Feeling blue? Turns out,that's exactly how your brain looks when it's struggling with depression.

Feeling blue? Turns out,that’s exactly how your brain looks when it’s struggling with depression.

Originally published 1/20/2016

It started about two months ago. I woke up in the morning, and things seemed dimmer. Less defined, blurry around the edges, leached of color and contrast. Well, it’s just an off day, I thought. Tomorrow will be better.

It wasn’t.

This wasn’t my first encounter with depression. I’ve had bouts and breakdowns since I was in my late teens. After a truly stunning struggle with post partum depression at age 33, I decided to be proactive. I went on medication. I went to therapy. I got a divorce. I eventually met a great guy and got remarried. All these things helped yank me out of a devastating downward spiral and back up into the real world. I haven’t had a serious depressive episode since.

One of the things that helped me the most, lifestyle wise, was exercising intensely. I started out with Pilates, became an instructor, and then found aerial trapeze. The trap is truly moving meditation for me: the ideal way to be in the moment for a restless mind and body. Through Cirque School LA, I found other restless and complicated people like myself, who were passionate about circus arts, and we formed a community who sometimes socialized, sometimes performed together, and mostly met up at least twice a week for our classes.

Trap class, for me, is the only form of exercise I’ve found that keeps me in the moment all the time. No matter what was going on in my life, I entered that circus school and had 90 minutes of sheer concentration. Sometimes it hurt, sometimes it was frustrating, often it was hilarious. The one true constant was that my troubles disappeared during that time. It was sheer relief.

I had no idea how important circus was for balancing out my depressive tendencies until I went on a little hiatus in November. There was a showcase planned for mid December, I couldn’t be in it, and I decided to dial back my classes for the month and half before the show. I didn’t want to take up space much needed by the performers, and I figured that I could do a ton of spinning and yoga to make up for the exercise deficit. It would be fine.

Or so I thought. It didn’t take long into November for the mornings to seem off, to feel like I was sleepwalking a bit. And once the holidays hit, and my schedule didn’t permit much exercise, the Noonday Demon of depression emerged. It wasn’t a breakdown, complete with cringing anxiety and total loss of functionality. I still functioned. This was a low level depression that permeated everything I did with sadness, boredom, and ennui. I went to two holiday events in a weekend, and felt like I was wearing a bizarre mask of my own face. I wanted to hide. Pleasure was in very short supply, and there was no real reason for it, except that my brain had been denied what it needed for equilibrium.

Needless to say, I’m digging myself out of a hole now. Exercising every day. Going to class twice a week. Trying to socialize and not feel so numb. Trying to write, since creative drive is one of the first things to dissipate when depression emerges.

I know I’m not alone in being the living link between lack of exercise and depression. One of my good friends had to stop her circus activities for a while due to health issues, and even though she’s still walking and spinning, her mood has taken a beating, too (and she’s definitely NOT a depressive). Moving meditation is powerful stuff. Endorphins are powerful, too. When I lose those two things in a short period of time, melancholia sets in and takes hold.

Medical academia agrees on the relationship between exercise and better mental health. A 2009 Harvard Medical School review of studies (from as far back as 1981) concluded that regular exercise for at least 35 minutes to an hour a day (more or less, depending upon your weight) can offset depressive tendencies and help reverse entrenched depression as well. While the complex physical mechanisms involved aren’t clear, regular intense exercise does make a huge difference in mood.

Since I’ve been back at the every day exercise routine, I can feel things lifting a bit. I’ve managed to stave off a true depressive episode, although the way back to health from low level depression is often harder to determine: there’s no “eureka” moment to be had here. My whole body is sore after coming back to class, spinning and yoga all in the span of a few days. I don’t mind. It’s a reminder that soon, I’ll have my brain back to a more manageable place.