Two of the common difficulties for veterans readjusting to civilian life are anxiety and depression. Sometimes the feelings come after a major life change like exiting the military or returning from war. Other times they are longer lasting symptoms that can accompany other problems and warrant a diagnosis of PTSD. Either way, anxiety and depression can be a heavy burden to carry.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a couple definitions for anxiety, one being:
“an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.”
Anxiety Sets In
I remember returning home from Iraq in 2005. I enrolled in community college and began taking classes that fall. Seemingly out of nowhere I began to experience spontaneous sweating, tension, weakness, dizziness, and sky-rocketing heart rate during my morning drives to school. Many times I parked my car and sat, trying to slow down my breathing and wondering what the hell was happening. Other times I simply turned around and drove back home to hide out “behind the wire.”
I did not know at the time that I was experiencing panic attacks. The more I responded by driving home and isolating myself, the more afraid of having another panic attack I became, which led me to have more frequent panic attacks. Sort of a vicious cycle, wouldn’t you say?
If I was exercising, I was less likely feel the sense of impending doom (called re-experiencing) that people with PTSD know all too well. Unfortunately, I was unable to make this correlation and before long my routine of running and going to the gym faded away.
That Sinking Feeling of Depression
After I stopped working out, depression set in like a thick fog that hardly ever lifted. I had trouble harnessing any kind of motivation to get things done that used to be easy. I moved slowly. Food tasted bland and colors lost their vibrance.
Many things I tried did not work, but not for lack of effort. Drinking, overeating, playing video games for hours on end left me empty and wanting more. The paradoxical thing was that the more I needed exercise, the less inclined I was to try. I had a general sense that people feel better when they work out, but I had no idea just how powerful a few sessions of aerobic exercise per week could be.
Finding the Spark
Not too long ago a good friend recommended a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by Dr. John Ratey. In it, he talked about how many studies have shown just how powerful exercising can be in alleviating the symptoms of PTSD, specifically feelings of anxiety and depression. The book is pretty heavy on the science behind the changes occurring, but I have summarized the highlights from Dr. Ratey’s website:
- It provides a distraction. Most people can be helped by many different kinds of distractions from meditation to watching tv, but exercise provides longer-lasting benefits.
- It reaches a different outcome. Instead of associating the increase in heart rate and breathing with something bad, working out can help people change that association to something positive and exciting. Think of that feeling you have right before a race or competition: it’s a mix of a little anxiety with a lot of excitement and positivity. This helps what he calls “the fear memory” to fade away and be less potent.
- It improves resilience. When you know that the problem can be dealt with, it takes the mystery out of the equation. This keeps the level of anxiety into spiraling into panic. When people experience panic attacks or high levels of anxiety and can’t find a way out, this leads to depression.
According to studies that Dr. Ratey cites in his book, people can start to see benefits from aerobic exercise done at a moderate pace for 30 minutes, 3 times per week. The common definition of a moderate pace is where you start to sweat and feel you are working, but can still carry a conversation. This can be accomplished during the work week without spending extra time at the gym. Building up to a routine where you can include higher intensity workouts will bring even greater results.
stubborn fool Marine, every time I started to workout again I tried to jump into the same pace and intensity that I had during active duty. This led to quite a few false starts before I was able to “turn the corner” (stay tuned for an upcoming post about this).
The major breakthrough with PTSD and anxiety came during the training for a GORUCK HEAVY , a 24-hour endurance event that involves everything from burpees in the ocean to carrying logs and people a long ways. As the event grew closer, I started to notice that I was growing more and more anxious. I felt the impending sense of doom and the turning in my gut. Concentration at work and home was at a low. This was before I had done any reading about the benefits of exercise on anxiety. What was happening?
One day after a daily 30-minute meditation the answer just popped into my mind. My body was preparing to go to combat. Each time I packed my ruck and hoisted it onto my shoulders the anxiety came as my body was readying itself as if I was about to hit the streets of Fallujah again. The epiphany let my shoulders sink and intestines unwind as I realized that everything was going to be fine.
“I can feel a little nervous and that’s okay. No one is going to die here” my mind told me.
The worst that could happen is that I would be a little cold and tired. That was manageable.
****SPOILER ALERT: I GOT REALLY COLD AND REALLY TIRED*******
As my exercise became more consistent a positive mood followed suit. This is why I love competing at the Half-Iron distance: it guarantees I will be training consistently for at least 16 weeks at a time. The consistency brings a routine to my life, which takes out some of the uncertainty and allows me to control what I can.
When it comes to dealing with anxiety or depression, exercising is a powerful tool. Here are a few tips to getting back into a routine that lasts for the long-term.
- Consistency is the key. Even if you can’t fit in 30 minutes each time do something. Don’t take the an all-or-nothing approach.
- Avoid the temptation to start fast out of the gate and work your way up.
- Find something fun to do so it doesn’t become a punishment. Hiking, basketball, ultimate frisbee can all work fine.
- Find a friend to come along. Exercising with a partner makes it more enjoyable and helps accountability.
- Join a local fitness group for even more camaraderie. I highly recommend Team Red, White & Blue.
What helps you deal with anxiety and depression?