• Claire Higgins

Relieving Stress, Anxiety & Depression at the Gym



This blog entry is the final one in a series on Sport, Exercise and Physical Activity for Mental Health and Wellbeing. If you missed the previous entries, you can find them below:



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Short on time? Not much of a reader? Here are the below research article's key points:


  1. Gyms (and boxes) can offer a space to breathe and gather your thoughts. They also have the potential to help you cope with and recover from stress and mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression.

  2. It isn't enough to just go to the gym. You need to know why you are there and what it is you will do there. A clear goal and strategy from the onset will help you to understand whether you can go it alone or if you need professional help.

  3. Exercise alone isn't a "cure" for mental health challenges. But it can help you to re-balance difficult emotions and boost the energy needed to open up your mind and engage in new and improved coping strategies for life.

  4. Fit and athletic people can get depressed and struggle with other mental health challenges too! The gym is not a magic bullet. For those working in the fitness and sport industry taking time out may be a better option for recovery.

  5. The Inner Athletics Performance and Recovery Models offer pathways to recovery and positive change. Based on the principles of fitness and sport, and guided by the science of Positive Psychology, they help to build resilience when put into practice.


Is a Gym Ever Just a Gym?


Gyms have changed a lot since I first entered one as a teenager. While the rows of cardio and resistance machines may still exist, there is much more choice when it comes to what you can do to stay mentally and physically fit within those four walls.


As an athletic teenager, I couldn't fathom why anyone would want to go to a gym. Sport was a much more attractive alternative and readily available. With no responsibilities yet, I also had plenty of time and energy to train and compete.


Fast forward a decade and life wasn't so rosy. Perhaps like yourself I was working sixty-hour weeks. Sport and exercise were the last things on my mind. I was too busy engaging in what felt like meaningful work in politically unstable parts of the world.


Political work (or work of a political nature) is more than engaging. It is all-consuming. I worked on the humanitarian side and while we didn't consider ourselves political we were immersed in the politics of conflict and war every single day.


I've shared a little of my own journey back to exercise and sport in the first blog post of this series (available here). While I let fitness slide in my 20s I certainly made up for it in my 30s. It was in this decade that I began to see the gym in a whole new light.


Instead of being a boring space for unfit people to move in, the gym was now so broadly defined that it captivated me. From CrossFit boxes and home gyms to jungle gyms and outdoor gyms on the beach, the concept of a "gym" had really changed.


Today, the gym is a place where I develop mental and emotional resilience. It is also a place where I take time to breathe and recover. Whether it is our home garage gym, a public park space, or the local leisure centre, a gym is always on hand.


Gyms as Spaces to Breathe?


Long before I started studying the psychology of exercise and sport, or even contemplating mental health, I built a yoga studio at home. Recently divorced and on mission to the Gaza Strip, I decided bulky lounge furniture was a waste of space.


Instead, I chose to use that space to teach yoga. On a near daily basis, anything from 1 to 15 students would pass through my apartment's door. After they left, I would clean the floor and begin my own practice, often in the dark or by candlelight.


I lived on Gaza's Mediterranean coast and if I opened my windows, I could hear the crashing waves from my little yoga room late at night. With movement restrictions in place, I couldn't walk freely on the beach but to hear the waves reminded me of home.


Home was Dubai and it was to there that I returned a couple of years later when this mission was complete. Living alone in my family's former home, I had more space than I could imagine. It was then that I decided to extend my yoga room concept into a gym.


At the time, I was commuting almost 24 hours a week for work and karate. I met with a personal trainer (PT) once each weekend for an hour but soon realised I had no time or energy for the gym. So I asked my PT for advice on building a home gym.


I started with a hanging frame, an Olympic barbell, and a bench press set. Gradually, I added smaller items like a skipping rope, hand weights, a Bosu ball, and my favourite piece of equipment - 8 bright red martial arts floor mats that fitted neatly together.


In the early days of working out at home, I spent a lot of time rolling around on my mats. After the long drive to and from work, the mats were a place where I could relax and repair my stiff muscles. I also used them for yoga and creative dance.


Gyms as Therapy Rooms?


At the time of building my first home gym, I was in a long process of near burnout recovery. I never completely burned out from work but I did spend a long time close to the threshold. As a result, getting physically fit again took plenty of time.


It has taken me almost a decade to recover from a decade of living a chronically stressed life. My mental strength helped me to cope. So too did having the skills and confidence needed at work. But with relentless stress there is only so much a person can take.


