Mental Health and Training

Today I have a guest post I lifted from my friend Marie over at FencingMarie, in which she discusses a topic near and dear to my heart and does so in a way much cleaner and better than I could think of doing it.

“I wasn’t sure where I wanted to post this or if I wanted to post it at all, but today I’d like to talk a little bit about how my mental health (specifically depression) affects my training. I figure someone out there is likely dealing with the same types of issues.

I’ll start off with some background information about me.

From time to time, I find myself (mentally) in what I call the Dark Place. I like this metaphor because when I picture it, the darkness isn’t absolute. Near the edges, it’s a little bit dim, but I can find my way back. The further in I go, the darker it is, the harder it is to get back out. It’s also appropriate because my intermittent depression seems to be directly linked to lack of sun exposure (seasonal affective disorder – SAD)

If that’s the case, then why am I presenting as SAD in the summer? I think right now part of my issue is that I work in an office with no windows (as many people do), and I’m very isolated at work (this will change as the semester kicks into gear).

What does this have to do with fighting/fitness?

When you’re depressed, you aren’t just sad all the time. I like to look at the word itself: depress. I feel like something is pressing down on me mentally, physically, and emotionally. I sleep more, and my appetite is strange (no appetite, huge appetite, selective appetite – all over the course of a day or two). I’m sure you could see how those factors alone could hinder someone’s ability and desire to work out.

The biggest factor for me, though, is just not caring. Don’t mistake this for the not caring that I do on a regular basis: not caring what strangers think of my appearance, not caring if I get to the party on time, etc. This is not caring in a way that would be alarming if you had the inclination to care. For example, I love fencing. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. I love doing it, reading about it, watching videos, talking about it, teaching it. I often refer to it as “my heart.” When you’re depressed though, when something is pressing down on you from all sides, you don’t care about your hobbies any more. If eating three squares and getting a good amount of sleep is a chore, then getting up, driving to a specified location at a specified time, gearing up, and practicing for an hour or two soundsimpossible.

So what are we to do?

This is the hard part. If I had one perfect answer, I wouldn’t really have this problem anymore. Instead, I have a bunch of okay answers.

  • talk about it – You’d be surprised how many people are going through this same thing. It’s one reason why I’m sharing my experience. Frequently, talking about it helps both sides; don’t assume you’re burdening someone else. If you have the means, seek professional help. They really do know what they’re doing, and they can give you objective insight.
  • take breaks – Usually I say that the day that I don’t want to practice is the day I really need to go to practice. Sometimes, though, you’re better off resting. I wouldn’t fence on a sprained ankle, so I’m not going to push my brain too hard either. Know your limits.
  • self-care – This is super important, but it can easily be mistaken for “cheering yourself up.” Try to do three things each day that make you happy. I’m not talking about big crazy plans here. I’m talking about lighting a candle you really like, taking a long bath, eating something you enjoy, or watching an episode of your favorite show.
  • treat yourself kindly – Don’t think of being in the Dark Place or skipping practice as a failure. That will only make you feel worse. Every time I find myself genuinely thinking something disparaging about myself, I counter it with one good thing. It’s hard to avoid intrusive thoughts, but replacing them with something else is easier.
  • make a schedule – If your eating and sleeping are erratic, set a time to eat, even if you aren’t hungry. No matter what you’re training to do, eat something that appeals to you. You need calories to fuel your body. Even if you can’t sleep, set a time to rest. You might luck out and catch some zzz’s, and if you don’t, that’s okay because you’re still letting your body recharge a little.
  • don’t be afraid to be sad – Think of your feelings like an interesting rock. You can pick it up, turn it over in your hands a few times, examine it. You can spend a lot of time looking at this rock, running your fingers over the cracks. But at the end of the day, it’s just a rock, and you have enough stuff collecting dust at your house. When you’re finished with it, put it down and keep walking.
  • don’t forget that feeling something (even if it’s bad) is progress – The worst thing for me about the Dark Place is the numbness. I haven’t cried since I started feeling this way. It’ll come eventually (possibly intensely and for a long period of time), and when it does, that will be a step in the right direction.
  • use media to your advantage – Okay, so I can’t cry over my own situation. However, I’m pretty sure I can cry over someone else’s. Tonight I’m going to watch a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and have strong feelings about other people’s problems even though I can’t be bothered to care about my own. That’s what media is for. Enjoy your books, shows, movies, memes, whatever. Experience them. That’s why they’re there.

I didn’t mean for this to be so long, but I’ve been kicking a lot of this around in my head, and I really didn’t want to leave anything out. I’m sure I left plenty of stuff out, so if you have any questions, comments, or additional good words, please let me know!

*Special thanks to my student, who helped me fill in some gaps.*”

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