When I left my job in advertising, three depressing things happened. My health insurance premiums skyrocketed because I was a suicide risk. My new insurance excluded depression treatment as a pre-existing condition. The antidepressant I had been taking had disrupted my brain’s natural ability to experience joy and control anxiety.
No longer able to afford the drug, I went off it cold turkey. After a couple of weeks in withdrawal, I found myself banging my head against the wall. None of my thoughts or feelings were familiar. I felt like I had lost my mind.
I had put on 30 pounds, and several waist sizes, since starting the medication. My partner was feeling her clothes were becoming a bit snug herself, so she asked me if I’d join her in taking regular walks around the neighborhood.
After six months or so of this, I shed 25 pounds of that drug-related weight gain.
I’ve heard all my life that combining a sensible diet with exercise was the way to stay “in shape,” but I always thought of physical and mental health as two separate things. I could see the effects of exercise on my body. I had no idea what it was doing to my brain.
The Off-Label Antidepressant
At the time, there were good reasons why my doctor didn’t recommend exercise as an off-label antidepressant. The tools of neuroscience were still in their infancy. Scientists hadn’t yet thought to attach electrodes to the brains of stationary meditating monks, let alone athletes in motion.
But, in her new book, The Joy of Movement, Kelly McGonigal examines what movement does to the brain through the lenses of neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, memoirs, ethnography, and philosophy. Her research helps explain the mysterious effect that exercise was having on my mind.
The “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Chemical
Though it’s commonly known as “runner’s high,” the increase of endocannabinoids in the brain (and no, the name’s similarity to cannabis is not coincidental), is a side effect of any moderately challenging physical activity sustained for twenty minutes or so.
When I selected a meditation group, I chose a Zen group that was a thirty minute walk from my house over an Insight group (the type of meditation I actually practice) that was twenty minutes away by car. I knew about the research that said meditation helps regulate the stress response. I wasn’t consciously aware that the walk to and from meditation did the same. Driving to meditation is sedentary and traffic makes it potentially stressful.
It makes no difference whether the walk improves my meditation or the meditation improves my walk. I’m happy to learn that the combination therapy naturally achieves the anti-anxiety effect that antidepressants do artificially.
Capacity for Joy
I learned that the withdrawal symptoms I experienced when coming off my antidepressant may have been responding as the brains of opioid addicts do.
When we take a chemical to flood our brain’s reward system with dopamine, it tries to restore balance and protect us by shrinking our dopamine receptors. The more pleasure we try to force on it, the less it accepts.
Since physical activity has so long been linked to our survival, the brain has evolved to reward it by increasing our dopamine or pleasure receptors. It literally increases our capacity to experience pleasure. This may explain why on days when I venture out in foul weather to get my daily steps in, the only people I encounter are runners. We addicts will go through a lot in pursuit of our high.
Quieting and Stilling the Mind
It’s no secret among writers that the antidote to writer’s block is to go for a walk or a jog. I do it all the time when I get stuck. My preferred route goes through Wilshire Park, which features a growth of older trees and a newly restored section of native plants. At some point during almost every hike we take in nearby Forest Park, my partner refers to that natural setting as “tonic for the soul.”
McGonigal describes it as soft fascination. There’s simply more novel sensory input and variation in a natural setting than there is facing a computer display. When the brain has more environmental inputs to process, the language center of the brain calms down. Whatever thoughts were chasing each other around like a hamster on a wheel start to settle. What’s truly important often rises to the top.
In terms of depression, moving through a natural environment both reduces rumination and improves concentration.
All Together Now
In April I started walking to a weekly free Tai Chi/Qigong practice session in the basement of a local church. The round trip just about tops off my daily 10,000 step goal, and ever since writing about moving in sync with others, I was eager to experience the benefits first hand.
Apparently the mechanism for this benefit is endorphins, which make us feel good, help us bond with others, and actually increase our tolerance for pain. When I mentioned this side effect of Tai Chi to a newcomer, I accidentally said that it affected the social security of the brain (instead of social circuitry).
I felt socially secure enough to acknowledge that it was a misstatement but not a mistake.
Depression-wise this sense of belonging can greatly impact our feeling of self-worth.
The Weight of Life
The last time I was close to suicidal was when I went off my antidepressant.
Proprioception is our sense of how our body moves through space. For me, the relative “lightness” after I’d dropped my first 25 pounds was also reflected in my mood.
McGonigal writes, “Physical accomplishments change how you think about yourself and what you are capable of, and the effect should not be underestimated. One woman I spoke with shared a story about when she was in her early 20s and found herself severely depressed, with a plan to take her own life. The day she intended to go through with it, she went to the gym for one last workout. She deadlifted 185 pounds, a personal best. When she put the bar down, she realized that she didn’t want to die. Instead, she remembers, ‘I wanted to see how strong I could become.’ Five years later, she can now deadlift 300 pounds.”
10 Minute Exercise
I first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh’s 10 Mindful Movements as part of the Palouse Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course.
Every morning, I go into my back yard (a somewhat natural setting) and do four repetitions of each movement for about a ten minute routine. It helps me focus, wake-up and get centered for my day.
I haven’t shaved my head, I don’t wear robes, and I don’t think of this as a spiritual practice, other than aligning my breathing with the movement. So, don’t let the folks in the shaved heads and robes scare you away.
Move along with the 10 Mindful Movements.
If you’re more comfortable with the weird animal head (and tail), you can try this version instead.