Why does exercise depress/anger me?
August 15, 2014 8:14 PM   Subscribe

I know that regular exercise is a necessity and that I need more of it. I know that it's not meant to be easy. But I'm not sure it's meant to cause irrational, free-floating anger and despair. So what am I doing wrong?

For the past few years, I've been trying to incorporate exercise into my regular routine, despite the fact that I've never really been into physically active activities. I'm getting older, and I want to live long enough to see the Singularity come along so I can replace my meat puppet and live in a body of android perfection. But that's beside the point...

When I exercise, afterwards I experience feelings of either depression and/or anger, sometimes both. I was jogging for a while, and stopped when I realized I was fantasizing about running into traffic. I've had several experiences where I've nearly snapped at someone who doesn't deserve it because my post-exercise mind is boiling with irrational rage. This month, I got a two week trial at the local gym, and spent most of yesterday afternoon trying not to bite The Boyfriend's head off for no reason.

This isn't normal, right? Everywhere I look, people say that exercise is supposed to be a great treatment for depression, that they use it to purge themselves of anger and stress. I even see beginners talk about how much they never knew they could love running/the gym/exercise after only a short time, so it's clearly not something that you build up to. Why am I the opposite?

And to be very clear, it's not "Oh, I didn't meet my fitness goals for this week" anger or "That guy at the gym is such a jackass" anger - it is an unfocused, anchorless cloud of anger and despair that hovers at the back of my mind, looking for something to latch on to. No one I talk to seems to get this, which adds to the frustration.

I know exercise is beneficial. I know it's something I need to do. But if it's going to generate this flood of anti-endorphins every time I do it, then I'm not going to do it much longer.

Basic info: male, 40, teacher, overweight, living in Japan
posted by MShades to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I really don't know anything about your mental health generally so I'm not trying to imply anything, but I had a friend who was bipolar who had trouble with exercise triggering mania.
posted by Sequence at 8:21 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

This definitely happens to me if I'm not eating properly around exercise (i.e. something worthwhile before and something with carbs and some fat and protein within about 30 min afterwards). You can get an exaggerated sort of low blood sugar thing that can induce dark thoughts or I can anyhow. See a doctor if it's troubling you, obviously, but look at what you're eating to see if that might be the culprit.
posted by jessamyn at 8:26 PM on August 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

I used to get panic attacks while running to improve my mental health. I realized it was because that was the only time I was giving myself to truly think and be alone with my thoughts.

For me, it wasn't the exercise triggering my bad emotions, it was the uninterrupted time alone.

When I got on anti-anxiety meds, it went away.
posted by samthemander at 8:26 PM on August 15, 2014 [10 favorites]

Does this include all types and intensities of excercise? As in does going for a walk make you rage? Does yoga depress you? There are about as many ways to excercise as there are people who excercise. Maybe it's time to try hiking or rock climbing. Maybe pick up a martial art or try your hand at circus sports.
posted by rip at 8:29 PM on August 15, 2014

Response by poster: @rip - Yoga bores me for the most part. I can walk for-damn-near-ever, but only if there's a point to it. Aimless walking-to-walk doesn't really get me going.

I get what you're saying, though. However, I'm not all that keen on investing that much time and money in rock climbing, marital arts, circus sports, what have you, when pretty much all my experience with exercise has been negative. It's like you're asking me if I've thought about buying a car so I can slam my fingers in a car door rather than a kitchen drawer to see if I like that any better.

I'm not really trying to find out what's the best exercise for my special snowflakiness - I'm trying to figure out what's going on with my Scumbag Brain (or Scumbag Body) that makes it so I can't get the effect that I'm told I should be getting. Jogging and going to the gym aren't mutant superpowers or anything, after all.

Either that, or everyone who exercises has been lying the whole time about how awesome it is and I'm the only one with the courage to state the truth, but I'm placing really long odds against that being the case.
posted by MShades at 8:44 PM on August 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, I guess there are several possibilities; here are the two that seem most likely:

1. You have some self-hatred or lack of self-love that gets triggered by exercise either because you perceive yourself not to be good at it, or you don't like how you imagine you look doing it, or you don't like doing things that you feel you are *supposed* to do, or because your dad used to make you run around the yard as punishment, or...[fill in with any number of psychodynamic explanations; we'd need to know more about your background to be able to pinpoint exactly what's going on.]

