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How Weightlifting Saves Me From Depression and Anxiety

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People always ask me how I got into the sport of lifting and how I stay motivated to constantly spend one to two hours there several days a week. I usually just respond with the simple answer: I love it. Because I do.

However, most don’t know that the reality is, for years it has been the only reason I get out of bed. When I say it is “my therapy,” I mean it. It sounds counterintuitive, but every day I feel mentally and physically exhausted, yet expending energy I don’t even have at the gym is what I look forward to the most. That being said, if my workout sucks it affects the rest of my day.

The weights do not judge or question me and are always there. The iron doesn’t care about what I’ve been through or how I’m feeling. The work I put in is what I get out of it. No one can do the work for me — I have to earn it.

Every day I show up, put my headphones in and tune out the world. The louder the music, the better. The more emotions I can channel, the better. The breathlessness, bruises, calluses, soreness and sweat put me in a state of euphoria. Leaving the gym feeling like I put my everything into that workout gives me encouragement to keep going and face my day.

My lifts are secluded from the madness in my life. It is all about me being in tune with my mind and body — my self-care ritual. I get to dedicate those two hours to something outside of the stresses of school, work and family. I can combat my self-destruction by stepping foot into the weight room. It’s time I get to feel like I’m not “mentally ill,” and time I can be unapologetically selfish.

So, how did I get here?

Rewinding back to the summer before my senior year of high school, I began my treatment for generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder, and I loathed my body (a big contributor to both). I couldn’t manage a healthy relationship with food. My weight fluctuated every year because I would go from constantly binge eating until I felt sick, to having a fear of food, going over my “calorie budget” and gaining weight. I was always extremely insecure about my athleticism because I was only decent at one sport I ever played, couldn’t do a single pushup, always had some sort of injury, and when I would run my asthma would unpredictably cause me to not be able to breathe, all of which were embarrassing.

I joined Gold’s Gym and made a vow to myself that I would work on my physical health now that I was working on my mental health, because they go hand in hand. Before then, I was in a terrible habit of spending two weeks doing yoga, pilates, running, or whatever else I hated, then I would do nothing for months.

When I started at Gold’s, I knew nothing about nutrition or exercise and I always gravitated to the cardio machines because I knew how to use them and didn’t want to look like an idiot or lost trying other things. There was one section of the gym I called “testosterone land,” because it was where all of the weights and “meatheads” could be found. I never crossed into testosterone land.

Until one day.

I was tired of being weak, so there I was crossing into what felt like Jurassic Park. My anxiety was flowing strongly at that point because I didn’t know where things were or what to do and strange men were looking at me. Being a woman in a man’s land can be highly intimidating and annoying, but I’ll save that for another article.

After that day, I decided it wasn’t so bad. Thus, my research began on how to lift and do any of this gym related stuff. My first priority became helping myself get better. When school started I was in the weight lifting class, which is when any strength building really began. I became motivated by the progress. I felt good. Although I wasn’t losing weight, I was losing some fat and fitting my clothes better. That is when I began research about body composition and how the body responds to strength training.

I didn’t know any female lifters, so I was totally alone going into it all. I began facing skepticism and criticism about why females shouldn’t lift, so this became another driving force for me. I was doing this for me, no one else — it was my health journey. I found something I was passionate about and I wasn’t going to let anyone take that away from me. My goals shifted from aesthetics to strength, but I still felt like I looked better and that’s what mattered to me, not someone else’s body type preference.

Even though I was noticeably happier after I found lifting, anxiety and depression would never leave me. Lifting became my designated outlet and coping mechanism, so whenever I felt overwhelmed with school or there was fighting at home, I would literally drop whatever I was doing and go to the gym. Gold’s became my sanctuary and lifting became my savior.

It is still my savior.

When I feel like I’m choking, drowning, or about to have a panic attack because of something that triggered me, the gym is my escape. Recently I found powerlifting and it has shown me that I am stronger than any of my doubts.

Competing gave me a direction for my lifts, and I am inspired every day by the women I see on Instagram showing that no matter what their body types or struggles are, they are strong and fierce. It is the most welcoming community full of people dedicated to learning and bettering themselves.

Despite my ongoing struggles, lifting has the power to make me feel confident, strong and proud — something I desperately fight to feel every day.

So, when someone says to me, “You can skip one day, you’ll be fine,” I automatically think to myself, “No, I probably won’t be.” I really could skip the gym, but not going would risk me facing my anxiety and depression the rest of the day with no outlet, which can be debilitating for me. Of course, they don’t know this when they say it or joke about it so I don’t take it personally, but it is important for me to have people who understand it so they can respect my rejection for plans without me having to always explain myself or feel guilty about missing out.

I’ve made a lot of sacrifices for gym time, but I accept that. I have gone even when I can only stay for 20 minutes between classes, work, or whatever else, and I have gone for three hours straight. I have gone the very first minute it opens in the morning, and I have gone until the very last minute before it closes at night. I have gone after several days of no sleep. I have done whatever I need to do to get my workouts in.

Lifting saves me over and over and over again.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Lead image via contributor

Originally published: November 8, 2017
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