front of a bunch of cameras. However, you might still run into other human beings, unless you exercise home alone, some of which will not be kind and supportive. Sure your gym buddy is on your side, but what about those three ripped fart bags that constantly tease you for having love-handles or moobs? They are not there to help your emotional stability, but you can always switch gyms, so that's ok. Also, if you get injured (and you will) you can always stay home. That is, unless you have a job, kids, pet dog etc., in which case you will be limping on that sprained ankle to do your daily chores.  
Ok, I'm going to stop here because the post is getting long and there are a lot more +/- situations that you can imagine on your own. The point is, do take a yoga class or go jogging, just don't think of it as a magical cure-all. Nothing is. 

Saturday, January 18, 2014

How to wallow in self-pity: a short guide to anxiety/depression cocktails

The thing about being depressed is that you essentially don't need anyone to criticize your work or give you feedback on anything you do because you won't listen to them anyway. To put it simply, a severely depressed person focuses all of their attention on themselves and no matter what they do, in their own eyes it will never be good enough. You are always too fat or too skinny, to pale or too dark, your hair is never quite right and even if you were awarded an Olympic gold medal, a Nobel Prize and an honorary title of "president of space" you would still feel like you are worth jack shit. 
In essence, a depressed individual is the exact opposite of a narcissist. The only thing the two have in common is not being based on reality. A self-absorbed narcissist will focus most of their attention on other individuals in order to show them just how much better he or she is and how worthless they are in his or her magnificent presence (especially if they are not). A depressed individual will notice no one but themselves, focusing all of their attention on either trying to prove to themselves they are not as worthless as they appear or, in more severe cases, reaffirming the fact that, no matter what the world around them says or does, they are in fact useless collections of atoms that would serve their greatest purpose in life by pushing daisies. My place in this whole conundrum is hopping somewhere between the proving to myself and the world that I matter on the one side, and becoming fertilizer on the other. Depending on the day, I might be anywhere on that spectrum with the occasional outburst of i-am-actually-normal-and-the-world-is-good mood. On the particular day I wrote the following paragraphs my brain was rooting for the daisies.

I could feel a panic-attack coming. It wasn't the first and it sure as hell wouldn't be the last, but it was bad. I have to remind myself to breathe (in through the nose, out through the mouth) and I'm shaky. Not the kind of shaky you get when you forget to eat, more like a fight-or-flight instinct that can't make up its mind; to tackle the invisible enemy with a blunt ax or run like hell down a dead-end street? Tough decisions. I feel and over-think each of my breaths. I feel the adrenalin rushing and I can't help but give in to it. It is a pointless waste of time and energy, a panic-attack, and I am still giving in to it. To hell with all of it, all the soothing, calming picture-your-happy-place bullshit. I'm gonna panic now, calm myself down later, when my brain decides it is time and when I get some natural and slightly less natural chemical help with the calming. Breathe, damn it! My heart is racing. You'll give yourself a heart-attack. Dad was at the doctors today, the doctor doesn't like the look of his arteries. Fuck, not that again. Dad wont die! But Anna's dad had a heart attack and he was in better shape than your dad AND younger too. Shut up! What would happen if mom got sick, like stay in the hospital sick and dad panicked like you are panicking now? AAAARGH!!!! Stop it!!! What of you and the brat? And you are supposed to take care of your boyfriend now, since he's unemployed. Stop it, stop it, stopit stopit stopitstopitstopitstopit!!!! Fine, I'll shut up now. I'm sure you've got other things to do, like school stuff, right? Oh, God!!! I need a cigarette! And a drink! AND I DON'T CARE IF THAT MAKES ME AN ALCOHOLIC!!!

This whole conversation is, naturally, all in my head. I am sitting alone at the kitchen table, my brother in his room playing video-games, my parents watching TV in the living room, all of them completely oblivious to the fact that I am silently falling apart over a cup of coffee. And now you know why my brain sometimes comes to the conclusion that I am just not worth the trouble I cause. I don't , in general, bother other people with my deficiencies, but I give myself a helluva mental workout.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Manic in manic depression

