The Miracle You Can Have Every Day, Part 3: Exercise, Depression, and the Brain
A tiny white feather floated down from the pine, and the thought crossed my mind, "There are angels in these little woods."
I was outside because I'd committed to a year of daily outdoor solitude. I was outside crying, again. When had it started? This constant sadness that followed me wherever I went? One minute I'd be doing dishes, the next minute I'd be carried away by tears. One morning I'd start out laughing at something my daughters said, but by afternoon I'd be fantasizing about quietly ending my existence. Sometimes it went the other way and I would get really angry. End my life? You must be kidding. I'd hang on forever, even if I felt like I'd been hung. Damn the world.
Was I depressed, or just in a long-term funk?
Answering such a question is one of the challenges in pinpointing and treating clinical depression. Some of us are simply melancholic personalities, exhibiting what Dr. John Ratey calls a shadow syndrome of depression. Some of us will get suicidal, but others can't even make the simplest decision and lapse into isolation and helplessness. Some will get angry about everything and shout and threaten. Depression has many faces.
The bottom line? We may not want to wait around to find out whether we're officially depressed, or figure out every last symptom. There's too much at stake, whether it is physical existence or emotional well-being. If you experience the first signs of depression like sadness or sleep disturbance, Dr. Ratey advises, "Get moving immediately. And do not stop."
Exercise treats depressive symptoms at multiple levels and can work even faster than antidepressants, which sometimes take up to three weeks to begin working. Exercise is also more effective than antidepressants in the long-term, and does not offer difficult side effects like a potential decrease in sexual interest and function, potential nausea or vomiting, and potential exacerbation of suicidal thoughts.
How does exercise achieve these miracles? It works from both the "top down" and the "bottom up," affecting thoughts and self concept by boosting critical neurotransmitters in the pre-frontal cortex, while simultaneously affecting energy, passion, interest, and motivation in the brain stem. Unlike antidepressants, which selectively affect neurotransmitters, exercise adjusts the entire brain chemistry in an elegant manner.
The trick, in many cases, is to get the depressed person moving. It could first take a solid dose of talk therapy and a jumpstart of antidepressants to motivate a person to start literally running from his depression.
Regardless, it's notable, observes Ratey, that exercise is the first-line treatment for depression in Britain. (Yes, Brad, maybe there is more to the brilliance than just talk. Maybe, like the British, we need to reconsider where we turn first for our miracle.
When I think back on my year of sadness, I wonder if its consequent foray into running began with the Miracle Worker. After all, I knew nothing of the deep benefits of exercise for potentially reversing depression. I just know that one day I finally forgot to cry.
Image by Laura Boggess. Used with permission. Information about depression and exercise is from John Ratey's book Spark. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us. Most of the material on The High Calling is available for reuse under a Creative Commons 3.0 license. Unfortunately, work by Laura Barkat is not available for reuse. If you are interested in reprinting work by Laura Barkat, please contact her directly.