2. Your pulse rate and blood pressure go up when you exercise and you are interpreting this physiological change as anger or anxiety.

One way to try and figure out what is going on is to try a regime of less rigorous exercise, as was suggested above, and see if you still have the same psychological response.
posted by girl flaneur at 8:54 PM on August 15, 2014 [6 favorites]

I think exercising is raising your testosterone levels, which is normal. Your reaction to the increased testosterone does seem to be a bit a-typical. I don't know if it is because you aren't used to exercising or if you have an underlying problem that the increase in hormones bring to the surface. You might want to journal, both before and after a workout, and see if there is anything that you need to deal with.
posted by myselfasme at 8:55 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I always had paranoid fantasies when running (I'm female female). Pleasurable rage. I could work myself up into quite a frenzy. It wasn't particularly negative, mind you, for the most part. Though I loved running, I've found that a martial art was a better form of exercise for me.
posted by Peach at 9:02 PM on August 15, 2014

I asked a similar question a few years back and got some good helpful answers.
posted by k8lin at 9:03 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do some exercise-thing for it's own sake (i.e. a sport) that lets you forget that it's exercise. If you do something because you have to, it can cause massive resentment/anger.
posted by sninctown at 9:09 PM on August 15, 2014

This happens to me when I don't get enough sleep. (Well rested, I generally feel quite cheerful after exercising.) Are you, by any chance, sleep deprived?
posted by artemisia at 9:55 PM on August 15, 2014

The same thing happens to me when I do cardio. Why? I'm not sure. I think

1. maybe because I am so freaking HANGRY right after I workout and my blood sugar is a little low. Does eating right after you exercise calm things down?

2. I have heard that cardio can raise testosterone levels. Once I started switching to less aerobic, more anaerobic based exercise (read: strength training) the mood stuff lessened. But still was there a little because of #1 above.

Lesson learned for me: stick with lifting heavy things and eat right after.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:12 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're definitely not alone -- I know exactly what you're talking about, and this is a really good description of it. Certain types of exercise (and yeah, running is one of them) do this to me -- I remember it being really noticeable in college, where everybody else walked out of the gym all flushed and cheerful and I would be on the edge of bursting into tears out of sheer sourceless frustration/tension/anxiety. And the irritability. It was not good.

I've wondered whether my body is somehow misinterpreting my increase in heart rate, etc., as being caused by something emotional rather than something physical. (I wonder what would happen if you floated this idea with an actual doctor -- I'm just pulling out of "this is what I vaguely remember from high school psychology class about how the body and brain communicate.")

One thing I haven't had this issue with so far: biking. Whether it's because my heart rate goes up more slowly, or just because I enjoy the feeling of going really fast so much that it drowns out negative emotions, I don't know.
posted by ostro at 10:16 PM on August 15, 2014

I hated exercise until I found a routine that gets me in and out of the gym in 30 minutes. Now it's one of my major emotional lifelines. I give it all I've got for those 30 minutes. If I find myself thinking, I'll work harder at the machines. I love how it empties me out of all that tension. So my suggestion to you is: exercise for a shorter amount of time but with much more exertion. Such that you could not even begin to carry on a conversation while you are doing it.
posted by macinchik at 10:16 PM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I feel you. I have had almost universally negative reactions to aerobic exercise. I would describe it more as exhausted misery (or in the case of jogging, feeling like I'm going to throw up and die), but being in a state of exhausted misery means I have absolutely no energy left for anything else. Including other people or, you know, imagining the possibility that life is worth living (a slight exaggeration ;). My experience of this kind of exercise is much the same whether I'm on an elliptical machine in a smelly gym or dancing and having fun - once I hit my pretty damn low capacity I'm pretty miserable. Though in the latter example alcohol can provide enough 'quick easy fuel' to somewhat mask the effect.

I don't know the why of this but some random bits.
- I do have some level of hypoglycemia, so I have to watch my carb intake
- I've never seemed to be able to be able to improve my stamina much, even with regular aerobic exercise
- I've never experienced the famed runners high or any real noticeable endorphin rush from cardio
- I can, on the other hand, enjoy exercise that focus on strength building, and I am able to see clear improvement with regular strength building exercises
- I have a few health problems which may be related (POTS and CFS). These are largely in remission and were only acute for about four years, and I've had this abnormal reaction to exercise my whole life.

