As it turns out, it's not unusual for exercise to feel less effective as a mental health tool right now, when we're all under extreme stress. "We are in a trauma state, essentially. Techniques that may have worked for us when life was 'normal' are now not as effective just because the stressor is so massive," says Sepideh Saremi, LCSW, running therapist and founder of Run Walk Talk. "It's also unending. We don't have a date for when things will feel okay again."
That's not to say fitness isn't at all helpful during tough times. Plenty of research has, indeed, found that exercise can help minimize symptoms of anxiety, depression, and acute stress. According to Stacy Cohen, MD—founder of Los Angeles-based mental health community The Moment—working out increases the body's supply of feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. "Exercise has [also] been found to improve sleep, sex drive, self-esteem, energy, concentration, and social interactions—all of which can improve anxiety and depression," she says.
However, when a person is extra overwhelmed, they may need extra support to cope with the stressors they're facing. "While exercise is a great tool, it may simply not be enough," says Dr. Cohen. "Sometimes we reach a breaking point and conservative treatments don't cut it." What's more, many of us have been forced to modify our usual fitness routines since the start of the pandemic. "People may not be doing group exercise classes anymore, so they're not getting the social benefit of exercise," says Saremi. "They may have also changed what they do for exercise. I'm a running therapist, but I'm not running right now because I'm not comfortable running in a mask. My workout now is jumping rope and it's not as fun as running was."
So what can a person do if they're finding that exercise doesn't help their level of stress the way it once did? First off, says Saremi, it's important not to give up on fitness altogether—especially if you were an avid exerciser before 2020. If you aren't able to maintain your pre-COVID-19 routine for safety reasons, she recommends seeking out activities that are as similar as possible to your former favorites. "One of the reasons I'm jumping rope is because the impact and the level of cardio are comparable to the running that I did before," she says. This ensures that she experiences a similar physical effect from the movement than she would if, say, she switched from running to mat Pilates.
Another important thing to consider is that exercise should never be your only means of managing your mental health. "It's not good to be too reliant on one tool," says Saremi. "You can think about this time as an opportunity to reassess all your tools and see where the gaps are. Are you connecting with people every day? Are you able to talk about your feelings and be heard—and if not, can you go to therapy?" Dr. Cohen suggests using meditation and mindfulness work as supplements to exercise, while Saremi says taking a break from the news and social media can be helpful for those experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression. And if lifestyle interventions like these don't work? "There are medications available to help with depression and anxiety, while treatments like TMS—Transcranial Magnetic Therapy—and other tools are available for depression that persists when medications alone aren't helpful," says Dr. Cohen.
Clearly, this is a trying time for everyone and it's important to go easy on yourself if you're struggling with anxiety, depression, or intense levels of stress—especially if your usual coping mechanisms aren't cutting it. But we can also look at it as an opportunity to fine-tune our mental-health toolkits so we can emerge stronger on the other side, says Saremi. "Sometimes crisis is exactly what we need in order to get creative and level up," she says. "That's what I've been focusing on with a lot of my clients—it doesn't look like how it looked before, but how can it look now? Can it be even better than it was before? We're wiping the whole slate clean and it's completely up to you how you want to fill it in." Exercise routines included.
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