Is Exercising Causing Your Depression? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself

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I spend a lot of time talking up exercise. There are so many benefits, it's hard to believe that there could be anything bad about exercise except, maybe, doing too much of it.

One of the most important benefits is easing symptoms of depression and anxiety. There have been plenty of studies, such as Physical activity and mental health: The association between exercise and mood, published in Clinics, showing how exercise can boost your mood.

However, that isn't always true for everyone. In fact, some people may feel depressed after they exercise, wondering what they're doing wrong. If you're experiencing this, it's not your fault and there may be something you can do about it.

5 Questions to Ask Yourself if You Feel Depressed After Exercise

We all hear that exercise can help depression, but we never hear that it might lead to or exacerbate depression. However, in some people, it may do just that and, while there isn't much information out there about this, there are some things to look into if you're struggling with depression after your workouts.

1. Am I Overdoing It?

Overtraining is common among hardcore exercisers and one of the symptoms can be depression.

One study, published in Sports Medicine found that people with overtraining syndrome have high levels of tension, depression, fatigue, confusion and a loss of vigor. If you’re an overachiever, you might get frustrated that your performance isn’t great and, as a result, push yourself even harder…which leads to even more overtraining and more depression.

This study also found that overtraining can drain the brain of serotonin, thus making you more vulnerable to mood changes.

2.  What's My History with Depression

If you already have problems with depression or anxiety, this might play into what you feel after you exercise. One possible reason we get depressed has to do with brain chemistry and the fact that there's an imbalance in the neurotransmitters that regulate moods.

Exercise also affects brain chemistry. One study, published in Sports Medicine suggests that exercise influences brain neurotransmission, affecting levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain. While most people experience an increase in these good neurotransmitters, it's possible that a combination of exercise and depression, both of which target brain chemistry in a different way, could be a factor in feeling depressed after exercising.

I'm no neurochemist (thank goodness), but it makes sense that there's an interaction that takes place in your brain when you exercise...a release of certain hormones and neurotransmitters. If you already have a system that's out of whack, there's a chance exercise could have a negative affect, depending on what you're doing and how hard you're working.

3.  Am I Really Stressed Out?

Stress, as we all know, can wreak havoc on the body and mind. If you're really stressed out, whether it's physical, mental or both, exercise may end up draining you of energy, rather than giving you extra energy.

Extra stress can cause everything from insomnia and fatigue to, of course, depression as your body releases a constant stream of cortisol into your body, leaving you anxious and frazzled.

This isn't a time to pound your body with exercise, but movement can help. This may be a time to work on things that feel good - Stretching, walking, yoga or just resting for a few days.

4.  Am I Expecting Too Much?

When you work really hard at exercise and eating right, it feels like we should get results, right? The scale should go down, our clothes should hang off of us and people should be saying, "Oh my gosh, you've lost a ton of weight!"

What really happens? Usually, not much during that first 2-3 months as your body adjusts to what you're doing and starts to lose weight. And that's only if you're consistently exercising.

When your body isn't responding the way you think it should, it's easy to get discouraged and even to feel depressed.

So, what do you do? Consider giving up on weight loss and focusing on feeling good and being healthy. That may sound like a tall order, but taking the pressure off can be liberating and you may even see better results now that you aren't pushing yourself to reach an ideal that, well, is out of your reach.

5.  Am I Eating Right Before and After My Workouts?

Low blood sugar doesn't seem like it should be a big deal, but it can definitely cause a number of symptoms, including feeling depressed.

When you exercise, your body relies on glucose as its main source of fuel, so if you're low on that, maybe because you skipped breakfast or it's been awhile since you ate, your body can't restore that fuel fast enough. As one author described in the article, Low blood sugar levels during exercise: is non-diabetic hypoglycemia threatening?:

"The muscles and brain require glucose to function properly, and glucose is stored in the liver and muscle cells in the form of glycogen. Intense or long workouts can deplete these reservoirs, and once your body runs out of glycogen, hypoglycemia occurs."

 

Your body needs good, healthy fuel to work right and so does your brain. Without that fuel, your body is depleted and, of course, so is your brain, so it's easy to imagine feeling depressed in such a state.

4 Things You Can Do Right Now to Turn Things Around

The common factor that's involved in exercise and depression is depletion. Maybe your body is already depleted of some hormone or chemical you need to function normally and maybe exercise is making it worse. Maybe your body is depleted for some other reason - Too much stress or exercise.

The only way to really find out is to do the following:

  • Keep a health diary - For a week or more, keep a health diary and track your sleeping habits, food, exercise and activity, mood, medication and anything else you think might be relevant to your health. See if there's some kind of pattern when you feel depressed before you blame it completely on your workouts. This will be handy for when you see your doctor.
  • Find a good doctor - This is essential for getting the support and help you need to deal with your depression. Whatever the cause, depression is something none of us should suffer with.
  • Educate yourself about depression - Just knowing the symptoms allows you to remind yourself: "This is just how I feel when I'm depressed. I know it will pass and I'll be okay." Find ways to cope - Talking to a therapist, meditation, etc. Maybe hard exercise isn't the answer, but what about a slow walk?
  • Find support - Just knowing you're not alone can be a huge comfort. Millions of people suffer from depression and reaching out is just one way to cope with it.

When you think about it, the human body is terribly complex. Hormones are affected by everything - What we eat, how we sleep, stress levels and, of course, exercise. Exercise can change the hormones in your body and, usually, that's a good thing. But if it isn't a good thing for you, don't give up. You may find you need to adjust different aspects of your life or your workouts to find something that makes you feel good.

Sources:

Armstrong L, and VanHeets J. "The Unknown Mechanism of the Overtraining Syndrome." Sports Medicine 32.3 (2002): 185-209. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

Meeusen R., and Meirleir K. "Exercise and Brain Neurotransmission." Sports Medicine 20.3 (2012): 160-88. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.

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