Not sure this will help much, but you're not alone!
posted by pennypiper at 10:19 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

The pointless expenditure of energy always annoyed me and prevented my spending time exercising. However, I liked playing softball, gardening and riding a bicycle. These activities at various points in my life, although sometimes exhausting, left me feeling quite serene. Even if there is some other psychological or physical reason for your reaction to exercise, it might be worth your while to take up an activity that you enjoy which serendipitously provides exercise. I found there was quite enough exercise for me in my chosen activities.
posted by Anitanola at 11:13 PM on August 15, 2014

This isn't normal, right? Everywhere I look, people say that exercise is supposed to be a great treatment for depression, that they use it to purge themselves of anger and stress. I even see beginners talk about how much they never knew they could love running/the gym/exercise after only a short time, so it's clearly not something that you build up to. Why am I the opposite?
Pre-diagnosis of clinical depression, looking back, exercise made my depression worse, because I'm so unfit, and I would feel I was so bad at it, it just worsened my self-loathing and anger at myself. I'd spend the whole time in my head castigating myself, and hating the world around me - sure they were mocking me for being such a fat loser. The exhausted misery at the end of it, and days of aching pain just made it even harder. I would literally have been prepared to pay to not have to do it, and unsurprisingly, any attempt to make myself do so was short lived. This went on for years.

Post diagnosis, after several bouts of talk therapy and on sufficient medication such that my depression is finally responding to treatment and I'm in a decent head space, I have started walk-jogging for the last 6 weeks. I love it. I feel abuzz and happy exhausted at the end. I feel like I'm finally making progress with my health, after many years of neglect. My body is responding positively to the changes, and I look forward to my jogging days. Yes, I suck at it, I'm a fat man who can barely slow jog for 2 minutes at a stretch, but I am improving every day. I've had to take a week off after knocking and bruising my ankle unrelatedly, and I'm itching for it to be healed enough to go back out there. It's proving to be a positive feedback loop compared to the negative feedback loop I was spiralling down before pre-treatment - even when I don't get that rush of endorphins that feel frankly, awesome.

Of course, this is only anecdata, and only my own experience. Depression is a tricksy one that warps your entire worldview and hides that it is doing so, and it wasn't until I had a nervous breakdown that I finally realised that something was seriously wrong, and sought help.

It's entirely possible that it's a negative physiological response to that particular type of exercise, and another type won't trigger it, or at least as much.

Either way, it would be worth having a look at what your thinking patterns are like when you run. If that free time to think is substantially negative about yourself and/or the world around you, it may be worth talking to a mental health professional about it.
posted by ArkhanJG at 11:53 PM on August 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

I agree with others that you might benefit from some kind of strenuous physical activity that is more mentally engaging than running or going to the gym. At the very least, if you find that an hour of martial arts or Ultimate Frisbee or dance class still leaves you feeling down, that might help narrow down why you feel this way. (I myself hate running and other 'cardio' activities, but really enjoy long bike rides and karate classes.)
posted by fermion at 12:05 AM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I get this when asked to do any exercise that requires flexion of the back (crunches, e.g. -- my shoulder blades will never loft off the ground unless I am pumping with my hips and legs). For me, I am angry that people think an impossible (for me) movement should be possible. Moreover, my mother really got on my case for this, so I have some residual pain from that as well.

is there a mismatch between how much effort you expect an exercise to require and how much effort it takes? Is there a nagging voice from childhood, parental or otherwise?
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:17 AM on August 16, 2014

I think it is important that you speak to a mental health professional just to get advice. exercise induced anger is " a thing" and they would be able to suggest solutions.
In addition to this I would also consider hypoglycaemia (which is known to induce anger in some peope)and as others have suggested make sure you eat before you train and whilst training take sips of either diluted oj or an energy drink followed by carbs afterwards.
posted by Mrs T at 12:21 AM on August 16, 2014

This particular passage in your follow-up:

I'm trying to figure out what's going on with my Scumbag Brain (or Scumbag Body) that makes it so I can't get the effect that I'm told I should be getting.

stood out to me. Why would you feel good about putting so much effort and energy into something (your body, your brain) that you despise? It's like you think exercise is akin to having to manually shovel out a filled outhouse pit. Of course you don't want to do it. Of course it makes you feel like shit.