In my case, it wasn't just the 60-hour weeks. Nor was it being on call at the weekend while working in media roles. I was also recovering from a marriage that had turned violent and trying to process the atrocities I had witnessed in humanitarian work.


I don't share much about what I experienced or saw in my 20s. One reason is that I wasn't alone. My colleagues went through it too and we all have to live with what we saw and the many ways in which our efforts to support fell short.


Another reason is that memories of violence can be stressful and I have to ask myself what is the point of going back to rehash it all. I did the best I could and today, I teach self-defence to those who are afraid of being hurt. This is enough justice for me.


Something I would change, however, was my awareness of my own mental health. While I intuitively knew that lifting weights and rolling around on my mats in my 30s made me feel better, I didn't always know what I was trying to feel better from.


Back then, mental strength helped me to cope with stress and anxious thoughts. Training in my home gym helped me to rise above them or put them to rest. Working out also gave me a natural buffer to depression, although I didn't realise it at the time.


With hindsight, and having now studied psychology, I understand better what it means to experience stress, burnout, and violence. I also have a better understanding of what it takes to recover and how exercise can be of scientifically robust and reliable support.


Gyms to Beat Depression


As I made my way through my 30s, I came across an increasing number of friends, acquaintances, and clients struggling with depression. Being more prone to anxiety, I couldn't understand how and why depressive moods could hit them so hard.


What I noticed in particular was the link between depression, excuses, and lack of motivation. Depression seemed to turn people into victims where they believed what they thought and excused themselves from having to show up fully for life and work.


Hard as I tried, I couldn't grasp the brutality of depression until glimpses of it entered my own life. The first time I noticed it looming I gave myself a weekend to recover. The next time I gave it a week. The third and last time, I gave it several months.


My triggers for depression were situational rather than chemical. New challenges required new coping strategies and my old strategies just weren't working. Humbled yet hopeful for answers, I was determined to find a better way and recover.


Training more often in martial arts wasn't the answer and while swimming in an Olympic pool helped, it was a long drive to get to and from there. I also found I had less desire and motivation to train in my home gym or even practice yoga.


Eventually, I rearranged my schedule so that I could make it to an actual gym. There, the change in scenery and positive atmosphere uplifted me. Just seeing other people working out motivated me and that was often all I needed to feel a bit better.


While studying for a Masters in Exercise and Sport Psychology, and with more sensitivity to the very real challenges people face in mental health, I began researching why and how exercise could have such a positive effect on boosting mental health.


While there are many ways to recover from depression, exercise is one that has been scientifically proven to have a positive effect, particularly on cognitive functioning. When people feel depressed, it is this functioning that frequently declines.


Exercise boosts blood circulation, increasing oxygen to the brain and muscles. In the right dose and frequency for each person, this can have a positive effect on the person's state of mind. In a positive state, we're more open to learning and problem-solving.


The part about problem-solving is critical. Exercise may not teach you this per se but it can put you in a better mood to seek out a more positive state where you're open to learning and perhaps even asking for professional support.


Social settings created for the purpose of exercise, such as gyms, can also help alleviate depression. Most gyms put just as much effort into marketing as they do into making their environment a happy place to be, and their staff positive people to engage with.


Depression in Fit & Athletic People


Most of the studies I've read on exercise for depression limit their trials to beginners, university students, or the elderly. There isn't as much out there on how to exercise to relieve depression when we're already fit or athletic.


In my experience, fit and athletic people who train regularly are actually at an increased risk of depression. This is due to the possibility of overtraining and how over time this can deplete a person's energy tank. This too can affect cognitive functioning.


Those working in the fitness industry can also be prone to depression. It may not be due to overtraining, as they are more likely to be aware of this risk, but rather due to the nature of their work. Long hours and always acting positive can take their toll.


Emotional labour is a term used to describe the nature of working in a service-oriented industry such as personal training, fitness instruction, or sports coaching. When your job is to motivate others, what do you do when your motivation seriously wanes?


I could certainly relate to that. In humanitarian work we often had to put our feelings to one side in order to perform. Later, as an executive coach, my clients were the ones who came first. Emotional labour was one of the things that eventually brought me down.


For those active in exercise, sport, and the fitness world, we may need to be more creative in how we respond to our mental health needs. Moving less might be part of the answer rather than thinking we have to move more.


Sometimes it is enough to pause and create a new vision for ourselves. In some cases, the answer for alleviating depression may be outside of the gym. It could be that therapy, meditation or journaling may help. Or just more time with family and friends.


Sometimes change is needed. For example, a change in our line of work or in how we work. Our experiences of mental health challenges may inspire us to move into teaching exercise for resilience as well as performance-related goals.


