4 Tips for When You Love Lifting But You Live With Depression

Along with therapy and medication, exercise can be an enormously useful part of treating depression.

(Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. If you’re dealing with or exhibiting signs of depression, please seek the advice of a medical professional immediately.)

Let’s be clear about one thing: this is not the article that’s going to tell you to ‘go for a run’ or ‘try yoga’ or ‘lift weights’ so you can ‘feel better.’ Will those things help you feel better? Maybe! And also, maybe not.

I know that a few minutes ago, my wife tried to urge me to go to the gym, because as I type, my heart is too heavy for my body and I can barely move; but she knows (like I do) that usually, when I’m able to force myself to get to the gym, I come home feeling much, much better than I did before I left.

But I also know that I had a full-tilt panic attack last week trying to do a guided meditation, and I know that I self-harmed in the gym itself a few months ago during a workout. So…working out might make you feel better! Yay! And they also… might not.

Because let’s get real: depression is complicated, and it’s a form of illness that is physically real, just like having a broken arm. Can we work out with a broken arm? Sure! But we’d better make sure we have our doctors’ clearance and that our cast is on properly first. And, we don’t expect lifting weights to heal the broken arm: our bodies might feel better; our minds, clearer. But that arm is still going to be broken.

Not that those of us living with depression are broken: we’re not. But while there are physical components of working out that can, physically, help lift the symptoms of depression (thank the lifting gods for that!), this is not that article. (But if you like, you can read all about why strength training helps with depression.)

This is the article for those of us who love lifting — when we can manage to get out of bed. So, how in the name of Carol Danver’s shoulders and Thor’s biceps do we peel ourselves off the depression floor and get ourselves, physically, to the gym floor?

depressed woman
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1. Tell Someone You’re Going

A lot of us who live with depression are intimately familiar with depression’s good friend: guilt. Normally, I’d encourage you to banish guilt into the hellmouth, because you deserve to be kinder to yourself than guilt treats you.

But here’s our moment to manipulate our guilt, to use it to our advantage. When I barely have the energy to move, let alone get dressed, get my water bottle, grab me some protein, pack up my lifting shoes, and… what? I’m not even out the door yet?! Exactly.

Getting out the door to the gym is a lot! When I don’t have the energy for it, but the small voice inside me wants to go because that small voice inside me knows I’ll probably feel better if I do… I phone a friend. Or, text, really, because who are we kidding? No one calls anymore, especially not when we’re feeling like this.

So, I text a friend. (Imagine if Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had had texting.) I tell them I’m going to the gym. And, if it’s one of my fellow lifting nerds, I tell them what I plan to do. 5x5s, tire flips, sled pulls, whatever.

These texts activate my guilt complex, and this is where guilt actually becomes useful to me: to appease the guilt, I’ll be more likely to get out to the gym and come back a little more steady, a little more solid.

[Read more: 4 ways to get more out of training alone.]

depression
Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock

2. Praise Yourself Every Step Along the Way (And Get Ready in Stages)

I love my gym. I love the mismatched iron plates and the smell of metal, and I love the bro nods between myself and other men, the smiles between myself and other women.

I love my gym. But yesterday, it took me literally three hours to get ready to go.

First, I decided I was going to. And I decided to be gentle with myself along the way. I gave myself an internal fist bump for making the decision.

I proceeded to lay face down on the floor in a melted puddle of depression.

Eventually, I got my gym socks on. Another depression pull ensued. Then, I did some editing. More puddles. Then, my squatting shorts. Then, forcing myself to eat a little something. Then, gym tank. On and on and on.

Each small, seemingly insignificant step of the way — all in service of, eventually, getting myself to the gym — I tried to praise myself for. Even if the praise was ironic, and sarcastic, as I am too prone to be with myself. Getting ready in stages, even stages that another person might not even recognize as an actual stage of getting ready to gym, is so, so helpful when I’m especially depressed because it breaks it down for me. Each time I force myself into an action, it’s bite-sized. I can do a little at a time. I can get there.

I can get there.

lifting in mirror
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3. Make a Plan

Which leads me to actually getting there. Whether you live somewhere where you’re driving, subwaying, biking, or walking to the gym, along the way, I find it necessary to make a plan for myself.

If you’re in the middle of a program, great! You already have a plan. But the plan might feel too overwhelming for today. So feel free to modify it. Is the “point” of today’s program to work your legs primarily, with a bit of cardio in the beginning, but you can’t handle everything in it? Break the plan into smaller, manageable pieces, listening to your body for what you know it can and wants to be able to handle.

No plan for today? Grab one! I find that, perhaps ironically, on days that I’m especially depressed, big compound movements help, as do high-intensity, timed work. Why? At first blush, my low energy levels seem more suited to accessory work (“arms day”, etc.). But, I’ve found that committing myself to big, complex movements that force my body to do and give my brain no space to think are most helpful for heavy depression days: survival mode kicks in under a heavy bar and/or against a clock, and I have no choice but to move, not think. If I can’t think, it’s harder for my depression brain to spiral.

Maybe your body needs lighter, lower-intensity work on your depression days. That’s okay! This is about you and your body; so do what works best for you! I just know that when I try to do hypertrophy accessory work when I’m especially depressed, there’s too much room for my mind to sink itself deeper into the agony that is living with depression. Heavy compound movements and HIIT work helps me turn off my brain, and that’ll help my body do what it needs to do to help sort my mind out.

leaving gym
Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock

4. Leave as Soon as You Want To

The best-laid plans, huh?

If all of this has worked, and you’ve gotten yourself to the gym, congratulations! You got dressed and left the house, and on days like this, that’s a huge accomplishment. Seriously. Pat yourself and your massive traps on the back.

But what happens when you’re in the gym and it’s either not working, or it was, but then it just… stopped? That can happen, too.

Sometimes it’s a phone call or text I don’t want to receive; sometimes it’s an intrusive thought that I can’t banish, no matter how loud I turn up my headphones or how flawless my last lift was. Whatever it is, sometimes I find myself collapsed on a bench, trying to make like Han Solo and fly casual, like I’m cool and catching my breath after an epic set rather than trying not to collapse into a panic attack followed by the ever-painful puddle of depression we witnessed earlier.

It’s okay to abort the mission. It’s cool to push through it (and I often do!), but it’s also cool to say to yourself: “Self, you’ve done good today. You faced your demons and you didn’t let them stop you from getting to the gym like you wanted to. You embraced barbells and tried to use them to knock out the depression monster. But it’s okay to be exhausted. It’s okay to call it for the day and go home without finishing your plan. You did good today, and you’ll make it through to tomorrow. Well done, Self.”

It’s okay to toss it into your gym bag and head home early. You’re still a badass. I promise.

And there’s always tomorrow.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

If you’re suffering from depression or are concerned that you may be, see a mental health practitioner. Find one near you here.

Featured image via Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

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