When Hillary Nette teaches a yoga class, she is the picture of grounded. She speaks gently as she wanders through the room, making subtle but supportive adjustments to an array of bodies. What’s less obvious is that for many years, Nette, 24, suffered from debilitating depression and anxiety. For almost eight years she was on and off anti-depressants, mood-stabilizers and, for a period, low-dose anti-psychotic drugs. Nette says there were times in her life when it was impossible to get out of bed in the morning. The doctors who treated her told her she’d be medicated for life. But this woman leading the class at The Yoga Loft, guiding her students as they stretch and breathe in the late afternoon sun, has proven everyone wrong. For the last seven months, Nette has been drug-free. She credits her yoga practice---and the importance of getting out of her head and into her body---for helping her take control of her health and her life.
But Nette agrees that sometimes when you’re depressed, doing anything besides lolling on the couch with the remote can seem impossible: eating can be too much effort, work is a slog, and visiting with friends feels like an impossible hassle. The last thing you usually feel like doing is going for a brisk jog or bouncing through an aerobics class. Here’s the burn: exercise may be just the ticket to getting yourself out of your depressive funk. If you’re an anxiety sufferer, the same rules apply---though you may already be buzzing manically, a little structured movement may be just the ticket to helping you find your focus. Add meditation to the mix, and you’re looking at a solid strategy for getting your mood in check.
“Exercise has anti-depressant properties; there is no doubt about that,” says Gilbert Pinard, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Montreal’s McGill University, with a special interest in the issue. Though he admits that it may not solve the problem entirely---depression and anxiety are cognitive problems, so many cases still need help from psychotherapy sessions or medication ---he says physical activity certainly seems to have a positive effect on a depressive state. “It seems to affect serotonin levels,” he says, referring to the mood-regulating neurotransmitter, “but we’re still not exactly sure how.” Whatever the reason, Pinard says the effect seems to be positive. To illustrate his point, he cites one of his own studies, in which over 700 marathon runners were surveyed after they got injured and had to stop their regular exercise. More than a few of them had fallen into depression. People who jog regularly often speak of a runner’s high, a feeling of euphoria that is likely due to the natural, mood-elevating chemicals that course through your system after you’ve been at it for a good chunk of time. (Alas, they still haven’t found a way to make the feeling instantly accessible.) Add or subtract that natural sense of well-being on a regular basis and you’ll notice a difference.
Melissa Millar, director of health, fitness and recreation at the South Park YMCA, has worked in the fitness industry for 11 years. She’s heard countless stories about people who have used exercise as a means of managing their depression. “People have told me that if they didn’t come in and exercise, their worlds would fall apart,” she says. “That’s the most common thing---people who say, ‘I wouldn’t be able to deal with my life or my kids or my job if I didn’t do this.’” Besides the boost of adrenaline, she says that many people can also benefit simply by knowing they’re doing something positive for themselves. “You come out of it feeling ‘well...my problems are still there, but at least I did this.’”
When it comes to dealing with anxiety, exercise can help you to calm a frantic mind by focusing your attention on something outside of your head. “Exercise gets your mind into another channel,” says David Mensink, a psychologist who works at the student counselling centre at Dalhousie University. Citing the connection between mind and body, Mensink says he often teaches “progressive muscle relaxation” as a way for anxious students to relax before exams or speaking publicly. “It’s basically tensing and relaxing each of the muscle groups in sequence and focusing on breathing. It helps people relax and calm themselves from the inside, out.”
Mensink also recommends yoga as another good way to relax a panicky body. Robert Webber, owner and teacher at The Yoga Loft, agrees. Though he says a yoga practice isn’t quite like exercise in that it doesn’t release a rush of endorphins, it can be very helpful in managing depression and anxiety. “Anxiety and depression are just things that are constructed in the mind,” he says. Through regular practice, yoga can provide you with the “objectivity and critical distance” to see yourself as you really are, instead of as merely a “depressed person.”
Nette came to yoga at age 17, attending her first class on her mother’s recommendation. “It really got me into my body,” she says, thinking back. The stretching and breathing...it took me out of the clouds and out of my head...that was huge. It wasn’t long before I could start feeling emotional releases through yoga.” Nette dabbled in the practice before coming to it seriously at 19. She’s since spent time studying yoga in India. “Yoga really slows you down and brings you back...it brings you back to the essence of things.”
For both Nette and Webber, part of yoga’s therapeutic power lies in its focus on “cultivating mindfulness,” a concept which deftly creeps from yoga to psychotherapy and back again. It’s one that Gilbert Pinard says is extremely effective in managing depression and anxiety. “Mindfulness training teaches you to focus on the present, so you don’t ruminate on the past or anticipate disasters in the future...It teaches you to focus attention and to be aware of feelings without judging them,” he says. In turn, the practice teaches you not to judge yourself.
Once you’ve been depressed, Pinard says you’ve got a 50-percent chance of suffering again---two bouts and that number jumps to 70- or 80- percent recurrence. Relapse rates hit 90 percent if you’ve been depressed more than a couple of times. But he says mindfulness training is increasingly being seen as a way to “protect” people against recurring depression. An effective way of practicing mindfulness is through regular meditation, with a focus on the breath. Pinard recommends adding a practice like tai chi or yoga as a means of integrating mind and body, which reinforces a focus on the present. “I like the concentration on movement,” he says of tai chi, which he practices regularly, “you’re not responding to the intrusions that come to your mind. I also like the affiliation with an ancient martial art. It’s not only la-de-da, dancing in the sun.” While Pinard acknowledges that getting yourself going when you’re feeling down can be tricky, he recommends regular exercise as a preventative measure, especially for people who have recurring depression. “Once you’re depressed,” he says, “it’s darn hard to find the motivation.”
For Nette, exercise is an important part of her daily routine, along with eating well and getting regular sleep. An injury keeps her from an intense yoga practice, so she supplements her routine with gym time. “I feel like we hold a lot of traumatic experiences (in our bodies). Using the body physically, whether it’s just running or doing yoga...we can release that stuff.” Though she’s managed to wean herself off them, Nette acknowledges that she’s not against anti-depressants, but that she does feel they are over-prescribed. For now, she’s successfully keeping her depression at bay, but she knows there’s always a chance of relapse. “It very well might come,” she says, “and then I’ll have to step up and use the tools that I feel I now have to deal with it.”