Also, I have never been male and forty, but I can tell you that my experience living in Japan as a 30-something teacher made me start to feel negative about my body in a very unexpected way. While I lived there, I hit up Konami Sports Club on the reg and I was ridiculously fit, but I was not a ridiculously fit Japanese woman. I was a small/medium-sized American, which made me seem and feel enormous/fat/huge compared to my seemingly effortlessly tiny Nihonjin co-workers. (Every one of the gaijin women--and at least three of the gaijin men--I knew came to complain about this, regardless of their size, and none were the slightest bit overweight.) If you've unconsciously started to feel similarly, it might be impacting your self-image, making you more likely to avoid exercise. Also in my experience, Japanese are not shy about staring or making comments about gaijin behavior or appearance and when you're already overweight and self-conscious about exercise, it can be overwhelming.

(Note: I wasn't living in inaka, where I noticed (when traveling) that people were larger than in the megalopolis where I lived, so ymmv. Also, I don't know what kind of help you're going to find, mental-health wise, where you are in JP, but it may be quite difficult to follow up on the above suggestions to see a therapist. If you're in a large city, there may be some of that kind of help available, but my rec is to find a gym with a personal trainer who is willing to work with a foreigner and who can offer some positive feedback about your efforts. Also: Stop being a cry baby and spend the money. This is about your health and nothing can replace that if you wreck it.)
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 12:31 AM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to say that I get the same thing. You can see from this thread that it's relatively common. I do agree that you hear less from people like us than from the people who get good feelings from exercise.

The most convincing explanation I've heard is that it's caused by low blood sugar. You could try experimenting by keeping a journal of which types of exercise cause the bad feelings, how eating before and after affects you and any other factors you think may be involved.
posted by entropyiswinning at 12:47 AM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey, I've had this. I was doing regular cardio for a while, much more intense than I was used to. I'm also very reflective / introspective and and I do not think it was my attitude / thoughts / feelings about exercise / my body / injustice that caused this rage. And it was rage, absolute berserker rage, that was extremely difficult to keep a lid on, and I've had practice in moderating my emotions.

I don't know what it is/was, but since never exercising to that pace or regularity since, it only occurs during PMS (which i experience in a debilitating way and am treated for). I can almost feel the click in my brain, where I turn into a totally intolerant jerk who hates everyone (where I can't control, I go to ground). I call this "chemical imbalance" but nobody knows, not really.

So, I just wanted to say - fucked if I know - but I believe you. It is certainly not a misintrepretation of physiological response - shorter bursts of exercise make my heart rate go up, but I'm not thinking I'm angry. And while I might have body or elf-esteem issues, they are less of an issue when I'm taking steps to deal with them. That said, while I don't exercise as much as I should or at an intensity that will help with weight loss, I walk a lot (to get places, between public transport), and recently did a gym session with a friend where I realised incidental exercise does help (because I lasted much longer on treadmill & bike than either of us expected).

(I see that says elf esteem issues, but my fingers are too fat to fix this on my iPad).
posted by b33j at 1:44 AM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey, welcome to the club. I get depressed if I exercise hard, too. My general strategy is to exercise at a level just beneath the depression threshold. For years that meant no serious cardio.

Here is a thread that may be helpful.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:18 AM on August 16, 2014

Also, with me, it is just despair 2-3 hours after the run. I've had irritability while exercising, but that was due to low blood sugar.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:21 AM on August 16, 2014

I've experienced the "triggering" nature of exercise too.

I think its a good example of the ways in which exercise shakes up the separation of your body, mind and emotions and brings the crappy subconscious stuff to the surface.

For me it seemed to come from unresolved, but inexpressible body trauma; high stress exercise putting me in a very oddly blank but angry emotional state, while things like yoga / any sort of floor exercise were actively frustrating / upsetting, while anything that involved competition brought up rage, and physical contact just freaked me out.

But then on the other hand I've used the body anger of running therapetically in particularly stressful times in my life to "swallow up" my conscious feelings even to the point of being a pretty reasonable marathon runner, and in the process got to feel less frightened with the discomfort, though I didn't enjoy the way that it tended to feed a more general self hatred.

I've sussed out where a lot of this comes from but it can still sometimes rise up and take me back; such as physically having to remove myself from a first aid course that involved rolling around on the floor and touching / being touched by people even in that context.

Its something I've looked into Therapy wise but being so personal I'm not really sure what one could pursue, though I find walking (especially with dogs) as the best sort of exercise for me in working my body, exercising my mind, and having the company to avoid rumination.
posted by Middlemarch at 4:16 AM on August 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I recently asked a similar question. You might gets some ideas there too.