For those who are fit and athletic but not working in the fitness or sports industry, taking a break from training may help. A restful week off training and better sleep for recovery may reset and rewire our energy levels, leaving us more refreshed.


Inner Athletics Performance System


Once our body is well-rested, following shorter but more intense workouts might help boost our mental health resilience stores. Fewer but heavier lifts and shorter but more dynamic cardio followed by an equal amount of time stretching can work wonders.


The Inner Athletics Performance Model below captures this process of rebuilding physical and mental resilience. It is based on principles from exercise and sport and encourages the development of character strengths and values from Positive Psychology.

At the performance model's heart lies the elements of sweating (e.g. cardio, resistance, weights) and stretching (e.g. yoga, Pilates, dynamic and developmental stretching). Both of these can detoxify the mind and body, preparing it for stillness and surrender.


Think about it. When you're feeling depressed, how often do you feel the positive effects of stillness and surrender? Feeling stuck and giving up are not what I mean here. Stillness invites serenity while surrender reminds you that you aren't alone.


When your mind and body are still and quiet, it is easier to think straight and balance difficult emotions. Exercise plays a vital role here. You don't always need to go to the gym or build a home gym. Finding other ways to sweat and stretch can help too.


A person who can maintain (or regain) a clear state of mind and feels emotionally balanced (most of the time) can then cultivate the character strengths needed to reduce the likelihood of depression returning. From there they can improve their quality of life.


This is exactly what scientists Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, and Chris Peterson were thinking when they developed an alternative to the diagnostic manual for mental illnesses, the DSM.


Seligman and Peterson (2004) questioned psychology's focus on negative experiences. What if instead they could focus on enhancing the positive? Together, they created the CSV - Character Strengths and Virtues - handbook and manual.


Around the Inner Athletics Performance Model, you will see some of these strengths mentioned. In my own research, physical exercise is the platform from which many of these strengths can be cultivated and created.


Inner Athletics Recovery Model


Forging a strong character goes a long way in helping us to protect ourselves from stress, anxiety, and depression. And exercise goes a long way in helping us to develop these character strengths. But it isn't the only way.


In the Inner Athletics Recovery Model, I take into account the rougher times when we just can't get out of bed or make it out of the house. Or when our minds are whirring non-stop with worry and other anxious thoughts.

During these times, it may not help to hit the weights or burst into a sprint. Our energy and motivation levels just won't allow us. Instead, gentle movement and making time to eat well, connect with loved ones, and get better sleep may be more helpful.


Gentle movement may include walking and light stretching. It could even mean having someone else move and stretch your body for your, for example in a massage. Or it could mean a few yoga sun salutations before work.


In the most difficult of times, gentle movement can even mean lying down on your back or tummy to breathe deeply into your belly. It can also mean practicing restorative yoga or yoga nidra, or simply lying down in silence or to soft music.


The gentle way through recovery is a phase that can take as long as you need. If you're someone who is usually performance and goal-driven, it may be wise to hang out here for a few months if you're feeling particularly run down or worn out.


The recovery model also encourages reflection on the more gentle (but no less powerful) character strengths. Accepting that we're going through a rough time and discovering new ways to hope and find beauty can help us to heal.


One of the gifts of burnout and mental health challenges is the humility they often bring. When we acknowledge and accept that nobody is invincible - not even us - then we can free ourselves up to live life as we choose, mistakes and worries and all.


Humility gives way to a more authentic life. After the worst has happened, and we've not only survived but also recovered, less time is spent worrying about what could go wrong or regretting what did go wrong. We're more confident in a quieter way.


Quiet confidence is often what is missing in states of poor mental health. To make it through the distance of life, quiet confidence is an inner strength that only you might feel but over time, it becomes the inner light needed to guide your way.


References


Peterson, C., Seligman, M.E.P., (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A

Handbook and Classification. Oxford University Press: New York


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About Inner Athletics


Inner Athletics is a research, coaching, and training company based in the UK. Our purpose is to bring research-driven and evidence-based interventions and support strategies on performance, stress, and recovery to athletes, coaches, and executives.


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Would you like to become a Positive Psychology Practitioner and Coach?


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For those of you who are working (or plan to work) in health, fitness, sport, coaching, training, or any other related domain, I invite you to check out an upcoming course I'll be leading throughout 2020 at the Positive Psychology Network on Train the Trainer (ToT) Mental Health First Aid and Wellbeing. For more information, please contact me at: claire@ppnetwork.org


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