Depression and training (part one)
Updated: Jan 9, 2020
The view from where I’m standing…
I have depression.
Looking back, it has been a part of my life for a long time, probably since I was about 13 or 14. It has affected me in various ways, and led to some less-than-healthy behaviour over the years. Since finding parkour, I can honestly say that it has been (among other things) the most powerful and effective force in my life for dealing with depression. I’m writing these blog posts partly to offer some small pieces of advice gleaned from my own experiences with depression, and how it affects and is affected by my training.
I’m also writing because I hope this may start one or two conversations about mental health. I know first-hand how beneficial parkour training can be in combating depression. I also know that the issue doesn’t come up in conversation all that much, certainly not compared to how much we chat about DOMS or shoulder mobility or other physical issues; and this is despite the inestimable importance of mental focus, and health, in our training.
So, what is depression? It’s usually defined as a persistent state of low mood, but this doesn’t really convey how debilitating depression can be. Symptoms are complex and interrelated; they can include (but aren’t limited to):
– continued low mood or sadness, feelings of hopelessness, apathy
– loss of motivation, in work, training and everyday tasks
– loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
– difficulty concentrating
– thoughts of suicide or self-harm
– changes in appetite, rapid loss or gain of weight,
– changes in sleeping patterns: sleeping very little or far too much, sleeping at weird or inconsistent times of the day.
– feelings or worthlessness or guilt, and inability to control negative self-talk
– avoidance of social situations
– unexplained muscle fatigue or weakness, aches and pains
– feeling tearful, crying for little or no reason
– feeling angry or irritable for little or no reason
Changes in behaviour that match these symptoms could point towards depression, so watch out for them in yourself and your friends. So, what should you do if you think a friend may be suffering from depression (or any mental illness)? You should talk to them about it.
The point of talking with those who may be suffering from depression is not to take on emotional responsibility for other people’s problems, nor is it to act as a proxy doctor or therapist. That is not the role of a friend. The aim of talking is to open up a safe space for your friend to admit that, yeah, something is wrong. Unfortunately, depression and mental illness still do carry heavy social stigmas. People will often “put up” with depression for fear that others will see it as a weakness, judge them for it, tell them to just “get over it.” I know I did for years. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.) If you start the conversation, your friend may let go of their fears of being judged as weak or ridiculous, and begin to address their illness.
Because mental illness is not weakness. And it’s not going to just go away. It is not something that you should put up with either. You are stronger than that, even if you don’t know it yet.
If you saw a friend limping on a swollen ankle, you wouldn’t ignore it. You’d ask them how it felt. You’d tell them to address the problem, and help them if you could. I’ll return to this comparison, because depression is like a sprained ankle in many ways. Sometimes you can identify how and why the problem arose; stressful life events or loss of a close relationship. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s a diminished capacity that passes quickly, if given the required care. Sometimes it’s a chronic recurring problem, which needs to be managed vigilantly. Just as most of us get injured at some point, mostly minor things but sometimes not, most of us will have some experience of depression or other mental illness, to varying degrees, at some point in our lives.
In a community that focuses so much on strength, the nature of mental strength can so easily be misunderstood. Mental strength is not some kind of hyperbolic toughness, or the cerebral equivalent of brute force. That’s not what we identify as strength in the physical realm; otherwise we’d all do nothing but deadlift all day. The key components of mental strength, in my opinion, are flexibility, adaptability, agility, humility, perseverance. It’s exactly these qualities that come to the fore when recovering from depression; it seems odd to say, but in my experience, taking on depression and working to overcome it has made me stronger in all of those areas. We aim to be strong to be useful. Pretending there’s nothing wrong is no use to nobody.
I worry that some of the rhetoric surrounding parkour may discourage people from speaking about their mental health, precisely due to those social stigmas that paint depression as some sort of silly affliction for the weak-willed. This is the most heart-breaking part, because I know it’s so far from the truth. These ideas are not generally held or defended by individuals; stigmas exist like a kind of cloud of illogic and negativity, and guesses at what others might think. They are only kept alive in darkness, and can potentially disappear if we simply speak openly. I know that the parkour community is a supportive one, and that speaking to my training buddies will not be met with scorn or censure, but with care. I want everyone else to know that too.
We need to ensure that the discussion of mental illness is just as open and socially encouraged as the discussion of physical illness or injury. The question “How are you coping with depression?” should be asked and answered as freely as the question “How’s that ankle recovering?”. I feel this is particularly important for our community because I know that parkour training can be a catalyst for change in the lives of people with depression. The discipline can provide a structure for those who feel helpless, the community provides support for those who feel hopeless, and the daily achievements and progressions give confidence to those who feel worthless. The experience of flow can approach meditative focus to calm the mind and the physical exertion is a key to recovery as well.
As I said, I hope this can be the beginning of some open conversations, and I know we can all help each other. In a blog post to follow, I’ve written some snippets of advice for those who may be struggling with depression