I finally traced mine back to hypoglycemia but everything is kinda on hold for me now because I'm rehabbing (yet again) an ankle injury.
posted by kathrynm at 8:07 AM on August 16, 2014

I get something like this too. I think it's just that I don't enjoy exercising for the sake of exercising, but there's a huge pressure (in NYC) to be part of the "exercising culture" - I get resentful that I feel like I'm being socially forced to do it, then mad at myself for not liking it when I "should" like it, and on and on. I have no problem walking all over the city, playing on my company's softball team, throwing around a football at a picnic, etc. But trying to be the best at exercising is not my jam; jogging is the worst.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:28 AM on August 16, 2014

I like walking and enjoy it once I start, but have to "make" myself do it.

But--I used to get irrationally angry when I was taking a bath, which most people find relaxing. Backstory: Dr. advised me to take epsom salt baths, first time I had taken a bath since being diagnosed with ezcema as a 4 year old, started becoming irrationally angry while taking said bath for unknown reasons. Finally got used to it after about 6 months, but I still get angry sometimes because I am tall and don't fit very well in a standard size tub and that makes me angry.

Went to therapy later and discovered that I have been conditioned not to take care of myself (or take care of myself in ways that might not be approved of by my parents for any irrational reason whatsoever) and that if I do, I become angry or depressed. I also get angry because I "do not fit in" and a lot of emphasis was placed on that during my childhood.

Hopefully you just have low blood sugar, but you might want to think about any emotional reasons this could be happening.
posted by bessiemae at 2:40 PM on August 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I get this too. Usually more depression than anger, but it happens even if I was in a good mood before the exercise. Aerobic exercise causes it more, running on a treadmill is the worst.

I haven't fixed it but I've come to accept it. The biggest problem I have is that during the post-workout blues, I'll sit down to "cool down" and read blogs for what turns into 3 hours, or watch too much TV, or eat everything in sight.

So I try to schedule something active but not exhausting after the exercise -- run some errands, work on a project, do a household chore, or fix something. That gives my mind something to focus on while my body cools down and I usually feel somewhat normal afterward.
posted by mmoncur at 3:27 PM on August 16, 2014

I had a roommate who would get depressed after exercising - she turned out to have a low red blood cell count.
posted by jenmakes at 10:24 PM on August 16, 2014

Same here. For me what helped was doing something that wasn't "exercise" but still had a physical element, and which I enjoyed. So for me this was dance, circus, physical theater - doesn't compute to "exercise" in my head, and it's not structured like most exercise options. Nobody's talking about losing weight, you're focused on making something creative rather than trying to make your body a certain way, and it was multi-sensory.
posted by divabat at 1:27 AM on August 17, 2014

I had episodes of diffuse anger, sad thoughts, rememberances of past wrongs too when running ultras or during very long runs. Replenishing electrolyte balance ( potassium and salt ) was the ticket, for me. Eating sweets was disruptive, as a sugar high is often followed by a sugar low. I aim for electrolyte balance instead.
posted by seawallrunner at 3:08 AM on August 17, 2014

I think there is a very strong chance it has to do with a blood sugar response. In my case, it is very evident when I am riding my bike. I ride very slowly and calmly generally, but sometimes I have to cross a bridge with a steep incline. When I try to ride across it, the exertion sparks instant murderous rage and despair and angst and every bad emotion in the world. It's almost instantaneous. I generally have a strong response to low blood sugar and am very prone to crushing despair and hostility in relation to it. (I now strictly walk my bike across the bridge, no matter ridiculous it seems.)

Alternatively, it may be a sense of simple but debilitating frustration (related to being controlled by something, or trapped in an inescapable situation, futile adrenaline, something like that), which is something that can absolutely spark despair and darkness for me.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 6:53 AM on August 17, 2014

It took me several months to get from feeling exhausted and burnt out after exercise (though happy because the everyday aches in my muscles would go away after sufficient stretching/use) to feeling something like that 'runner's high'. There's a sort of sweet spot in terms of actually having enough energy going in, having enough stamina and strength to feel like 'I can do this' rather than 'oh noooo not another rep', etc.

I wouldn't be surprised if it also has to do with energy level - not enough sleep / food / water all can cause snappishness and bad moods. But acquiring a little bit of stamina and skill also helps a ton with feeling energized rather than drained afterwards.
posted by Lady Li at 12:16 PM on August 17, 2014

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