Grappling with depression

Let me start by saying this is probably one of the hardest posts I’ve ever had to write but one that I feel will be cathartic. Another point I want to make from the start is that my experience is in no way representative of anyone else’s. Working in an industry that thrives on outward physical mastery or projection of strength itself, I feel I’m not the first or probably the last to suffer through a situation like this.

Blue’s vs Depression.
I’m a pretty anxious, introspective person, I always have been and probably always will be. I to can also be up tight analytical and very contemplative, these seem to me to be the types of people predisposed to anxiety or depression. Like anyone else I have highs and lows. But this wasn’t a bad mood easily fixed by a gaming session, a workout or a well earned holiday. I was stuck. In early May I was beset by a few sleepless nights. Initially I thought nothing of it. But a sleep deprived brain is an anxious one. Suddenly one night I was beset by a sudden mental collapse, a ‘dark night of the soul’. Beset with anxiety I started to question every choice I’d ever made every thing I had ever done and was found wanting. Now a rational mind would be ‘what you on about mate? You train UFC fighters, national champions and do a pretty good job and have worked to get there.’ Pretty much my mind-set imploded, what seemed like an unsatisfactory past came crashing into an uncertain future, my ego and sense of self and purpose was shattered. I was 33 and have what can only be described as an existential crisis. My anxious brain was agonizing over everything! Pulling up long forgotten memories and asking unanswerable questions about the future, self loathing and self defeat was setting in fast. I wasn’t going to be bench press my way out of this one.

Hi I’m your brain and I’m in charge.
Suddenly mental & emotional fatigue set in, being in a hyper anxious state is tiring your can’t come down. Fight or flight response being on 24/7 breaks you. I could barely muster the effort to get into work. I didn’t show my problem outwardly but when I got home I felt like collapsing in a heap. Everything I once enjoyed became a chore, jiujitsu, gaming and reading became tedious, I barely had the energy to cook. At my worst showering felt like an achievement. I did however act quickly I knew this state of being was not ‘normal’ I sought medical help. Was given SSRI’s anti depressants and a relaxant by my GP, she understood that exercise and changing my diet was going to do little in my case. She then referred me to a CBT scheme and that was that. My experience on SSRI’s was initially very unpleasant I suffered many side effects and felt worse at least initially (like a wally looked up side effects). By initially blocking serotonin (responsible for feelings of contentment) receptors which forces the body to make more available you are awash with negative emotional responses that can result in despair and helplessness. Not a pleasant place to be.

Brain meet existential crisis.

Hitting reset and sharing a problem.
Being a computer nerd at heart I likened my experience to that one time I overclocked my old intel e6600 and had pretty much barbequed it. My brain was having the equivalent of a BSOD. That sucker would not boot until I went and pulled out the CMOS battery and then it restarted. I felt like hardware was intact, heck I even managed to train barely, the software however was corrupt, I needed to reboot and reprogram. Aka I had to change my thinking and habits in order to manage my situation.

My next step was to open up to a few people I knew I could trust. The surprising truth is people are more understanding and empathetic than people realise. Rationalizing your problem with others is incredibly useful. Unsurprisingly the most helpful people being those that have had similar experiences. Having these friends to call on, sound off with and check in with is invaluable.

The other thing I felt helped, despite my entire body telling me to just quit and hide under the covers. I never stopped going to work, I didn’t stop training and I didn’t stop trying to find a solution, this is where having a problem solving mind-set comes in useful.

At this point the SSRI’s started to work, they evened out my moods, but made me feel forgetful, stupid and emotionless. Preferable to being a quivering wreck. My appetite came back. SSRI’s sap your motivation because you feel fairly apathetic about everything. The other key thing about this experience is I became an overnight expert in neurochemistry. I learned everything I could about the brain and its chemistry that I could. Dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, cortisol & oxytocin to name a few and their complicated relationship. Your amygdala (responsible for fight or flight) has had is fun time for rational thought to step-up. You also learn the difference, between mild & serve depression, anxiety, Bipolar, manic depression and an array of other conditions. I also discovered premature babies are more likely to suffer depression as are people with high IQ’s. I’m the former but not sure about the latter.

Step-in Stoicism aka ancient cognitive behavioural therapy
I had taken some guided CBT courses offered by the NHS which are useful and fairly productive. The main aim being to change ones thinking about a situation or problem. The ancient Greeks had put quite a lot of thought into this. The school of stoic thought being the principle thought system dealing with issues of managing ones response and expectations to situations outside of ones control.

“The problem isn’t the problem, its how your react to problem that is the problem”

Famed philosopher of stoic thought, Epictetus postulated that; all external events are beyond our control; we should accept calmly and dispassionately whatever happens. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline.
Putting stoic thought into a nutshell is difficult, when people ask me I often use the serenity prayer as an example in a Judeo-Christian context.

“God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.”

The past has happened we cannot change it, the future is yet to happen. What we do have however is now. Being present become a focus of what I was looking to change. I now take stock when I’m feeling wound up or anxious.
Self care
For someone who trains regularly, exercise which gives a big endorphin hit wasn’t going to cut it for lifting depressive symptoms. I had to look more closely at my self practices. Meditation, sauna’s, massage and getting out into nature became methods of minimising negative stress. There is excellent evidence for all of these things being useful in combating depression. Sauna’s for instance being surprising useful. The post sauna ‘zen’ as I call it being particularly nice sensation. For many post-depressive people the fear of relapse is very real.
Rebuilding & Upsides
At the time of writing I’m roughly 10 months removed from my ‘lost May’ experience as I call it. Depression was until now one of those things that’s happens to other people. The experience has made me more empathic but also hardened me to some extent. When you hit bottom and grapple with more fundamental questions of life, your blinkers get pulled off, your see things for the often absurd way they are. This I think this has made me far more patient and philosophical. You pick up the pieces of who you where and move forwards. You give far less emotional energy to things that are not worth your time and can focus on the things that really matter. For anyone going through a similar experience I hope you find this post useful. Remember to reach out if you can don’t suffer in silence.
Strength coaches are often framed as characters that exemplify strength & hard resolve. Believe it or not we are allowed ‘feels’ and thoughts beyond banging and clanging of the weight room. Taking ownership of our mental state is important being aware of the signs and symptoms of depression is the first step to good self care.

Further reading and articles I found useful.

Living and Training as a Bipolar Narcoleptic: Lack of Sleep and Depression

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