This new bi-monthly column, “Insider Stories,” is written by members of the College’s peer counseling group Speak 2 Swatties. Each piece will share a counselor’s experience with a personal obstacle related to mental health. Please feel free to ask questions or share your own experiences with us below in the comments section.
After my freshman year of college, I decided not to continue playing on the College tennis team. I found myself as a sophomore with my head perpetually in the books in McCabe. Instead of going to practice from 4 to 6 p.m., or hitting the treadmill in the morning for conditioning, I no longer found myself frequenting the fitness center. My mind rarely enjoyed a break from schoolwork. It took me a few weeks to fully realize that what I really needed was time away from the books. But at Swat, as most of you will probably agree, taking a break from your work often induces guilt.
Here’s the thing though: mental health has been shown to be strongly correlated with an individual’s physical activity. In a 2010 study, Dr. James Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, assigned sedentary adults with major depressive disorder to one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy or a placebo pill. His findings showed that subjects who reported regular exercise at the one-year follow-up in his study had lower depression scores than did their less active counterparts.
As you may guess, without the physical activity I had been accustomed to as a Swat athlete, my mental health suffered: I was stressed out, high strung, and overly anxious about deadlines and assignments. Of course, these woes existed even when I was exercising, but without it, everything was intensified because I had no release. Forget ranting to your friends or playing the verbal game of misery poker; the gym offers a cathartic release from the stress of Swat life. It’s your time to zone out. And whether you are thinking about the weekend’s regretfully sloppy hook up, your unclear post-graduation future, or the four paper deadlines awaiting you at your desk, the gym is a refuge. Bring your anxiety, your anger, or any stress in the books – the gym never judges.
The hours at the gym are generous: 7 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. during the weekdays, so whatever time you do find yourself in a panic attack or on the brink of a mental breakdown, you can throw on your sneakers and escape to the gym. You can join the morning “regulars,” which consists of a handful of professors and students, or go in the evening for a late night sweat session in peace and quiet. If you seek a more lively atmosphere, the 4 to 6 p.m. time offers a packed and noisy, yet motivating atmosphere that you can easily feed off of.
Put down the cell phone
Yes, gym time can often be a chance to workout next to a friend and catch up on gossip, but going alone is great too. It’s a time to just be by yourself and to yes, just think. Whether my workout is ten minutes or an hour, for me, gym time is a time I do not need to be accountable to anyone else. So, if you dare, I suggest leaving your cell phone at the front desk, or at least ignore texts until after you leave the fitness center. If listening to music suits you, I’ve found that Eminem’s “Til I Collapse” serves as the ideal track for any degree of frustration I’m experiencing.
The gym can also become a great place to challenge yourself. Never underestimate even the seemingly trivial challenge. As little Swattie nerds, we generate motivation by lusting after the best paper, the better test result, or the better analysis; however, whether it’s just a few more crunches or five minutes more on the treadmill, the gym offers opportunities to test ourselves physically, something I’ve found to be extremely empowering. You can learn to get past your boundaries by trying new machines and seeing what you can do. Whether it’s jogging two miles on the treadmill or pumping more than 5 lbs. (speaking from personal experience here), whatever your personal goals may be, choose one or two for the fall semester and commit yourself to them. You don’t even have to tell anyone else your goals, they’re personal; remember, your gym time is your gym time.
Sure, you can hit the gym on an afternoon when you are already in a great mood and looking forward to a night off with friends and free from work; however, when you feel down, that is the most important time to hit up the gym. A professor of psychology at Boston University, Dr. Michael Otto said, “Many people skip the workout at the very time [when they are in a bad mood or feel unhappy] it has the greatest payoff…Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like explicitly not taking an aspirin when your head hurts. That’s the time you get the payoff.”
So, next time you find yourself overwhelmed – whether after an awkward run-in with last night’s hook up or a paper due tomorrow that’s still in need of a thesis- the gym offers near-instant gratification through physicality for any mental woe.