As I mentioned in my previous post, manic depression has both ups and downs. The severity, prevalence and duration vary from one individual to another, but they do have a lot in common. The "down" phases are the more obvious - depression. Even someone who has never heard of psychology or depression can recognize (and has probably seen) signs of depression in other individuals. But what about the "up" phases?
They are most commonly referred to as mania and are usually seen as the opposite of depression. To the lay person mania can really seem as the antonym of depression and most probably wouldn't even recognize it as a condition that needs to be treated. Why is that? Well, for starters, in a manic phase a person appears very lively, outgoing, creative and optimistic. They seem to be always smiling, entertaining others, planing to do one thing or another - just the kind of person you would need to get you out of a depressive spell. However, mania can be much more potent and destructive than it may appear at first glance.
For starters, the very name might give you a clue to its all-encompassing power. A person in a manic phase has so much energy and vigor that they might loose all control over their life. The spark of creativity turns ablaze, so they start working on several projects at once and never come round to finishing any of them. They tend to run on very little or no sleep at all until they collapse. They are not known to listen to reason and telling them to slow down will probably do as much good as pissing on napalm. Furthermore, even though the person might seem overtly optimistic, that needn't be true. In fact, mania is more likely to cause violent mood swing than an overall feeling of happiness. Anger, anxiety, rage, vengefulness, disgust - all of these (and quite a few more) can combine into an unpleasant and explosive cocktail which is then seen by others as a form of "batshit crazy".
To give you an idea of what a manic phase looks like, here is what I did for Christmas this year:
My boyfriend and I went home to see our parents who live in another part of the country. To get there, we had to take several means of public transportation for a total of 6 hours. Now, as you can probably imagine, 6 hours of public transportation is not the most pleasant experience and can leave one very much drained and tired, so I decided to stay at home for the night and do all of the cleaning, cooking, baking, decorating etc. tomorrow (it was still a few days to Christmas and I usually help my mother with the holiday chores because she can't manage on her own). The next morning I got up early and the manic phase kicked in. I spent the next week doing everything there was to be done, from helping my father bring in the tree, to baking cookies, visiting relatives and last-minute shopping. In addition, I spent most of the evenings getting drunk and high, staying up until the early hours of the morning. The next day I would get up early and start all over again. The first sign of trouble appeared when I got sick from the smell of cookie dough on Christmas Eve. I haven't eaten or slept properly in several days and have spent so much time making cookies and cakes that my stomach couldn't take it any more. That, however, did not slow me down. The next week of my life was just as frantic and, by the time New Years Eve came around, I was exhausted and my family had had enough of me.  Also, I went through so much beer and pot that I might have set a frat-house record if anyone bothered to count.
Fortunately for me, I never experience full blown mania and only get "mini" episodes which tend to last no longer than a week or two (hypomania as opposed to full blown mania). So, as the New Year celebration approached, I slowed down and was able to pick up my normal life-rhythm again. I slept for 10 to 12 hours for the next few days, recovered my strength and assessed which of the newly bought sweaters was actually wearable (turns out its 50%).

Friday, December 20, 2013

Here goes nothing!

I am a manic depressive.

What is a manic depressive you ask? Well, to be perfectly honest - no one really knows how to define it. Manic depression is also known as bipolar disorder and (more recently) cycling illness . Recent work done in the fields of psychology and psychiatry has complicated the life of anyone who wishes to understand even the basics of their (or someone else's) mental condition. I'm not going to go into what, how and why is being done because I'm not an expert and I don't really care how you call it or how many items you put on the diagnosis check list. The truth is that mental illness, like most things in life, is not black and white. Most conditions have fuzzy edges, they are simply the extreme ends of a spectrum of  normalcy. There is no exact number of hours you have to be depressed in order to reach a goal called "clinical depression", there are no exact moves you have to repeat to unlock the "OCD achievement" and there is no exact border you have to cross in order to get into loony-land.
Most mental conditions are just a combination of circumstances, expectations and weaknesses that become obvious for one reason or another. When I say circumstances, I mean more than the "my dad didn't love me, so I became a stripper" argument. Circumstances means not just the family, but also the age, culture and general surroundings you are born into. Hypothetically speaking, if you were a 15 year old in Uganda drinking waregi all afternoon, every afternoon, you would not be an alcoholic so much as you would be part of the tribe. Expectations refer to how society wants you to act in order to be considered normal. My favorite example of this is how Victorian society viewed female sexuality - basically, if you had a sex drive, you were sick. Finally, weakness simply means your weakest link, the place where you are most likely to break. That weak spot could be anything, form your physical appearance to the wellbeing of your family, to the state of your garden flowers. It depends on the individual, and you are not likely to know exactly what it is until you get close to snapping. Manic depression is just that, an approximate area on the map of human psyche. You aren't really sure how you got there, but before you make that illegal U-turn you get a free roller coaster ride all the way around the borders of loony-land and get back almost in time for dinner. 

So, welcome to the loony-land Express! Mind your elbows and hold on tight - this is gonna be a helluva ride!