Outrunning Depression: The Alternative Therapy That Saved My Life

In the summer of 2010, I laced up my sneakers for the first time. Not literally. I learned how to tie my shoes when I was five, practicing on a pair of Stride Rite kicks, but figuratively. That was the summer I began running. I took my first steps toward a happier, healthier life.

At first, I hated working out. The sun stung my eyes. My legs hurt, my lungs felt heavy, there was a constant stitch in my lower left side — it felt like an ice pick was tearing through my stomach — and I couldn’t breathe. I was also drenched in sweat. In short, running sucked. But each day, my calves felt stronger, my chest felt lighter and, before I knew it, I could run a full mile without buckling over, or gasping for air. So I kept going. I kept trying, and things got easier. One mile turned to two and two became four. And while my physical health continued to improve, it was a secondary benefit which shook me most because, when running, my thoughts were clearer.

My mood — which is generally shit — lifted.

But running was more than outlet, a way to escape the pain and manage it. Were it not for running, I might not be alive today. On more than one occasion, I’ve run to find and remind myself I am still alive.

You see, I live with bipolar disorder and anxiety, and have for some time. (I was first diagnosed with mental illness when I was 15 years old.) And when I slip into a depressive episode, I often become suicidal. Ideations are par for the course.

Sometimes these thoughts are random and passive. I consider downing pills, jumping in front of traffic or off a bridge carelessly. Flippantly. Like you would consider what outfit to wear or what brand of coffee to buy. But other times, my suicidal thoughts are active — and all-consuming. Less than 18 months ago, I spiraled into a dark place, one where I wrote a note and made a plan. But instead of executing said plan, I threw on my sneakers and headphones and headed out the door.

I cried during that run. Thick, heavy tears rolled down my cheeks as I considered leaving my daughter. I had just kissed her little head and said “goodnight” and “goodbye.” But I kept going. I took life one second (and step) at a time and the following morning she found me, very much alive.

Of course, the benefits of exercise on mental health are well known. A 2005 study published in the journal of the American College of Sports Medicine found that 30 minutes on a treadmill can lift the mood of someone suffering from major depressive disorder. Running can be meditative. The silence is calming. My focus shifts from my brain to my body. Running can control stress and boost your ability to deal with tension, and exercise — in general — increases the body’s production of norepinephrine, a chemical that helps moderate the brain’s response to stress.

But that’s not all. A 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found regular exercise improves the quantity and quality of your sleep which, in turn, improves your mood. Taking your run outside will help your body produce more vitamin D, a nutrient that lessens depressive symptoms, and exercise is such an effective antidepressant that in some countries — such as Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands — exercise is the first line of treatment for depression.

Does that mean you should throw out your medications and throw on some running shoes? No. Absolutely not. You should never, ever quit antidepressants cold turkey nor should you change up your routine without your doctor’s knowledge and consent. (I am an avid runner and still take three pills a day.) However, adding exercise to your self-care regimen can prove beneficial. Besides, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, visit SuicidePreventionLifeline.org, or text “START” to 741-741 to immediately speak to a trained counselor at Crisis Text Line.

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